NCAA Championship Shootaround

Last night in North Texas, March Madness finally came to a cacophonous, crazy, based conclusion. Here are some riffs and GIFs on Connecticut’s huge win over Kentucky and the end of the college basketball season.

The Defenders

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Mark Titus: I won’t pretend I always knew UConn would win a national title, even though I tweeted this on March 10 and will accept any and all compliments you want to send my way. But honestly, if you’ve been paying attention to college basketball over the past 10 years, the Huskies’ championship shouldn’t be that surprising. After all, UConn had the two things every NCAA champion team since 2004 has had: great defense and great guard play.

Each of the 10 national championship teams before this UConn group had at least one starting guard play in the NBA. 2004 UConn had Marcus Williams and Ben Gordon. 2005 North Carolina had Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants. 2006 and 2007 Florida had Taurean Green (who only played 17 career NBA games, but still). 2008 Kansas had Mario Chalmers and Brandon Rush. 2009 North Carolina had Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, and Danny Green. 2010 Duke had Nolan Smith. 2011 UConn had Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb. 2012 Kentucky had Marquis Teague and Doron Lamb. 2013 Louisville had Peyton Siva and Russ Smith (who obviously hasn’t played in the NBA, but it’s a safe bet he will).

Now, the NBA-bound guards on those teams played different roles, so it’s not fair to suggest that a team composed of Taurean Green and a bunch of nobodies would win a national title. But I do think it’s fair to suggest that elite backcourt play is a requirement to win it all. Maybe you don’t need Walker — a guard to whom you can throw the ball, get out of his way, and let him carry you to the promised land. But at the very least, you need a guy talented enough to hold his own against any guard in the country. You also need a great defense — the average KenPom adjusted defensive ranking for those 10 title teams is 9.4.

This “guard play + defense = championship” formula was on full display Monday night. UConn’s defense, which ranked 10th on KenPom this season, held Kentucky to its lowest scoring total of the year. This came two days after UConn held Florida to its lowest scoring total of the year. Kentucky’s defense, which ranked 41st on KenPom, had good moments against UConn, but it also broke down during too many pivotal possessions.

Meanwhile, Shabazz Napier (who will most definitely have an NBA career) and Ryan Boatright dominated their matchups with the Harrison twins. Kentucky switched almost all screens throughout the game, and both teams switched defenses so often that UConn’s guards weren’t necessarily matched up with Kentucky’s guards all night. But from a statistical standpoint, the UConn tandem gave Kentucky’s guys the business, as Napier and Boatright outscored the Harrisons by 21 points, and the UConn starting backcourt shot a combined 59 percent, compared with the Harrisons’ 38 percent.

Remember this when filling out your bracket next year: If your pick for the champion doesn’t play great defense and doesn’t have a point guard who’s destined to play in the league, then you’ve almost certainly made a big mistake.

Dennis Hopper

(GIFs via @heybelinda)

Banned in the U.S.A.

Charles P. Pierce: Shabazz Napier has bought himself a bucket of trouble. After the game last night, he chortled to the entire arena that his UConn Huskies had used as motivation for their improbable run to the national championship the fact that they were banned from last year’s tournament.

“Ladies and gentlemen, you’re looking at the hungry Huskies, this is what happens when you ban us, last year, two years, we worked so hard for it, two years — ”

If I thought it were possible for Jim Nantz to be any whiter, I’d say he almost blanched.

The Huskies weren’t in last year’s tournament because the graduation rate among their men’s basketball players was abysmal. This is the bear trap into which Napier wandered in the exultation of the moment last night. As a cloud of squid ink against the mounting consensus that it is a cartel of buffet-grazing parasites, the NCAA has leaned hard during this year’s tournament on the concept of “student-athletes.” It even said that on the floor during this weekend’s games in Jerry Jones’s Monument to Overcompensation. Napier called that bluff pretty loudly last night. I hope he can stand the gaff.

Food for Thought

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#buzzkill

Kirk Goldsberry: The 2014 University of Connecticut Huskies are the perfectly symbolic champions of an increasingly broken event. This tournament was marked by a growing controversy surrounding the value of “amateurism” and the virtues of “student-athleticism.” Well, we got the final we deserved. The University of Kentucky was represented by a core group of terrific young basketball talents who rightly have no intention of staying in college for two years, let alone four. And because of a pattern of academic failures too blatant for even the NCAA to ignore, the University of Connecticut was disallowed from even competing in the event last year.

