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David catching up with Goliath in tourney

Sun., March 23, 2014, midnight


Call them the seeds of doubt, planted on Selection Sunday: Five seeds that play like 12s, and vice-versa.

Both showed up at the Arena on Thursday, altering the office pool and perhaps – for one day – changing how the public views the Davids and Goliaths of the NCAA tournament.

Until they do, Bracketology is a pseudo-science based less on fact than guesswork.

“It’s hard for the general public to understand,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo explained on Friday, the day before his Spartans faced surprising Harvard in a third-round NCAA East Region game at the Arena.

“Harvard’s not a 12 seed – it’s done that way because of the way they (the NCAA) select,” Izzo said. “It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just strength of schedule, and they’re not going to have as strong a strength of schedule,” Izzo said.

True, Harvard’s schedule isn’t as strong as that of No. 5 Cincinnati, which Harvard eliminated on Thursday; it’s not as strong as Oklahoma of the Big-12, which fell a few hours later in a West Region game against North Dakota State.

And it’s certainly not as strong as the schedule faced by Duke, which a day later suffered the biggest upset of the tournament, a 78-71 loss to 14th-seeded Mercer.

The common denominator? Class. Senior class. Mercer starts five seniors; Harvard and N.D. State each start four upperclassmen.

And Oklahoma? Just one. The Sooners are talented but young, and it showed on Thursday. As some coaches see it, the teams stepping up in class are the ones who don’t have enough seniors in their starting lineup.

“It’s hard to win with freshmen,” said Izzo, who took that analogy all the way to Michael Jordan’s early ring-less seasons with the Chicago Bulls.

Call it the great leveler of the playing field. Top-tier players at big schools move quickly to the next level, leaving their former programs in varying states of inexperience.

“I got lucky – two guys that could have left, stayed,” Izzo said, referring to guard Gary Harris and forward Adreian Payne. “And that gives you the best of both worlds.”

While John Calipari can coax a bunch of one-and-done fresh- man to a national title, the rest of the world does it the hard way.

Meanwhile, dozens of mid-majors works for years to develop their rosters. Said San Diego State coach Steve Fisher: “You get guys who have grown up together, they have been through a lot of the things that you have to go through to make it to the tournament, and they have been through it together.”

Until finally they earn their ultimate reward: a 12 seed.

So why don’t the big schools lower their sights a little bit during recruiting, thereby avoiding the disruption of early departures by their stars?

Because it’s not about winning a game in the NCAA tournament, it’s about getting through the season, said Izzo, who believes that many mid-majors don’t have the star power to get through a major conference season.

In other words, the kind of season that builds strength of schedule and puts the Madness in March.


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