As is custom around these parts, I watched a bit of basketball this weekend. Here’s what I saw.
1. This year’s tournament was made for Gus Johnson.
Thirteen games have been decided by three points or fewer. Seven games have gone to overtime. I say this every year, but this is the most entertaining NCAA tournament ever. And yet, God’s greatest gift to the NCAA tournament is somewhere in Europe trying to learn how to pronounce the names of soccer players in preparation for the World Cup. Meanwhile, Johnson’s throne is occupied by a golf announcer. It’s times like these I think back to one of the great quotes in the history of world literature:
“Hasn’t anyone ever told you? Life isn’t fair.”
—Bella Swan, page 49, Twilight
2. Officials putting the spotlight on themselves at the end of close games is going to be the death of me.
Basketball is probably the most difficult sport to officiate, so I try not to get upset when I disagree with 50-50 calls. Sure, I’d like the NCAA to do more to encourage the best possible officiating,1 but it’s hard to fault refs for not being able to see through throngs of bodies to make calls that seem obvious in slow-motion high-definition replay. That said, I have zero tolerance for refs who make the game about themselves, which is why the ends of Michigan-Tennessee and Wisconsin-Arizona almost gave me an aneurysm.
First, let me explain that I don’t believe that refs should swallow the whistle at the end of games, because 99 times out of 100 that approach is unfair to the offense. But you know what else is unfair to the offense? Rewarding a defender for falling over at the first hint of contact like referee David Hall did when he called a charge on Jarnell Stokes at the end of the Michigan-Tennessee game. Also unfair to the offense: letting a defender who got beat drape himself over a ball handler as he tries to recover, and then rewarding said defender with an offensive foul call when the ball handler extends his arm to get the defender off him, which is what happened when Tony Greene whistled Nick Johnson for a push-off at the end of Wisconsin-Arizona.
Some have argued that these calls didn’t matter that much because Michigan’s Caris LeVert would’ve stolen the ball if Stokes hadn’t been called for the charge and because Wisconsin would’ve rebounded Johnson’s miss if his attempt had been a live ball. Not so fast. LeVert did have a jump on the ball as it bounced near the baseline, but if you watch the replay, Stokes was right with him and he gave up only because of the whistle. Seconds before that, LeVert was heavily pressured and stepped out of bounds as he ran toward a pass in that exact spot, so why should we assume he would’ve retrieved the loose ball and dribbled out the clock? As for Johnson’s miss, the two Wisconsin players who supposedly would’ve rebounded the ball were 6-foot-1 Ben Brust and 6-2 Traevon Jackson. The Arizona player who was crashing the boards was 6-7 Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who had already made something like 308 big hustle plays in that game.2
It’s a shame we have to speculate on what would’ve happened had the players been able to decide the outcome of these games. What’s worse is that the problem of referees inserting themselves into the limelight at the worst possible moments doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
3. Bo Ryan wearing the Final Four hat is the biggest clash of cultures I’ve ever seen.
Ryan is the 66-year-old guy who preaches fundamentals; the guy who usually has a team that most consider boring; the guy who immediately subs out players when they commit turnovers or take bad shots; the guy who made Mike Bruesewitz run three miles before every practice because Bruesewitz’s long red hair “called attention to himself and away from the team”;3 and the guy who is as close to a real-life Norman Dale as you’d ever find. This man wore a flat-billed hat with stickers on it for an extended period of time Saturday night. This is like Mark Dantonio shouting out Rich Homie Quan times infinity.
4. The story behind Bo Ryan’s towel policy is surprisingly interesting and sensible.
In case you haven’t noticed, every time a Wisconsin player subs into the game, he hands a towel to the teammate he’s replacing. I noticed this years ago and assumed it was either just another Bo Ryan thing or that he was a fan of South Park. The actual reason, as Dave Revsine of the Big Ten Network pointed out, makes more sense than I thought it would.
