Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Argument For and Against a BCS-Style Syracuse-Kentucky National Championship

By Charlie Scaturro

Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images North America
You have to search pretty hard to find anyone who truly believes the BCS is the right way to organize a championship (excluding the guys who line their pockets from the system), but after watching what Kentucky and Syracuse have managed to accomplish during the regular season I think it’s fair to ask; would you really have a problem with them playing for a National Championship at the expense of giving any other team a similar chance?

Of course, we know this won’t happen, but if you can suspend your disbelief for around 2,500 words a solid case can be made that this should, in fact, happen.

As with every college basketball season, there have been plenty of entertaining storylines that deserve their share of attention, but it’s hard to focus on much else when two of the nation’s premier programs have posted a combined record of 60-2 at the end of the regular season, and have clearly been the two best teams in the nation from November to March.

Besides missing out on the greatest two weeks of the sports calendar if we didn’t have the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the fact that a BCS-style National Championship Game would actually pit the two best teams in the country against each other in what would be the matchup every rational, non-biased college basketball fan would want to see if we needed to pick one game to crown a champion, makes the argument for a Kentucky-Syracuse E-ZPass title game at least worth discussing. I can’t say that I would actually want this to happen, but I also can’t say that I wouldn’t want it to happen. Which is why, after giving a little thought to what I was going to write about while during conference championship week, I decided to settle on a Jekyll and Hyde discussion of the merits for and against waiving the NCAA Tournament altogether for a championship meeting between Syracuse and Kentucky.

Seeing as it would never actually happen, seeing as it’s exceedingly rare that two college basketball teams distance themselves to this degree from the rest of the field during the regular season, and seeing as college football needs to retire their old way of doing things in favor of an 8-10 team playoff, I would never argue that college hoops should permanently adopt the BCS format, but you could at least make the case that the Wildcats and Orange have done enough during the 2011-’12 season that we should forego the usual March tradition of “may the best team on this day win,” and let these two powerhouses duke it out for the title. What would be done with the other 66 teams in the tournament is up for debate (have the two top guys from each team play a double-elimination beer pong tournament instead?), but regardless of what happens during the next month or so, it would really feel like the college basketball season was incomplete if Syracuse and Kentucky didn’t end up meeting at some point between now and April.

It’s entirely possible that the regularly scheduled NCAA Tournament will provide us with such a game, but whenever you have the chance to actually argue in favor of the BCS, I feel that it’s something worth doing (even if this is a different sport). So here it is, the argument for a BCS-style Syracuse-Kentucky National Championship Game, and the predictably outraged argument against it.

The argument for a Syracuse-Kentucky BCS-style Championship game: 

Photo by Chris Chambers/Getty Images North America
Like everything in life, playoff systems in sports aren’t perfect and often times the dream postseason matchup everyone wants to see is foiled by a team that gets hot at the right time or, even worse, one that simply rides a wave of “luck” to crash the game everyone wants to see. NFL fans who didn’t have a horse in the race for this year’s playoffs no doubt wanted to see the Packers and Saints get another crack at each other in the NFC Championship game on the heels of their epic Week 1 meeting.

Unfortunately for everyone who hoped to see Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers combine for 1,200 passing yards and 90 points, the Giants and 49ers had other ideas of giving us a sloppy, defensive minded matchup that was essentially decided by two special teams blunders. Even worse are those instances where it’s difficult to even identify who the two best teams are, and this leaves most fans grasping to figure out which two teams would make a suitable championship game.

But when it comes to Syracuse and Kentucky in the 2011-’12 season, college basketball fans don’t have that problem. Simply put, Syracuse and Kentucky have been the two best teams in the nation as they’ve romped through a grueling regular season to post identical 30-1 records. Both of these teams have been tested on multiple occasions, meaning their stellar records are no fluke, and if not for Christian Watford’s buzzer-beating three and Fab Melo’s suspension during the Orange’s only loss of the season against Notre Dame, it’s entirely possible that both Syracuse and Kentucky could be undefeated right now as they head into their respective conference tournaments.

