Tonight: The NCAA's Other National Champion Problem

Tonight: The NCAA's Other National Champion Problem

The NCAA Tournament is the most overrated post-season in sports because
it fails at the most basic level, which is to crown a true national
champion.

26 years ago, the
Villanova Wildcats men's basketball team pulled off what is considered
one of the biggest upsets in sports history, defeating top ranked
Georgetown to win the National Championship. It was the first year the
NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams, and the No. 8 seed Cats navigated
the field to go from almost certain also-rans to being named the best
team in the land in a matter of weeks.

At the risk of alienating a generation of Nova fans, and as
incredible as that feat was, winning six games in a row at the end of
the season should not suddenly earn a team the title. With a 19-10
record entering the Tournament, Villanova wasn't in the top 20, wasn't
even one of the top teams in their conference, and actually lost to the
Hoyas in two previous meetings. If there was any justice, the Wildcats
would have been forced to beat them again, maybe even twice, before they
could finally claim they won it all.

On its face, the now-68 team tournament is one of the most democratic
ways to determine a champion. No team sport has a more inclusive
playoff, with automatic berths going to all 33 conference winners, and
35 at-large bids awarded to the best of the rest. The tournament itself
is designed to give the highest seeds the theoretical easiest path to
the final without reslotting the entire field after every round.

That's all fine and good, but then how do we wind up with Virginia
Commonwealth in the final four, or Butler in back-to-back finals? You
can simply make the case they won their games, therefore they deserve to
be there. The Bulldogs especially look like less of a fluke on the
strength of consecutive championship game appearances.

Maybe, maybe not. The truth is, there really is no way to tell for
sure. Coming into the tournament, No. 8 seed Butler played just one
ranked opponent this season, a 12- point home loss to Duke. They lost
five games in the Horizon League, a conference that sent no other teams
to the dance. Their 23-9 record wasn't strong enough to earn them a spot
on the final AP Top 25, yet suddenly we are to believe they currently
have one of the top two programs in the nation.

They've vindicated themselves to a degree with tournament wins over
Pitt, Wisconsin, and Florida. Still, only one of those finishes was even
remotely convincing. They needed help from the Panthers, and overtime
to squeak by the Gators. Then they drew one of the most ridiculous
match-ups ever in the Final Four with No. 11 VCU. Yeah, that's legit.

What it boils down to is an issue with the single-elimination aspect
to the tournament. Does one basketball game produce the best team?
Sometimes it does, but often enough it does not. If No. 1 Kansas said,
"Let's run that one back," would VCU beat them again? Could they beat
them in a best-of-three series, even if the Jayhawks spotted them the
first game?

Who knows, but that's the point. The NBA doesn't leave things up to
chance. Eventually, somebody came along and realized a three-game series
wasn't enough, and again, as recently as 2006 somebody decided even a
five-game series didn't quite do the trick either. That's an extreme
example, but at no stage in the history of the NBA playoffs did anybody
think it was wise for a club to advance after one victory.

Of course, the NCAA will never change the current format, except to
expand and further dilute it. In fact, I'm not even advocating a new
system. This thing is wildly popular, and I must concede it's at least
fair (other than the new, randomly placed play-in games), even if
imperfect. Plus, without denying entry to an overwhelming number of
schools, some maybe even deserving of an opportunity to compete for
their sport's ultimate prize, it isn't logistically possible to play a
round-robin or best-of series. It would simply take too much time.

So, what then?

Well, if you enjoy March Madness, who am I to argue? Even I get a
kick out of the first weekend, watching schools I've never heard of
crush the dreams of schools I don't care about. Maybe those upsets are
meant to serve as a reminder that this is all in good fun, because as
the tournament drags on, and you realize the chances that the actual two
best teams will meet in the final round are miniscule, it all seems
relatively meaningless.

Which is ironic, because while the flawed BCS is crucified every
December as it attempts to pair the best two teams in college football
to play for the National Championship, the NCAA Tournament gets a pass
because it's exciting, and perhaps more importantly, people like filling
out brackets. At the end of the day though, their champion deserves the
same scrutiny, if not more.

Best of NBA: Wall, Wizards top Knicks for 4th straight win

Best of NBA: Wall, Wizards top Knicks for 4th straight win

NEW YORK -- John Wall had 29 points and 13 assists, scoring Washington's final four points in the last 32 seconds as the surging Wizards beat the New York Knicks 113-110 on Thursday night.

Otto Porter Jr. made six 3-pointers for the second straight night and added 23 points, but the Wizards needed big plays from Wall down the stretch to win their fourth in a row.

He made two free throws to put Washington back on top after New York had rallied to take a 110-109 lead, then rebounded Carmelo Anthony's miss and left all the Knicks in his dust as he raced down the floor for a dunk with 13.7 seconds to play.

