A bracket filled out with invisible ink

Published 9:03 am Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Column: Jim Litke, AP Sports Columnist

CHICAGO — March is mad, all right, madder than it’s been in a long time, so far maybe more than ever.

Who would have bet that four double-digit seeds would still be around after the opening weekend, a total that has been matched or exceeded only once — five made the round of 16 in 1999 — since the field was expanded to 64 in 1985?

Jim Litke

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Or that the city of Richmond, Va. (pop. 204,000) would have as many teams left — two: No 12 Richmond and No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth — as the entire Big East Conference?

Or that we’d see possibly the dumbest foul in the history of the NCAA tournament at the end of the Butler-Pittsburgh game, only to see it topped less than three seconds later?

Less than an hour before VCU tipped off against No. 3 seed Purdue, Big Ten Conference commissioner Jim Delany was reminiscing about the good old days two decades or so ago when future NBA stars stayed in school two years or more and programs such as UNLV, Duke, North Carolina and Georgetown lent the tournament an air of predictability — not to mention predictably good play.

“There were plenty of good teams in the middle back then, too, clustered between the six and 11 seeds, and it’s been widening ever since. First, fives and 12s, then fours and 13s and maybe now, if you’re not drawn on the top three lines, well, you’re basically part of that giant cluster in the middle.”

The longer he thought about it, though, the bigger the cluster grew.

“These days,” Delany added, “even the gap between three and 11 doesn’t seem quite as daunting.”

As if on cue, VCU then took the floor and wiped it clean using the third-seeded Boilermakers as a rag. The Rams built a 10-point lead at intermission and ran what amounted to a layup drill five minutes into the second half, perforating Purdue’s halfhearted full-court press for chippies and dunks on a half-dozen trips down the floor to put the game away.

“They don’t usually press,” VCU forward Jamie Skeen said, still surprised afterward. “It didn’t look like they even practice it.”

His teammates admitted that even after getting a scouting report, they weren’t sure they could name any of Purdue’s much-higher profile team members.

“They’re All-Americans, their point guard, their coach. That’s about it,” Bradford Burgess, who led the Rams with 23 points, replied when asked.

“Is that four?” chimed in teammate Joey Rodriguez, the point guard who ran a nearly flawless attack with 12 points, 11 assists and no turnovers in 34 minutes. Doing the math, he nodded with certainty, “Four.”

That’s the short version of why this year’s tournament, already packed with buzzer-beaters and more than a dozen games decided by three points or fewer, could turn out to be the most volatile ever.

Because of AAU teams, talented kids have played each other in big games all over the country before they set foot in college. The brand names, both programs and players, aren’t nearly as loaded as they used to be. The very best players are gone after a year, and with nearly every team on TV, the rest of the best no longer stack up anywhere waiting for their turn. With more money invested, more teams have topflight coaches.

So while VCU’s players didn’t bother to learn the Boilermakers’ names, their coach, Shaka Smart, prepared them for exactly what to expect

“We just had to have everyone on the same page and everyone going in the same direction,” he said.

“It’s just basketball, man,” Skeen said, adding a moment later, “If you jell as a team like we did today, you can beat anybody.”

No doubt. But this year, it’s happening at a dizzying clip as mid-major teams heavy on experienced upperclassmen refuse to be intimidated by the names on either the front or the back of opponents’ jerseys. San Diego State and VCU are both in the round of 16 for the first time ever; BYU, Richmond and Florida State are back for the first time since 1981, 1988 and 1993 respectively.

“I think it’s kind of the way of the world, the way it’s going to be,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said before his team got axed by the Seminoles in the nightcap Sunday. “I bet this tournament is going to be really good even though maybe there’s no great teams.”

That point was made forcefully a day earlier as Butler’s Shelvin Mack inexplicably ran into Pitt’s Gilbert Brown as Brown tried a half-court desperation heave in the final seconds. Brown made the first free throw to tie the score at 70, then missed the second. As the Bulldogs’ Matt Howard grabbed the rebound only to be fouled even more inexplicably by Nasir Robinson with 0.8 seconds left. Howard made the first for the game-winner.

“I’ve never seen anything like that in 39 years of coaching,” is how UConn coach Jim Calhoun summed it up. “Both plays.”

And to think: the madness has only just begun.