Robbins Rants: Conference Tournament Week

**I will be covering March Madness for the “Louis Live” show on TLV1.fm.  Check back here for weekly updates on March Madness.  First post starts now…**
It is March and the Madness is upon us.  That’s right folks:  while the weather outside is frightful, the college basketball is so delightful!
This week marks Conference Championship Week, where all of the Division I Collegiate basketball conferences hold tournaments to decide who gets to go dancing in the granddaddy of them all:  NCAA March Madness.  I’ll be your host over the next month, as we navigate this wild ride that is universally accepted in an Americentrist world as the greatest sporting event of the year.  Tune in to “Louis Live” as I cover everything March Madness-related in print and on air.  Let the Madness Begin!
Back Problems
Injuries to star players have the potential to derail championship teams.  Cincinnati’s title hopes were dashed in ’00 when future number one overall pick and current New York Knickerbocker Kenyon Martin broke his leg in the Atlantic-10 Conference Tournament a week before Selection Sunday.  While no team has suffered a season-ending injury of that magnitude over the past week, many teams are currently struggling with injuries to their stars.  Specifically, back problems have been an issue as of late.
Syracuse began the season at 25-0, before dropping four of five games, nose-diving to a 26-4 record before righting the ship against Florida St. on Sunday.  The rough patch included losses to Georgia Tech, and an inspired, but lowly, Boston Collegeteam.  While Syracuse was never good enough to be an undefeated team and they had a Strength of Schedule (SOS) of over 100 when they lost to Boston College—meaning that they had yet to play their toughest opponents, as their SOS now sits at 61st—their streak did coincide with a back injury to star forward Jerami Grant.  Although Grant was productive in back-to-back losses to Boston College & Duke, he played 13 ineffective minutes in a nail-biting 57-55 win over Marylandthree days after the Duke loss.  After receiving treatment for the rest of the week, he attempted to play in Syracuse’s next game, ultimately managing a grimace-filled 13 ineffective minutes in Syracuse’s blowout-loss to Virginia.  In their next game, a home game against Georgia Tech, Syracuse lost 67-62, while shooting under 40% from the field, as their vaunted zone surrendered 47% shooting to their opponents.  Grant was absent in the loss to Georgia Tech, sitting on the sidelines in street clothes, watching his teammates struggle without his interior presence creating spacing problems for opposing teams.  Grant’s return in the next game couldn’t have come soon enough for the Orange, who blew out a pesky Florida State squad on the road, behind Grant’s 16 points and eight rebounds.  Syracuse shot 48% from the field against the defensive-oriented Seminoles, while their zone bounced back and held their opponents to 38% shooting.
While C.J. Fair leads Syracuse in scoring, Grant leads them in rebounds and physicality and it became abundantly clear to Syracuse fans just how much they need him on the floor.  The same can be said for Kansasand its star center, Joel Embiid.  Embiid, projected by some to be the number one overall selection in this year’s NBA Draft, has missed the last two games with a stress fracture to his lower back.  It was announced on Monday that he will miss the entire Big-12 Conference Tournament and may miss the first week of the NCAA Tournament, as well.  In his absence, Kansas crushed a bad Texas Tech team, before being upset by West Virginiain what was arguably its worse and most telling loss of the season—a loss that has at the very least temporarily knocked Kansas out of a number one seed in March Madness.  Like Grant, Embiid does not lead Kansas in scoring—that mark goes to fellow freshman superstar Andrew Wiggins, who scored 41 points in the loss to West Virginia on Sunday.  However, like Grant, Embiid leads the team in rebounding, blocks and overall physicality and is a huge force for Kansas on both ends of the floor.  While it remains to be seen just how much time he will miss and when he will return to the court—if he ever does return in a college uniform—the impact of Embiid’s loss was felt mightily on Sunday.  Kansas is talented enough to win without their big man, but they are likely not talented enough to win it all if he does not return.
What Does it Take to Be, #1?
With less than a week remaining until Selection Sunday, three number one seeds are seemingly locked-in:  the top-ranked Florida Gators will be a number one seed regardless of what happens in the SEC Tournament, the Wichita State Shockerscompleted a 34-0 season, and the Arizona Wildcats currently have the top RPI (the metric used to reflect the toughness of a team’s schedule and how they fared against the schedule—the all-important metric for deciding seeding in the NCAA Tournament) and number four overall SOS in the nation.  A loss to Oregon was presumably frustrating to the Wildcats, but losing to a fellow tournament team on the road in a conference game did not hurt their chances at a number one seed.  Like Florida, they should be a number one seed regardless of what happens in the PAC-12 Conference Tournament.  Three teams down, one to go.
For those of us who have anxiety over unfinished business, we are anxious about this fourth number one seed.  So are four teams who can’t seem to make up their minds on whether they want the one seed or not.  Although they were playing without Embiid, Kansas would have all but locked up the number one seed with a win over West Virginia.  Instead, the loss has them trending downward as a two-seed.  Similarly, Wisconsin lost to Nebraska on Sunday.  While Nebraska is a tournament team and Wisconsin had been playing some of the best basketball in the nation as of late, the loss knocked them down to a two-seed, as well.  Similarly, a Duke loss to Wake Forest knocked them off of the top-line, despite their bounce-back domination of archrival North Carolina on Saturday night.