Anthony finished with 34 points but Wall stole the ball from Brandon Jennings to prevent the Knicks from attempting a 3-pointer that could have tied it (see full recap).

Leonard scores 34 to lead Spurs over Nuggets
SAN ANTONIO -- Kawhi Leonard scored 34 points, rookie Dejounte Murray added a season-high 24 and the San Antonio Spurs overcame a pregame injury to Pau Gasol in beating the Denver Nuggets 118-104 on Thursday night.

Denver's three-game winning streak was snapped despite a career-high 35 points from Nikola Jokic.

Leonard had his fifth straight 30-point performance, right after learning he will start for the Western Conference in the All-Star Game for the second consecutive season.

The Spurs were unexpectedly without Gasol, Tony Parker and then coach Gregg Popovich. Gasol and Parker were both late scratches due to injury, and Popovich was ejected for the first time this season.

Gasol broke the ring finger on his left (non-shooting) hand by jamming it against Kyle Anderson's shoulder during pregame warmups while attempting a running hook. The 16-year veteran center immediately clutched his hand and left the court.

X-rays revealed the break, and the Spurs said there is no timeline for Gasol's return.

Irving, James lead Cavs over Suns
CLEVELAND -- Kyrie Irving scored 26 points, All-Star teammate LeBron James had 21 points and 15 assists, and the Cleveland Cavaliers looked more like themselves at home in a 118-103 win over the Phoenix Suns on Thursday night.

The Cavs were back in Quicken Loans Arena following a six-game road trip (their longest of the season) that concluded with an embarrassing 35-point loss at Golden State. But on their home floor, they had better offensive balance and ball movement while improving to 30-11 -- the same record Cleveland had at the halfway point of its 2016 NBA championship season.

Channing Frye scored 18, Iman Shumpert 17 and James Jones 14 while filling in for star forward Kevin Love, still bothered by back spasms.

Tyson Chandler had 22 points and 16 rebounds, but the Suns lost for the fourth time in five games (see full recap).

Best of NHL: Surging Capitals rock Blues in St. Louis

Best of NHL: Surging Capitals rock Blues in St. Louis

ST. LOUIS -- Andre Burakovsky, T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov each had a goal and an assist to lead the Washington Capitals to a 7-3 victory over the St. Louis Blues on Thursday night.

Jay beagle, Brett Connolly, Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams also scored, and Alex Ovechkin and Daniel Winnik each had two assists to help Washington earn at least a point in its 12th straight game (10-0-2) for an NHL-best 66 points.

Braden Holtby bounced back from his roughest outing of the season with 22 saves. Holtby was pulled after giving up a season-high five goals on 26 shots in an 8-7 overtime loss at Pittsburgh on Monday. He improved to 22-8-4 and 5-0 lifetime against St. Louis (see full recap).

Grabner scores 2 goals, Rangers top Leafs
TORONTO -- Michael Grabner scored two goals against his former team, helping the New York Rangers snap a three-game losing streak with a 5-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night.

Pavel Buchnevich, Brady Skjei and J.T. Miller added goals for New York, and Henrik Lundqvist made 23 saves following a series of rough outings.

Tyler Bozak and Zach Hyman scored for Toronto, which had a three-game winning streak stopped. The Maple Leafs had earned 21 of a possible 26 points in their previous 13 games (10-2-1). Frederik Andersen gave up four goals on 40 shots (see full recap).

Tavares leads Islanders to shutout of Stars
NEW YORK -- Getting a new coach this week didn't change things much for the Islanders -- and oddly enough, that's a good thing for New York.

John Tavares narrowly missed out on his second hat trick in a week, Thomas Greiss got his second straight shutout and the Islanders beat the Dallas Stars 3-0 on Thursday night in their first game since firing longtime coach Jack Capuano.

New York canned Capuano in the middle of his seventh season Tuesday, replacing him on an interim basis with Doug Weight (see full recap).

Niederreiter, Wild dodge letdown, edge Coyotes
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Nino Niederreiter had two power-play goals and an assist, including the go-ahead score for the Minnesota Wild with 7:06 remaining in a 4-3 victory over Arizona on Thursday night after the Coyotes came back from a two-goal deficit.

With Shane Doan in the penalty box for hooking, Niederreiter knocked in a nifty redirect of Mikael Granlund's slap shot for the winner. Devan Dubnyk stopped 20 shots for the Wild, who are 18-2-2 in their last 22 games.

Louis Domingue made 21 saves for the Coyotes, who lost their fourth in a row and fell to 2-12-1 in their last 15 games starting with a 4-1 loss to Minnesota in Arizona on Dec. 17 (see full recap).