Those were the defiant podium words of Shabazz Napier, the best player on the 2014 NCAA champion team. According to USA Today, Napier “went full Richard Sherman” as he celebrated the biggest win of his life. I’m not sure what that means, but that’s probably not the correct way to describe the manifestation of justifiable outrage that’s boiling not only inside Napier, but also inside thousands of other volunteer athletes on campuses all around our country.

Their talents are obviously worth millions. Last year, the NCAA’s tournament multimedia rights garnered the association $680 million. That’s $10 million for each basketball program in the tournament. Per year. And that number is expected to grow. And that’s just for the tournament. Meanwhile, Napier — who was also quoted as saying he sometimes doesn’t have enough money for food — plays within a program that, according to a recent study, has a graduation rate of 8 percent. I guess that’s the “unique experience” of Division I collegiate athletics. Keep gettin’ them checks, NCAA; in a few short months, Shabazz Napier will finally get one, too.

Thank You, Tattoo Guy

Shane Ryan: The story of Tyler Austin Black’s tattoo was instantly hilarious the moment Darren Rovell made it national news. Black, a 22-year-old machinist and die-hard Kentucky fan, walked into a tattoo parlor in Berea, Kentucky, on March 13 and asked for the following words to be permanently etched on his leg:

It should be noted that although March 13 seems vaguely like it might have been after the narrow Florida loss in the SEC championship game, as the Cats were rounding into form and seemed sort of dangerous, that is not the case. The last game Black saw before inking up was Kentucky’s 84-65 loss to the Gators at the end of the regular season. This followed a narrow win over Alabama, and losses to Arkansas and South Carolina.

In other words: This was a badass, batshit, hilarious tattoo. There was no chance it could ever pay off, except in a very delusional mind. In the college basketball world, it could happen only in the passionate cauldron of Big Blue Nation.

For me, it was also the only intriguing thing about the living nightmare that was Kentucky’s progression to the national championship game. As I rooted for Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan, and Wisconsin, the only redeeming factor was this guy’s tattoo. Black went from nut job to potential hero in the span of three weeks, and whatever part of me was untainted by hatred for John Calipari was secretly kind of pulling for him. The sheer blind optimism felt like the remnants of the bygone American dream, and I knew that deep down, Black had the irrational spark of the wild pioneer in his soul. Slowly, his narrative changed from a punch line to something far more engrossing — the son of a bitch might have been right!

So, what happened? He got tickets to the national title game. He inspired a very funny tweet. And in the end, Kentucky lost.

He fell just short of owning the greatest tattoo in American sports history, but in my mind, Black still comes out on top. He was this year’s real Cinderella story, and though midnight struck too soon, I believe he should be celebrated as a hero. Because, really, how can you laugh at someone who was never afraid of your judgment in the first place?

Poster Boy

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Strategery

Chris Ryan: I’m still trying to figure out what the “tweak” was. I’m referring to the secret adjustment John Calipari made during Kentucky’s season, in an effort to save it. I can’t pretend to understand the nuances of the dribble-drive offense; I just know that it’s given us Derrick Rose and John Wall, two of the best point guards in the NBA, and I like watching it when I see it. I don’t think what Kentucky played during the tournament was the dribble drive. In fact, I didn’t see much of a system at all. Off the court, Calipari exploits the rules of the NCAA to his advantage. If one-and-done is the rule of the land, then he is going to make his school an NBA finishing academy. Maybe the tweak he made on the court was a similar one. If he’s going to have the best athletes in the country, then he’s going to let them absolutely ball out. The Young-Harrisons can shoot out the lights, and the big dudes will eat the glass. Maybe the tweak Calipari made to his system was to do away with a system altogether. It certainly was fun to watch.