.@clubtrillion towel deal dates from his time in D3. Subbed a guy in, other guy didn’t come out & got a T. Hence, the towel xchange for subs
— Dave Revsine (@BTNDaveRevsine) March 30, 2014
Let’s not get crazy here — this is complete overkill and it could still be classified as just another Bo Ryan thing. But at least the towel exchange serves a purpose and doesn’t stem from some weird towel obsession on Ryan’s part.
5. Frank Kaminsky is the best player in the Final Four.
With respect to Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin, UConn’s Shabazz Napier, and Kentucky’s Marcus Lee, Kaminsky strikes more fear into the hearts of opposing coaches than any other player left in the tournament. Kaminsky is such a star that even though he has a Polish last name, Charles Barkley still manages to pronounce it correctly. It’s easy to look at his stats against Arizona — 28 points and 11 rebounds — and dismiss his great game as one of many superb individual efforts in this tournament. But keep in mind the final score of that game was 64-63, meaning Kaminsky scored almost half his team’s points in an Elite Eight game. Even more impressive, though, is that he did it against three potential first-round picks in Aaron Gordon, Hollis-Jefferson, and Zeus “Zeus” Zeuszeuski. That is remarkable. Sean Miller had three NBA guys to throw at a kid who averaged four points per game last season AND NONE OF THEM COULD SLOW HIM DOWN. There are NBA players who wouldn’t have been able to have the game Kaminsky had. After a tournament performance like this, I wouldn’t blame him for testing the NBA draft waters. But as a college basketball fan, I’m praying like hell Kaminsky comes back for his senior season, because one year of unstoppable Frank Kaminsky hasn’t been enough.
6. Arizona should be the unanimous preseason no. 1 next season.
If there’s a positive takeaway from the Cats’ heartbreaking loss to Wisconsin — and there really isn’t, but I’m trying to be optimistic — it’s that the 2015 national title is theirs for the taking. Of course, this assumes that everyone except Gordon comes back next year, which seems likely even though it would not be that shocking if Nick Johnson and/or Hollis-Jefferson declared for the draft. But if the Wildcats return everyone but Gordon, that means they’ll have Johnson, Hollis-Jefferson, T.J. McConnell, Brandon Ashley, Zeus “Zeus” Zeuszeuski, Gabe York, Elliott Pitts, and Matt Korcheck to go along with Stanley Johnson, ESPN’s no. 7 recruit in the country. That team will probably win a handful of games.
7. Sean Miller needs a hug.
Miller’s streak of 11 consecutive NCAA tournament wins over lower-seeded teams was snapped Saturday when Ryan won the battle of the two best coaches without a Final Four appearance. Given the success Miller has had in a relatively short time at Arizona, it probably won’t be too long before he gets there, so let’s not feel too bad for him just yet. In the meantime, let’s relive his seven NCAA tournament losses so we know just how much it hurts to be Sean Miller right now:
2006 first round: Miller’s 14-seed Xavier Musketeers held a four-point lead over the 3-seed Gonzaga Morrisons with 2:35 to play. Gonzaga then went on a 10-2 run and won by four.
2007 second round: 9-seed Xavier held an 11-point lead on 1-seed Ohio State with seven minutes to play. One insane comeback, one uncalled flagrant foul on Greg Oden, one Justin Cage missed free throw, one historic shot from Ron Lewis, and one overtime period later, Ohio State won by seven and ended up making the national title game.
2008 Elite Eight: 1-seed UCLA blew out 3-seed Xavier by 19 in the second Elite Eight game in the Musketeers’ history.
2009 Sweet 16: 1-seed Pitt (Miller’s alma mater) trailed 5-seed Xavier by two with one minute left. Pitt closed the game on an 8-1 run to win by five.
2011 Elite Eight: Trailing eventual national champion UConn by two, Derrick Williams and Jamelle Horne missed 3-point attempts that would’ve sent 5-seed Arizona to the Final Four.
2013 Sweet 16: 6-seed Arizona loses to 2-seed Ohio State on a LaQuinton Ross 3 with two seconds left.
2014 Elite Eight: Arizona loses to Frank Kaminsky, referee Tony Greene, and Nick Johnson’s lack of an internal clock.
8. Russ Smith is gracious in defeat.
This made the rounds on Twitter following Kentucky’s win over Louisville on Friday night, and it might be the single coolest thing to happen in this year’s tournament.