So who does that leave to grab the fourth number one seed?  Villanova & Michiganare the two most-likely candidates, as of now.  The winners of the Big East and Big-10, respectively, will each need to win their conference tournaments to have a shot at the number one seed.  It is currently theirs to lose, although if Kansas runs through the Big-12 Tournament to sweep the regular season and conference titles in the toughest conference in the country, the Jayhawks might just leapfrog Villanova and become the first team in history to earn a number one seed with eight losses on the season.
History Repeats Itself…Sometimes
The last time the University of Arizona Wildcats lost to the Oregon Ducks to end the regular season, they went on to win the school’s lone National Championship.  Arizona lost to Oregon to close the season on Saturday night…
Wichita State currently has a record of 34-0, going undefeated in the regular season and their conference tournament, undoubtedly earning a number one seed and a deserved place in the history books.  The last team to enter March Madness undefeated after sweeping the regular season and their conference tournament was the Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV, who had a 34-0 record in 1991.  That team, a one seed featuring first round draft picks Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony (who will be calling games during this year’s March Madness) and Elmore Spencer, lost to two-seed Duke in the Final Four.  Wichita State is a one seed.  Duke is currently pretty tightly locked-in to a two seed…
The Florida Gators are currently locked-in as a number one seed and looking good for the number one overall seed in the Tournament.  They finished the regular season on a 23-game winning streak, breaking a record originally set by the ’06 Florida Gators and matched by the ’07 Florida Gators a year later.  Both of those teams won the National Championship.  The last Florida Gators team to be the number one overall seed was the ’07 squad:  they won the National Championship.
Bit of Tid
The Manhattan Jaspers, who clinched their tournament berth Monday night with a victory over fellow conference mate and tournament team Iona, are named after Brother Jasper of Mary, who founded the school’s first band, orchestra, glee club and various literary clubs.  However, Brother Jasper was not just a lover of the arts:  he also served as the team’s first athletic director and brought the then little-known sport of baseball to Manhattan College.
According to the school’s website, Brother Jasper noticed on a particularly warm and humid day of baseball that the students in the stands were becoming restless as the team came to bat in the bottom of the seventh inning of a close game.  Thinking on his feet, Brother Jasper called for a time out and told the students to stand and stretch for a few minutes until the game resumed.
The Jaspers played an annual game against the New York (baseball) Giants in the 1880s and 1890s, at which point Manhattan College’s “seventh inning stretch” was adopted by the Major Leagues.  This year’s entry marks Manhattan College’s seventh appearance in the NCAA Tournament.  Three stretches for Brother Jasper!
Israeli Dancing!
Oregon player Ben Carter is the son of former Hapoel Holon star Mike Carter.  Although he grew up in Nevada after leaving Israel with his parents when he was six months old, Carter is an Israeli Citizen.  While the sophomore plays a reserve role on the Oregon squad, he was instrumental towards the end of Saturday’s upset win over Arizona.  Carter finished with five points, four rebounds, two assists, two steals and one block in only 13 minutes of play.  Most importantly, the forward made crucial plays and hit clutch free throws down the stretch to help seal the win for his team.  As a result, the Israeli-born player will be dancing in March for the second straight year.
We’re Going Dancing!
So far, eight teams have officially punched their tickets to the Big Dance and will be dancing when March Madness opens next week.  Congratulations to the Mercer Bears, Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, Delaware Fightin’ Blue Hens, Harvard Crimson, Manhattan Jaspers, Wichita State Shockers, Eastern Kentucky Colonels and the Wofford Terriers on winning their respective conferences.  A special shout-out to Delaware, who will be appearing in the tournament for the first time since 1999.
In the Words of my Former Governator:  “I’ll Be Back”
That wraps up this edition of “Robbins Rants.”  I hope it’s gotten you as excited about college basketball as I am, informed you on what we have to look forward to together over the next month, and helped you productively spend some time at work.
To quote Major Clipton and the final line from the 1957 classic and winner of eight Academy Awards in 1958 including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor, The Bridge on the River Kwai,  “Madness!  MADNESS!”  It is upon us.

— 

Joseph D. Robbins is a poet and an educator based in New York City.  He has a BA in Creative Writing & Judaic Studies from the University of Arizona and a Masters in the Teaching of English from Columbia Teachers College.  He is pursuing a Masters in Jewish Education at JTS and State Certification in Students with Learning Disabilities at Teachers College.  His poetry album, “One Man Gang” was recently released.  You can find it online here.