Kentucky played huge out of conference games against the likes of Kansas, North Carolina, and Louisville during the first two months of the season, and the fact that this roster, which relies on freshmen to do a good deal of their damage, was able to beat three of the best teams in the nation (Louisville was ranked fourth at the time Kentucky beat them) with such a young group of players speaks volumes about just how good this team really is.

The SEC hasn’t been incredible this season (as evidenced by the fact that Kerry has them sending five teams at most to the tournament, although Tennessee is doing their best to give him indigestion for eliminating them in the middle of February), but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been tough for the Wildcats to post a flawless 16-0 record in conference. When you consider that a fourth of their 16 wins in the SEC have come against either Vanderbilt or Florida, what Kentucky has done in conference by posting a perfect record is extremely impressive. They have a roster teeming with NBA talent, a guy who may very well sweep the Freshmen of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, and Player of the Year Awards in Anthony Davis, and they’ve been sitting atop the polls for well over a month. They play incredible defense, they’re more than capable of putting points on the board, and unlike in years past, this team isn’t relying solely on freshmen to get the job done.

Jim Boeheim has turned to upperclassmen like Kris Joseph, Scoop Jardine, and Brandon Triche to lay the groundwork for Syracuse’s phenomenal season, but the younger guys have played a big part in this success as well. The imposing sophomore trio of Fab Melo, Dion Waiters, and C.J. Fair has been the heart and soul of the Orange all season long and their presence has allowed Syracuse to utilize a well-rounded scoring attack, while Melo has anchored the defense from the inside out. Although ‘Cuse didn’t play the toughest early season out of conference schedule, they’ve managed to post a 17-1 record in the Big East, which includes wins over Marquette, Georgetown, West Virginia, at Cincinnati, and two wins apiece over Connecticut and Louisville. Syracuse is deep, they’re a nightmare getting out in transition, they have plenty of long athletes to continually frustrate opponents with their patented zone, and you never know which player is going to hurt you on a given day. This team simply has too many options to game plan against, and they’ve found ways to win some extremely tough games throughout the season.

Although these teams have gone about dominating the regular season in different ways (Kentucky with sheer star power and Syracuse with supreme depth), both have been equally as effective at crushing the will of their opponents and winning games at an impressive clip. Furthermore, in Kentucky and Syracuse we’re talking about two teams that have been in the top five of both polls since the beginning of December, and both teams were in the preseason top 5, so it’s not like these teams are the product of some wonky hot streak or other teams underachieving- they were supposed to be two of the best teams in the nation before the season started, and they have been.

Speaking of other teams, there’s a possibility that North Carolina, Kansas, Missouri, Duke, Ohio State, Michigan State, and a few others could stake some kind of claim to being included in a BCS-style championship game, but no one besides Syracuse and Kentucky has a resume that really stacks up.

Yes, we could roll the dice and hope that Syracuse and Kentucky make their way through the tournament to find each other somewhere at the end of the line, but why risk it? These teams have proven that they’re college basketball’s best all season long by consistently beating whomever they’ve been matched up against, and they deserve a shot to meet for the National Championship. No other teams in the country have been on the same level this season, and it’s hard to deny that Syracuse-Kentucky is the matchup everyone wants to see. Anything less would be an anticlimactic end to what has been another phenomenal season of college hoops.

The argument against a Syracuse-Kentucky BCS-style National Championship: 

Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images North America
I could start off by simply stating that the BCS is a broken system that needs fixing (asking yourself why can’t college football do an 8 or 10 team playoff to decide the National Champion and in doing so avoid all the ugliness that comes along with having to exclude worthy teams that had fantastic seasons is like asking yourself why Dana Stubifield is in the movie “Reindeer Games,”: there’s no appropriate answer), I could start off by saying “if you’re the best, prove it March,” or I could even start off by reminding everyone that foregoing the first few rounds of the tournament would rob college basketball fans of the right to enjoy everything that comes along with March Madness (not to mention mid-majors the chance to put their school on the map), but that’s too easy so I won’t really be going down that road.