— Eric Crawford (@ericcrawford) March 29, 2014
9. The scene in Tucson after Arizona lost to Wisconsin was just a little different from how Russ Smith handled his loss
Note to self: Don’t do the “come at me, bro” pose in front of Tucson cops because, as it turns out, they will come at you.
10. Using the NCAA tournament to settle arguments about conference strength is dumb.
I get it. Fans who follow a specific conference like seeing those teams do well in the tournament. But half the teams in the Final Four being from the SEC can’t erase Georgia’s second-place finish in that league this season. The Big Ten getting one more team to the Elite Eight this season than it did last season doesn’t mean it was better this year than it was in 2013. The Big 12 being shut out of the Elite Eight doesn’t mean it wasn’t the best conference this season. Anything can happen in a single-elimination tournament that takes two weeks to trim its field from 68 to four, which is why it’s pointless to ignore the first four months of the season when evaluating conferences. If we restarted the tournament tomorrow, chances are we’d get a completely different Final Four. So be proud of your conference for whatever it accomplished in this year’s tournament. Just know that the SEC was not better than the Big 12 this season.
11. Michigan State was the weekend’s biggest disappointment.
Losing to UConn isn’t that disappointing, considering that the Huskies appear destined to repeat the 2011 season. No, the disappointing part was Michigan State’s mental laziness throughout its Elite Eight game. The Spartans were led by seniors with tons of big-game experience, yet they looked rattled for most of the game and committed 16 turnovers. They basically ignored their starting frontcourt of Adreian Payne (who was averaging 23 points per game for the tournament) and Branden Dawson (averaging 25 points and 9.5 rebounds in his previous two games), instead attempting 63 percent of their shots from behind the 3-point line. Well, they didn’t ignore Payne, who took himself out of the game by launching 10 3s. How does this happen? How does a team that’s been Final Four–or-bust all season treat the biggest game of the year like it’s a mid-January contest against Northwestern? Where was the group that showed up against Michigan in the Big Ten tournament and did nothing but kick ass? I’m not surprised Michigan State lost, but I am shocked at how the team lost.
12. 2014 UConn is a reincarnation of 2011 UConn.
I’ve been comparing this year’s UConn team to the school’s 2011 national title team for a while. At first, most of my comparisons could be called halfhearted attempts at starting pointless discussions. But now that UConn is headed to the Final Four on the back of Shabazz Napier’s 25 points against Michigan State, the parallels are too obvious to be a joke. Think of everything the 2011 and 2014 Huskies have in common:
1. One player who does nearly everything: Kemba Walker (2011), Shabazz Napier (2014)
2. Final Four in Texas — Houston (2011), Dallas (2014)
3. Tyler Olander played five minutes in the 2011 Elite Eight game against Arizona and put up zero points, zero rebounds, and zero assists. Olander played three minutes in the 2014 Elite Eight game against Michigan State and put up zero points, zero rebounds, and zero assists.
4. UConn was ranked no. 21 in the final AP poll of the 2011 regular season. UConn was ranked no. 21 in the final AP poll of the 2014 regular season.
5. Kevin Ollie in 2014 is the first black coach to make the Final Four since John Thompson III did it in 2007. Jim Calhoun in 2011 was the first coach to survive two kinds of cancer and make the Final Four since Jim Calhoun did it in 2009.
13. Madison Square Garden needs to host the tourney every year.
I know UConn’s proximity to New York City played a big part in Sunday’s game being one of the loudest NCAA tournament atmospheres I can remember. But I refuse to give all the credit to UConn fans. I’ve been to enough games at the Garden and I’ve seen enough Big East tournaments over the years to know there’s something about that arena that elevates the magnitude of whatever takes place inside it. In retrospect, UConn–Michigan State was a sloppy game that I might otherwise forget about. But as it was happening, the MSG factor made every shot in the last 10 minutes feel like a game winner. I was on the edge of my seat the entire game and had my volume turned up to 70 just so I could take it all in. The world’s most thrilling tournament and the World’s Most Famous Arena are a match made in heaven.