Long-Distance Call

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The Childlike Empress

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Brian Phillips: Our family bracket pool this year was a murderer’s row of sports knowledge. One of my wife’s brothers works in the front office of a major American team. My sister-in-law’s fiancé played big-time college football. Another one of my brothers-in-law is the sort of guy you’ll go to the racetrack with, just for laughs, only somehow he glances at the racing form for 15 seconds and concocts some insane parlay bet and leaves with $2,500. And I’m (sort of, I guess) a professional sportswriter. There was a lot at stake in that Tournament Challenge group. A lot of very proud, very dignified bracketology going on. We were out to destroy each other.

Only we didn’t count on one thing. We didn’t count on Maggie.

Maggie is my niece. She’s 2½. What a great kid, no fooling. She’s the tiniest little thing, and if you pretend like it knocks you over when she splashes you in the pool, you can make her laugh so hard she starts gasping. For Halloween last year, she wanted to dress as “Purple.” I’m nuts about her.

Maggie has two brothers, one on either side, and we decided it would be fun this year to let the kids submit brackets. Maggie and her older brother went team by team with their dad and made picks; for my youngest nephew, who just turned 1, we ran with a heuristic whereby the team with the fuzziest mascot always advanced (his Final Four: Mercer, Baylor, UCLA, Connecticut). Their brackets were cute as hell, but after four rounds they were way out of the race: bottom three slots in our pool, single-digits percentile nationally. Sweet as they were, little kids with no knowledge of basketball had no chance of competing in our pool of pitiless sports sharks.

Yeah. Well. Maggie had one hard-and-fast rule for making her picks, and that rule was DOGGIES. She liked UConn over Villanova (doggies > kitties), UConn over Iowa State (doggies > scary storm), and UConn over Michigan State (doggies > guy with a toothbrush on his hat). She liked UConn for the national championship. After the national semifinal, she vaulted from the 6th percentile to the 40th. After the game last night, she vaulted into the 98.9th. That’s right, Joe Lunardi fans. My 2-year-old niece finished higher than all but 1.1 thin percent of you.

Needless to say, she won the group. And I mean, everyone’s had this happen to them at some point, right? Everyone’s lost the office pool to the hipster graphic designer who picked based on font kerning or whatever. You either see this as a feature of March Madness or a bug. It’s fun to receive annual confirmation that highly paid sports prognosticators aren’t worth the scratch pads they jot down their catchphrases on, but if you follow sports at all, it can be hard to accept that your own knowledge is basically worthless. The tournament’s genius is that it turns radical uncertainty into a good time, but that only works until it doesn’t.

To me, though? It feels right that college sports works this way. March Madness is the great leveler of basketball snobbery, three ludicrous weeks when the joy of the improbable overwhelms everything else. The out-of-nowhere bracket winner is the sneaky analogue to the 14-seed that waxes Duke. And come on — this was a national championship game whose late turning point involved a 20-year-old kid sticklessly pole-vaulting backward over an opponent he was trying not to foul; this was a game in which Kentucky oscillated between looking like the fourth seed in the East and looking like it had learned how to play basketball from a Bosnian YouTube clip earlier in the day. (Sorry, did I just repeat myself? HAHAHA EASTERN CONFERENCE JOKE.) It was a game of mayhem, in a sport of mayhem, in a tournament of mayhem, and it belonged to Maggie, not to us.

Rivals.com

Scanners

Corban Goble: Like any sane person killing time before “One Shining Moment,” I’m on the Lexington police scanner. It’s 10 minutes after Connecticut’s victory in the national championship game, and we’ve got UK students hanging at the gates of the railroad tracks, five to seven gunshots ringing out, and — naturally — an assortment of flaming couches. Kentucky has gone down in the national title game, and the futon fires dot the Lexington landscape, flickering quietly in the April darkness. It’s pretty easy not to go gentle into that good night when the dying of the light is quickly countered by a jug of lighter fluid and your older brother’s old Jennifer Convertible. I never said couch fires weren’t poetic.

A couch fire is usually a victory cigar, but tonight it’s a symbol of a deeper, Big Blue–er melancholy. Nothing guts like the early April loss, but John Calipari’s Kentucky will be back, and someday soon, you’ll turn on the scanner and learn that the couches of Lexington blaze under a brighter sky.

Filed Under: College Basketball, Brian Phillips, Uconn, University of Kentucky, 2014 NCAA Tournament, Corban Goble, Shane Ryan