There’s no doubt that Syracuse and Kentucky have just completed dominant regular seasons and have been the two best teams in the country up to this point, no one is arguing that, but to say these are the only teams worthy of playing for a championship is ludicrous not because it flies in the face of the way college basketball’s postseason has been run since the 1939 (which it does) but because there are other worthy teams out there who deserve a chance. Again, Syracuse and Kentucky have been great this season but if anyone’s going to tell me that either team couldn’t lose to the likes of North Carolina, Kansas, Missouri, Michigan State, Ohio State, or any number of the other top teams in the country on a given day, you haven’t been watching enough college basketball.

We all know that both the Orange and Wildcats have only lost one game each thus far, but both teams could have 4-5 losses at this point. Syracuse has played a number of close games against Florida, Marquette, West Virginia (a game that featured one of the worst calls of the season; an obvious goal tend in the last seconds that helped the Orange escape with a win), Georgetown, Louisville, and most recently UConn. These six wins came by a combined 19 points, and although any college basketball team, no matter how good, is going to play close games in a conference as competitive as the Big East, these games show the Orange aren’t head and shoulders above the rest of the field.

Syracuse’s only loss of the season came to a red hot Notre Dame team that jumped on them right out of the gate and refused to look back. The argument that Fab Melo’s absence hurt the Orange that day can’t be denied, and it certainly made life a lot easier on Jack Cooley (who posted 17 points and 10 rebounds for the Irish), but I don’t think Melo’s presence would have made up for the fact that Notre Dame shot 50 percent from three, nor do I think a player who hasn’t attempted a single three this season helps the Orange improve upon the 7 for 23 long range shooting display they posted that day. Is it a different game if Melo was eligible to play against Notre Dame back in January? Obviously, but I don’t think it’s fair to say Syracuse lost that game because he wasn’t there.

Kentucky didn’t play as many close games as Syracuse, but their statement win over North Carolina was in doubt until time ran off the clock, Louisville kept things competitive losing by just seven, Tennessee surprised everyone by nearly beating the Wildcats in mid-January, Alabama also gave them a scare a few games later, and Vanderbilt certainly could have beaten Kentucky both times these teams met if a few bounces had gone the Commodores way.

Right now you’re probably thinking, “so what? You could run down the close games that every team in college basketball had in 2011-12’, it’s a long season and every team is bound to have some close calls,” but that’s exactly my point. Syracuse and Kentucky, while superior in record, had their share of close calls just like any other good team in the country did this season. The difference was, that with the exception of two games, both of these teams found ways to pull out hard fought victories time and again but they didn’t blow everyone out of the water all season long. We’re talking about two very good, possibly even great teams, and although they’re obviously the favorites to reach the championship game, that doesn’t mean we should just give them a free pass at the expense of a lot of other teams across the nation who could certainly beat them in the tournament.

Kentucky-Syracuse would be an epic game, but wouldn’t a Kentucky-Kansas or Kentucky-UNC rematch be just about as close? Wouldn’t Syracuse-Missouri, Syracuse-Marquette, or Syracuse-Michigan State be nearly as exciting? There are too many great moments ahead of us and too many good teams around the country to simply write off the possibility of an upset in the tournament because of what Kentucky and Syracuse did during the regular season. The tournament has become the ultimate proving ground for any team that has dominated the regular season, and both of these teams still have things to prove.

I want to see how Kentucky’s freshmen handle the pressure of the tournament, I want to see how Syracuse deals with a team that comes out shooting 60 percent from three in the first half of a tournament game (not to mention how they deal with the current hot water the program finds itself in), and I want to see if these teams can each win five games in the most intense, pressure filled environments they’ve experienced all season against the most fired up opponents they’ve faced all season. If they’re able to navigate all that, it will make a Championship meeting between these two even sweeter.

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