Sunday was another very good day for college basketball in the great state of Wisconsin.
Marquette is a No. 3 in the West.
Wisconsin is a No. 4 in the East.
In a vacuum, those are special accomplishments.
But now for the caveat that never goes away:
Are they enough?
They don’t play the NCAA Tournament in a vacuum. They play it in a real world—a harsh and money-driven world—where one-and-done prodigies pick schools for things that really good places such as Marquette and Wisconsin cannot always provide.
Why bother filling out a bracket when NBA feeder Kentucky is very likely going to win the thing?
But I promised myself I wasn’t going to get cynical about the tournament. Nor was I going to gratuitously rile up MU and UW fans by again asking whether they
expect more from their programs beyond their schools’ usual tournament experiences.
So, yes, a 3 and a 4 in this particular season are chest-thumping deeds in and of themselves.
Whatever comes next may not exactly be gravy-flavored icing, but the Sweet 16 should be fine for most reasonable people.
The brackets are certainly favorable. It’s up to our state reps to decide whether the notable seedings they earned will get them there. Logic says they will. History, not so much.
For no particular reason, let’s start with the Badgers.
We all know that Bo Ryan would take a hotshot recruit who planned to stay in Madison only a year before cashing NBA checks.
But since those kinds of players do not naturally gravitate toward Wisconsin, Ryan has built his system on four- and five-year guys. He has gotten the Badgers to the NCAAs that way every year since glaciers cut the isthmus.
And that’s great. But we also know what happens whenever the Badgers run into the smart, spirited underdog that doesn’t care what kind of system Ryan steadfastly runs. Davidson, Cornell, Butler, on and on, there is no point in rehashing bad history.
Yet, once Wisconsin gets by Larry Krystkowiak’s alma mater, the typical Badger-beater will be waiting: Harvard or Vanderbilt—and you’d assume a pretty good Vandy—but it really doesn’t matter. Both are precisely the types that routinely embarrass Bucky in the tournament.
So let’s leave this challenge for Wisconsin: Get out of the second round this year, because Syracuse is not that big of a deal. And we’ll leave it at that for the moment.
On to the Golden Eagles: Buzz Williams takes on a few too many junior-college transfers for comfort sometimes. But sometimes, the risk turns into high reward, as it did this season with Jae Crowder.
And Williams’ teams—like Ryan’s teams—play with a consistency that indelibly stamps both coaches. The Eagles always win at least 20 games, always get into the tournament and always play hard. But like the Badgers, they typically only get so far in the tournament.
If Ryan’s system is inflexible, Williams never gives himself much size to work with. Granted, you don’t need that much size anymore to win in the NCAA Tournament, but you’ve got to have depth.
The Eagles don’t have depth, a reality that was exposed in the Big East tournament when they fouled Louisville way too much.
Still, it was a terrific regular season for Marquette. Even as diluted as the Big East has become, you don’t get a No. 3 without doing many things right. More often than not, Marquette does things the right way.
So, we’ll leave the same challenge to the Eagles: After beating somebody in the first round, take this opportunity to get back to the Sweet 16. For all the publicity that Murray State received this season, you’ve got a pretty clear lane to Phoenix.
In spite of it all, both teams should still be playing the weekend after next. They’re certainly both well rested. And even if the Big East and the Big Ten don’t play top-shelf basketball anymore, the seedings stand on their own as marks of distinction.
Is that enough?
Just don’t tell me you’re satisfied if your school isn’t playing a third tournament game.