Attempting to derive meaning from a weekend slate of college basketball games can feel hopeless, especially with the NCAA tournament on the horizon. Any conclusion depends on perspective, and perspective is warped by bias. One game means everything and nothing.
Say two teams shoot poorly in a low-scoring game. Let's call them Georgetown and Syracuse. Was the lack of scoring a result of bad offense or good defense?
Say that, as that's happening, two other teams score a lot of points in a back-and-forth game two time zones away. Let's call them Colorado State and New Mexico. Was the abundant scoring a result of good offense or bad defense?
Flipping back and forth between the Carrier Dome at Syracuse and Moby Arena at Colorado State on Saturday afternoon was an experience in contrasts. The atmosphere at Syracuse was great, and the stakes appeared higher given that it was the last Big East meeting between two enemies on the Orange's home floor. It was nationally televised on CBS. Everything about that game seemed bigger. It was relatively close most of the time. Georgetown star Otto Porter dropped 33 … But the rest of the Hoyas roster combined to make seven field goals. Syracuse scored only 23 points in both halves and shot 17 of 50 from the field. Aside from Porter's brilliant game, one that catapulted him into first-team All-America discussion, and aside from the rivalry context, Georgetown-Syracuse was a lousy game to watch. The final score was 57-46, Georgetown.
Despite its historic strength this season, most people don't care much about the Mountain West. New Mexico-Colorado State on NBC Sports Network is still New Mexico-Colorado State on NBC Sports Network, even if both teams are ranked in the top 25, a game apart in one of the most competitive leagues in the country. But they went back and forth all game. The intimate Moby Arena was packed with 8,745 fans, a quarter of the Carrier Dome crowd, but enthusiastic and loud. Minnesota transfer Colton Iverson finished with 26 points and 15 rebounds for Colorado State. New Mexico guard Kendall Williams went crazy, making an unheard of 10 three-pointers to finish with 46 points. The final score was 91-82, New Mexico.
Which result was better? Which was more important?
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A sport that emphasizes preseason polls and has fluid rosters -- so fluid that the best players often move on after one or two years -- leaves it easy to fall victim to perception. Miami had to overcome preconceived notions of weakness to get respect. Butler, previously an underdog, suffers from the Boise State syndrome, struggling to gain respect and now sometimes getting too much credit after its back-to-back national championship appearances -- not to mention a buzzer-beating win over Gonzaga on national TV -- put it squarely in the national consciousness. Yes, the Bulldogs are a good team with a great coach, and yes they beat Indiana and Gonzaga. They can beat anyone. But they also lost by double digits to decent Xavier and Illinois teams and have four losses in conference play. Which team are they?
It's so easy to get caught up into the week-to-week fluidity of the sport and the week-to-week fluctuation of meaningless rankings. It's important to take a step back. Who's trending up in the long run? Who's trending down? Creighton was universally praised heading into the season, and while All-American center Doug McDermott has lived up to expectations, the team as a whole has been sluggish since the Missouri Valley season began. Talented? Sure. But not the sort of team anyone is going to be sorry to see in March at this point, if the Bluejays even make the dance, having gone 5-6 in their last 11 games.
A team's NCAA tournament resume is dependent on the season as a whole, meaning so much rides on on nonconference wins in the fall, a time when everything is in flux, when young teams are still coming together, when they're still searching for the right combination of players and the right formula for success. The results of November and December are important because out-of-conference games give us an idea of conference strength, and, well, they're part of the season. They need to be counted equally. Then again, we're talking about developing 19- and 20-year-olds in the early stages of a season. The best snapshot of a team's true strength before the tournament, especially younger teams, comes in February.
So, if Creighton's not looking good, let's look at Miami. Miami has built respect all season -- even after three nonconference losses to Florida Gulf Coast, Arizona and Indiana State -- particularly when it embarrassed Duke at home. Since then, we've all accepted Miami as a great team, a possible No. 1 seed, as it moved to 13-0 in the ACC. OK, so what was Saturday's 80-65 loss at Wake Forest?
1) Natural regression for a team had several recent close calls with mediocre teams in the ACC.
2) A terrible upset loss to a Wake Forest team that's 12-14 that ruins everything.
3) A positive, in the long run, one of those "good" losses that snaps a team out of any complacency it may develop and/or the pressure of dealing with an undefeated conference record.
The boring and, likely, correct answer to the above is some sort of gray area. In an age of forced debate, it's easy to sprint toward one side or the other, but gut reactions get us nowhere. Georgetown and Syracuse both played sloppy games as a whole, but Otto Porter defied the flow of the game and put together one of the most memorable individual performances of the season. Kendall Williams could play that game against Colorado State under the exact same circumstances 100 times and never hit 10 three-pointers again.
Miami has probably never been top-seed good, but the Hurricanes are a well-coached and talented team that, despite its age, is totally inexperienced in this type of situation. A loss like this could do some good. They're not 27 points better than Duke, but they're also not 15 points worse than Wake Forest. Anything can happen in 40 minutes, and it's best to step back and take in the whole season.
Many people, including me, have perceived the 2012-13 season as one of the wildest in years, a roller coaster ride of highs and lows, of upsets and climactic finishes. It has been. But like any college basketball season, it's been filled with all the usual bad, and then some: excessive stoppages in play, inconsistent officiating, risk-averse overcoaching, sloppy play by teenagers.
This is what college basketball is on a yearly basis, and the inconsistency and unpredictably are what ultimately add up to make the NCAA tournament the most exciting sporting event on the planet.
All that's left is to take 68 teams that have somehow survived these fluctuations, mix them up and let them take aim at our perceptions in the most black and white way possible, the only way to resolve a fantastic mess of a sport: win to stay in, lose and go home. Clarity at last.