The paradox about college basketball is that what’s good for the game in general is bad for the NCAA Tournament, and what’s bad for the NCAA Tournament is good for the game in general.
Here’s what I mean: The NCAA Tournament is the spectacle it is because it is a chaotic one-game elimination tournament in a sport where execution varies greatly from night to night, meaning anybody (except a No. 16 seed) can win any NCAA Tournament game, and that is extremely exciting, especially for people who don’t regularly watch college basketball and/or whose team is not involved. On the other hand, most or all of the best teams will often be eliminated before they play each other, and that can be a bummer.
So for the sake of saving this college basketball season, let’s hope Villanova, Purdue and Virginia play each other some way or another. Because those are the only teams left that have any business winning this thing.
Villanova is shooting 62 percent from 2-point range in conference play and is outscoring conference teams by 19 points per game. The Wildcats rank in the top ten nationally in field goal percentage, 3-point percentage, turnovers and scoring. They are brutally efficient, and they have a player, Jalen Brunson, who in many other years could win the Naismith Award. He averages 19.4 points, 5 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game, and he’s shooting 55 percent from the field and 48 percent from the 3-point line.
Then there are five other guys averaging double figures, four of them shooting at least 40 percent from the 3-point line.
Although this team is best known for its defense, there is a level of firepower here that Virginia and Purdue don’t have. It would be fascinating to see if Virginia could hang with all those shooters for 40 minutes and still be able to score.
Virginia is highly effective at executing a very old strategy, which is to slow it down, guard like hell, and hope for the best. Virginia’s opponents are shooting 37 percent from the field and scoring 52 points per game. The Cavaliers held Clemson to 36, Syracuse to 44, and Duke to 63.
People love to say defense wins championships, and I guess that’s true in a general sense, but I’d love to see Virginia play a five-game series against Oklahoma, because Tony Bennett and Trae Young are the two main entities in college basketball bending the game to their will.
So, the Boilermakers are 12-0 in Big Ten play with some real romps mixed in there. Beat Rutgers by 31, Minnesota by 34, Wisconsin by 28, and Iowa by 23. Lately, things have been closer, and Rutgers almost shocked ’em Saturday night, but the trouble is, nobody can make a basket on these guys. Big Ten teams are shooting 43 percent from the field and 34 percent from the 3-point line against the Boilermakers, who are averaging 79 points per game in league play.
And yet Purdue is a perimeter-oriented team. The Boilermakers are second in the Big Ten in 3s attempted, and first in makes. Guard Carson Edwards leads the team in scoring during league play at 16.6 points per game.
None of this is to say somebody from outside this group of three can’t win the national title. Michigan State (22-3) is right there with Purdue across most major statistical categories, and the only regular-season meeting between the two comes on Saturday. Still, there seems to be a dropoff of some significance once you get past the top three (maybe four) teams, despite glistening records from Xavier (21-3), Cincinnati (21-2) and Auburn (21-2). Some conferences — Big 12, Pac-12, SEC — don’t appear to have any serious title contender among them.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for college basketball, but it will be a disappointment if we don’t get to see at least a couple of these three play each other.