14. Florida’s basketball team is very good at basketball.
Wisconsin, Kentucky, and UConn in the Final Four all make for great stories, but I’d argue the best story is that the no. 1 overall seed in the tournament has won 30 consecutive games, including double-digit wins in all four of its tournament games. Plus, now that the only two teams that beat Florida this season are both in the Final Four, I can’t help but wonder how history will treat this Florida team should it win the national title. Being the 38-2 national champion with the only two losses coming on the road to Final Four teams is undeniably great, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a Florida fan who thinks this team is better than the Gators’ 2007 squad. Still, if Florida can win two more and in the process either avenge both its losses or beat Kentucky four times in a season, there would be no denying that this was one of the greatest college basketball seasons a team has ever played.
15. Gainesville’s ABC affiliate sports team deserves every local Emmy in existence.
There is only one acceptable way to circumvent CBS’s monopoly on NCAA tournament highlights, and this is it.
16. It’s weird how “Let’s go!” is the default thing players yell after making a big play.
CBS frequently used slow-motion replays of and-1s when going to commercial, and every time it did, you could read the lips of the players in the shot. Some guys inserted certain swear words and others tacked “man” on the end. But all of them said some form of the phrase “Let’s go.” How did the collective culture of basketball players/coaches/fans arrive at this phrase? Why doesn’t anybody do a drawn-out “YEAAAAAHHH!!!”? Why doesn’t anybody do DMX barking? Why doesn’t anybody do Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor’s grunts? I want to see somebody take it to the rack, dunk all over a defender’s face while drawing a foul, and then chest-bump a teammate and yell, “Hooray, you guys! I did it!” Is that too much to ask?
17. Kentucky is the most-feared team in the Final Four.
Florida is the best team. UConn has the guy I’d want to have the ball with the game on the line in Napier. Wisconsin has the most-feared individual player in Kaminsky. But Kentucky is the team that nobody wants a piece of right now. The Wildcats finally have everybody playing well at the same time and, most important, they’re getting more confident with each passing day. It’s hard to believe this is the same team that lost at South Carolina 30 days ago, which brings me to this question: Where are we with the John Calipari narrative? Can a team of one-and-dones work or do you need a few veterans in the mix? Is Calipari just a recruiter who rolls out the balls or is he a good coach? I’ve lost track at this point.
18. Nik Stauskas deserves a standing ovation for this season.
Michigan lost Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Mitch McGary from a national runner-up team, yet it was arguably better this season. That makes no sense. Think about that first sentence to put Stauskas’s season in perspective. I know LeVert improved dramatically, and Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin did their parts to fill the voids, but the buck stopped with Stauskas for this team. He needed to be 10 times better than he was a season ago for the team to have a successful year, and he may have ended up being 20 times better. Just because Kentucky hit one more shot than Michigan did Sunday doesn’t change what Stauskas and the Wolverines accomplished by winning the Big Ten outright and making the Elite Eight.
19. March Madness doesn’t give a damn what you want.
When the Elite Eight field was set, two potential national championship matchups stood out — Arizona vs. Dayton (Miller brothers coaching against each other) and Michigan vs. Michigan State (in-state rivalry, Eminem vs. Kid Rock). And in what should come as no surprise, all the teams involved in the two most compelling national title scenarios lost. If March Madness were a scripted TV show, we’d complain that the writers spend too much time on story lines with no payoffs. We might even gripe about how unrealistically perfect the outcomes seem4 or how the tournament relies too heavily on clichés.5 But we’d never stop watching, because the twists and turns are unlike anything else on TV.
So, I guess I’m saying that March Madness is Lost.
20. Charles Barkley is a national treasure
The Charles Barkley who puts on a serious face, pretends he has followed college basketball all season and knows the intricacies of each team, and then proceeds to not know star players’ names? Not a fan. The Charles Barkley who shoots the shit with Kenny Smith and goes on rants about Shaq “spreading diabetes all across the world”? The greatest thing the human race has to offer.