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.

Sixers take lasting lessons from talk with Will Smith at team dinner

Sixers take lasting lessons from talk with Will Smith at team dinner

GALLOWAY, N.J. — The sprawling city skyline could have been the highlight of the Sixers' team dinner at One Liberty Place on Monday night. Instead, it was a surprise celebrity appearance that left them in awe.

Will Smith, who is part of the Sixers’ ownership, caught the players off guard when he visited with the team to offer advice and answer questions.

“Man, that’s one of my idols,” Nerlens Noel said following the first training camp session at Stockton University. “Everything he said I really took in and all the guys did too.”

Rather than entertaining the group with his acting or musical skills, Smith imparted important lessons that are applicable in sports. The 48-year-old has had decades of success across multiple platforms, and he offered pieces of wisdom that can resonate in any situation. 

“If you have bad people around you, that’s how people see you and that’s how you are,” Joel Embiid said. “He said to have good people around. That’s the main thing I got from that.”

The Sixers had differing memorable moments the morning after Smith’s visit, which demonstrated how many topics he addressed with the team. 

“He’s a good guy,” Ben Simmons said. “I definitely learned a lot from hearing him talk … You’ve got to look at things from a positive and negative with every situation.”

Jahlil Okafor was especially caught up in Smith’s appearance. Smith is Okafor’s favorite actor, most notably for his role in I Am Legend, and impressed Okafor with his character. 

“We already know about his accolades and how smart he is and obviously he’s an entertaining person,” Okafor said. “But it just seemed like he really wanted to be there to help us out. I just took away that he was a great person.”

Okafor also added, “It just helps [to hear from him] because the road to success is pretty much the same. It’s about being focused, it’s about knowing that you’re going to be knocked down, you’re going to fail. That was one of the messages that Will Smith shared, was expect failure but the main thing is to get back up.”

Noel previously had seen Smith courtside at Sixers games, and this was his first opportunity to hear directly from him. Noel listened to everything Smith had to say, from how to deal with the media to ranking his best and worst movies. 

“Never get caught up in too much of the negativity,” Noel recounted. 

While people view professional athletes as celebrities, the Sixers were on the opposite side Monday evening. 

“It’s hard to get starstruck nowadays,” Noel said. “But when you see Will Smith, it’s a whole different ballgame.”

Tonight's lineup: With only RHPs left, could Ryan Howard start every game?

Tonight's lineup: With only RHPs left, could Ryan Howard start every game?

If healthy, Ryan Howard is expected to start all three games in the Phillies' final series of the season Sept. 2-4 at home against the Mets.

He might also start the entire Braves series.

The Phillies' final six games are all against right-handed starting pitchers: Julio Teheran, Mike Foltynewicz and Josh Collmenter in Atlanta; Robert Gsellman, Bartolo Colon and Noah Syndergaard with the Mets. That could mean six starts for Howard before his time with the Phillies expires.

Howard's batting average has been below .200 for practically the entire season, but he's been much better since the All-Star break, hitting .259/.325/.598 with 11 homers, five doubles and 25 RBIs in 123 plate appearances (see game notes). He went 0 for 6 in his last two starts but homered in each of his two previous starts to reach 23 for the third year in a row.

Here's the Phillies' full lineup Tuesday against Teheran:

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Roman Quinn, LF
3. Odubel Herrera, CF
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Ryan Howard, 1B
6. Cameron Rupp, C
7. Freddy Galvis, SS
8. Aaron Altherr, RF
9. Jerad Eickhoff, P

Matt Kemp is out of the Braves' lineup.

1. Ender Inciarte, CF
2. Adonis Garcia, 3B
3. Freddie Freeman, 1B
4. Nick Markakis, RF
5. Tyler Flowers, C
6. Jace Peterson, 2B
7. Dansby Swanson, SS
8. Mallex Smith, LF
9. Julio Teheran, P

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