SAN ANTONIO — At its best, basketball is a beautiful game of skill and artistry mixed with soaring athleticism that will inspire leaping from seats. At its most dramatic, it’s often barroom brawl in gym shorts.
The NCAA has made its choice about what kind of sport it wants college basketball to be on the biggest stage. It prefers a game where freedom of movement is a myth, the lane is constantly clogged and nobody is going near the rim without risking half their body getting covered in scratches and welts. It is ridiculously physical, inconsistently officiated and often just plain ugly.
But it’s pretty good television, and it certainly reveals something about what wins in the NCAA tournament.
Though we’re supposed to call it a crazy night when two No. 1 seeds fall, as Gonzaga and Arizona both did within a couple hours Thursday, those twin results fit perfectly within the paradigm of what college basketball has become.
Whatever concept you have of “best team wins” has never been more irrelevant. In this tournament, the toughest, most physical team wins.
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Why is Gonzaga going home despite being the favorite for the title? Because it got pushed around and beaten up by an Arkansas team that stopped its free-flowing offense cold. Why is Arizona going home after winning 33 of 36 games it had played this season? Because Houston’s physicality on every single play made things so difficult that Arizona quite literally didn’t know what to do.
“It’s not a beauty contest,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said, which is very much the ethos permeating college basketball these days.
And it makes sense. College players are not as skilled as pros, so they’re not going to make as many shots. Add in the nerves and pressure of the NCAA Tournament, and it becomes a game where taking away one or two things your opponent does well can really drag them in the muck.
Gonzaga was built to be the antithesis of that, playing closer to the NBA style of pace-and-space with lots of scoring options everywhere. That philosophy spread to Tucson this season when longtime Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd was hired as Arizona’s head coach.
Both teams were built to get up and down the floor (they were No. 5 and 6 in tempo this season) and let their players operate in a free-flowing offensive system, which is great basketball to watch because it highlights movement, finesse and shooting — all the most aesthetically pleasing parts of the game.
But often in NCAA Tournament, and particularly this year, that’s not really the way the game is played. If you want to score, you have to either make a tough, contested shot or finish through contact. When freedom of movement goes away, what’s Plan B?
“Their defense was pretty just tough to get any rhythm against,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “I think we never really got any sort of rhythm in the first or the second half. To me that was the difference in the game, and I felt like we had stretches where we kept them pretty good. We just couldn’t get any rhythm on our offensive end, which is rare for us.”
It’s rare because teams that Gonzaga plays regularly don’t have the ability to beat up and bruise them the way Arkansas did. Sampson practically called out the entire Pac 12 for playing a switching defense against Arizona.
“I knew we were going to make them uncomfortable,” Sampson said. “That’s what we do.”
Officiating matters in this, too. The NCAA has pretty clearly made a decision that it does not want its tournament to be a parade to the foul line, and so referees err on the side of letting things go so that they too can advance to the next round.
The byproduct is an amount of clutching, grabbing and hacking that would impress NHL teams from the late 1990s. Then, when the shot clock gets low, players go barreling to the rim without much hope of scoring because they feel like all their other options have been taken away.
The NCAA could emphasize freedom of movement and more scoring if it wanted to. If college basketball didn’t like how many ugly NCAA tournament games come down to loose ball scrambles and offensive rebounds, it could change some rules to space the floor more (like adding an NBA-style defensive three seconds) and train officials to call more fouls when players use their hands defensively to stop an offensive move. Instead, the game is trending toward defensive gurus who pack the paint with bodies and coaches who bet that officials will only call a fraction of the fouls that take place.
That’s not to blame referees for Gonzaga and Arizona losing, it’s an acknowledgment that the way those teams were built and the style they played all season does not behave with the milieu of basketball being promoted here. If toughness and physical contact wasn’t a priority all season, good luck figuring out how to score when the chips are down.
As long as college rules are the way they are, teams built like Arizona and Gonzaga are always going to be one bad matchup away from getting sent home, regardless of how many skilled players they might have on their roster.
With the way the games are being called, toughness is winning in March. By the time Few and Lloyd figured it out, it was too late.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism