I bet you thought college basketball was over when Kentucky cut down the nets and pretended to enjoy "One Shining Moment," didn't you? Well, you were almost right. For about a month and a half after the title game, undecided high school recruits make their final visits, weigh the pros and cons of each school, gather with family and friends and crooked AAU coaches, and then choose Kentucky.
But seriously: The second signing period of the year lasts from April 11 to May 16, by which time all remaining recruits have inked a National Letter of Intent. It creates a healthy amount of suspense for college basketball fans who stick around, and in the midst of it all, you can usually count on a number of interesting transfers heightening the drama.
Let's hit three of the big stories that have developed over the past 10 days, starting in Wisconsin.
He's still the king. For what feels like the 20th straight year, but is actually the fourth, Kentucky coach John Calipari has recruited the best incoming class in the country. There's no mystery to the burgeoning dynasty; before this season, he already boasted a long track record of producing successful NBA players. And as Chuck Klosterman pointed out before the Final Four, a national championship would eliminate the last real reservation a five-star recruit might have. Titles, prestige, a huge payday one or two years down the road why wouldn't you go to Kentucky?
It was a drab Thursday and Friday at the ACC tournament, but the drama of the weekend atoned in a big way. First, you had Carolina riding a wave of favorable calls to a close win over NC State, then a brutal FSU win against a game but under-talented Duke team, and finally the explosive championship, with the Noles holding off Carolina (sans John Henson) for a three-point win. The weekend games were good enough to make this the best Power 6 conference tournament of 2012.
But what stuck out to me, more than the results and more than the close finishes, was the excellent pressure play of three players — Austin Rivers, Kendall Marshall, and Michael Snaer.
There are two options here. One: I can talk about them and leave it at that. Two: I can start you off with two great referee stories from Saturday. Pick your poison.
Something disappointing and inevitable occurred at the conclusion of Saturday's Mid-American Conference title game. Akron trailed Ohio 64-61 with 6.2 seconds on the clock, 94 feet from the basket. Recognizing the situation, Ohio coach John Groce made what proved to be the right decision: The Bobcats intentionally fouled a Zip with 3.1 seconds remaining, forcing Alex Abreu to make the front end and then miss the second on purpose (which, to his chagrin, bounced in anyway). Ohio won by a point and advanced to the NCAA tournament, which it deserved. But this is a bad way for a basketball game to end. The very idea of a team with the lead intentionally fouling sometimes makes “winning sense,” but it’s vaguely unsporting and antithetical to how the game is played 99.9 percent of the time. It abuses a technicality.
"The ACC tournament doesn't start until Friday," is a phrase I heard more than once Thursday, the day on which the ACC tournament actually started.
I was especially prone to hearing that sentiment, considering my penchant for complaining about the lack of quality basketball. Still, all good drama needs a setup; those first two establishing acts that make us care about the climax. Even a joke needs a foundation, and it remains to be seen which path this tournament will take.
Before we take a tour of the notable events from Thursday, here are the basics you need to know.
Before the season began, Syracuse and UConn were deemed two of the finest teams in the land. Since then, fate has flung the two powerhouse programs in very different, but equally chaotic, directions.
Coming into Thursday’s meeting in the Big East tournament, Syracuse had experienced a charmed season — on the hardwood, at least — befitting a Rothschild heir. They were ranked second in the country, had lost only once in 32 games, and were assured of entering the NCAA tournament as a top seed. The Orange are one of the few teams that wouldn’t be considered delicious ewes against the cohort of lottery picks presently devouring livestock in Lexington.
They played a championship game in Brooklyn on Wednesday night, at one of those raucous little gyms that holds 1,700 people and, when packed to the gills, feels like it might collapse in on itself at any moment. It was contested to determine the winner of the Northeast Conference, a conflagration of small schools that hardly seems like it belongs in Division I at all, and it was played at Long Island University, which is situated across the street from a diner renowned for its cheesecakes, and an Applebee’s that serves adequate riblets.
LIU has a storied and yet largely forgotten basketball tradition: Under legendary coach Clair Bee, the Blackbirds — probably the best team in America at the time — boycotted the 1936 Olympic trials in protest of Hitler’s policies. Back then, the center of power in college basketball was located almost exclusively in New York City. Now, there are 344 RPI-rated Division I college basketball teams spread out across America, and there are perhaps six or eight schools who are considered legitimate contenders for a national championship, and most of those teams are stacked with NBA prospects who will never progress far enough in college that they’ll actually be required to focus on their major.
As the ACC tournament kicks off in Atlanta, two teams are in a dog fight for their NCAA tournament lives. The committee is notoriously mum about bubble teams in the week leading up to Selection Sunday, and nobody quite knows where NC State and Miami stand at the moment, but the consensus is that there's work to be done for each. Without one or two wins this week, the pity and consolation of the NIT awaits.
And that's not all they have in common. Both teams finished tied for fourth in the ACC with a 9-7 conference record. Both teams have first-year coaches — Mark Gottfried at NC State, Jim Larranaga at Miami. And both are enduring NCAA tournament droughts — three years and counting for Miami, five years for a State team recovering from the painful Sidney Lowe era.
Ivy League basketball! Always a thrill. There's no excitement quite like watching the lone team of intellectuals in the NCAA do battle in the opening round, facing some relentless Power 6 titan and seeking glorious victory using only their wits and old-fashioned fundamentals. Nothing flashy. Just good American grit, underhand free throws, and special calculators to determine the perfect angle of ascent for a jump shot. That's the idea, anyway. Somehow, the Ivy League schools that are synonymous with elitism and the liberal upper class during political season become plucky American underdogs battling the juggernaut in March. Remember when Princeton beat UCLA in '96?
If not, Time magazine ran a feature about it. When an Ivy League school beats one of the most famous programs in the country, you can bet Time is all over it. And so were we. I don't actually remember where I watched the game, but I probably should. Instead, I have a vague memory of middle-aged white men doing backflips every time Princeton got another layup on a backdoor cut. And these were dudes who had never done a backflip in their entire lives. My dad seriously injured himself, actually.
There was also that time Cornell made the Sweet 16 two years ago, but I think the majority of America failed to realize that Cornell was an Ivy League school until it was too late.
It's a fascinating spectacle, for reasons that aren't easy to define. Maybe it's because we associate the schools with academics, and it's fun to watch them go against type. They don't even give out athletic scholarships, though there are work-arounds involving need-based scholarships and flexible admissions policies for coveted athletes. Maybe it's because most of us see ourselves as Ivy League-type players, which is to say, not good but maybe kinda clever on the court. And that's nonsense, but this is America, and we're allowed to entertain severe delusions about ourselves.
Anyway, today's primer was a choice between the four teams who clinched a berth Tuesday night: Detroit, South Dakota State, Western Kentucky, and Harvard. South Dakota State and Western Kentucky will almost certainly lose in the first round. Detroit is a fun Horizon League team with an exciting sophomore guard in Ray McCallum. But Harvard is the better team in the end, and even if it weren't, the Ivy League allure would be too hard to resist. So let's figure out the Crimson, Q&A style.
Before we begin, can we take a moment to recognize the greatness of last night's championship games? You had Saint Mary's sneaking by the Zags in what's become the best rivalry in the west, Loyola taking down Fairfield in a fourth-wheel type game that became pretty compelling, Davidson using double OT to beat DIKEMBE MUTOMBO'S NEPHEW!!! (and Western North Carolina), and VCU ending Drexel's 19-game winning streak with stellar defense and a heroic second-half stand to make the Dance.
That was Monday of Championship Week, mind you. A mere appetizer of what's to come. God, I love this time of year. If I could find a way to capture the endorphins and serotonin from March and take it slow-drip style over the rest of the year, I'd be in a permanent blissful daze. Instead, I spend one month in hyper-bliss, a dangerous and wonderful state where only the true college basketball fan may exist. Join me, my brothers and sisters! We dance 'til April!
So, for today's mid-major primer, I had to decide among last night's four victors. I already covered Saint Mary's, Michael Kruse did Davidson, and Loyola, bless their hearts, will probably not make much of a dent come the Madness. Boom, easy choice. Let's find out more about these Rams, Q&A style.
Friday, November 11, 2011. 11/11/11. The day of the wounded saints, when all eyes weep. It's a foggy night in Durham, North Carolina, but the Belmont Bruins can see through the mist. Cameron Indoor Stadium is in a state of shock and fear as the Bru-Crew take Duke right to the brink. With wide eyes, the Crazies watch Andre Dawkins hit a late 3-pointer. Their team escapes, and the Bruins slip out into the fog. "We were never here," they seem to whisper, but they know what they saw. They can never forget.
That's the start of my new historical fiction novel, The Eve of the Bruin. I actually don't remember what the weather was like that night, and the "wounded saints" bit was just a bit of dramatic flair, but the story of the game was true. On 11/11/11, the Bruins lost to the Blue Devils 77-76 in the first game of the season. The conclusion everyone drew at the time was, "Man, Duke is going to be terrible this year." The truth, though, is that Belmont is pretty damn good.
I promise there's basketball later in this post, but I have to start off with the fans. Because Wednesday night at the RBC Center in Raleigh, while N.C. State and Miami were playing for their tournament lives, the Wolfpack faithful taught us all the three most important lessons about comedy.
1. Brevity = soul of wit.
To understand this one, you need to know three quick facts. First, Reggie Johnson is a Miami center who was recently suspended because his family received "impermissible travel benefits" from a team representative. Second, Reggie Johnson returned for last night's game against N.C. State. Third, Reggie Johnson is a big dude. A big, heavy, chunky dude.
Let me take you, for a brief moment, back to March 21, 2002. It was a Thursday, and the Duke Blue Devils were the defending national champions. That team featured the likes of Jason Williams, Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy, and Chris Duhon. They'd lost Shane Battier from the championship team, but it hardly seemed to matter. The only team that could possibly stand in the way of a repeat was the hated Maryland Terrapins, advancing on the other side of the bracket behind the inexorable brilliance of Juan Dixon.
En route to a certain rematch, Duke met the 5-seed Indiana Hoosiers in the Sweet 16 at Rupp Arena in Kentucky. The Blue Devils quickly rolled out to a 17-point lead, and it looked like victory was inevitable. Then things got weird. Indiana grabbed rebound after rebound, and they started getting to the line. Duke went cold. Jared Jeffries, who would finish with 24 points and 15 rebounds, went hot. The Hoosiers racked up the offensive boards, finishing with 20 (and an incredible 60.6 percent offensive rebounding rate, meaning they rebounded more of their missed shots than Duke did by a healthy margin).
Over the past two weeks, in the sneakiest way possible, the Big East has become the best conference in the country. Again.
Anytime you say a conference has "become" the best, what you're really saying is that they've always been the best, and you just didn't realize it. In lot of ways, this late epiphany came about from a process of elimination. The Big Ten looked like the best conference for most of December and January, but lately it's become evident that while it boasts a plethora of good defenses, there's also a lot of stagnant offense, and Michigan State is the only truly elite team. It's possible to imagine anywhere from one to six Big Ten schools making the Sweet 16, but only the Spartans have a real shot at the Final Four. (OK, maybe Ohio State.)
It seems odd to call Philadelphia a basketball town. Despite their success early this season, the Sixers are a distant fourth in fan interest as far the city’s professional teams go. The Eagles and Phillies dominate the headlines, and the Flyers have an avid, raucous following. But with five Division I basketball programs (actually six, but no one cares about Drexel) clustered together within miles of each other, the city every year morphs into one of the true havens of college hoops as soon as the Eagles are eliminated.
The Big 5 started in 1955 when the athletic directors at La Salle, Penn, St. Joseph’s, Temple, and Villanova decided they would all play the vast majority of home games at the Palestra on Penn’s campus in doubleheader formats. Out of this arrangement, the city series was born, an annual round-robin tournament between the five schools. Several major cities have multiple major programs, but none of them play each other with any regularity. Yet for all but an eight-year stretch in the '90s, the Big 5 schools have dutifully faced each other, playing for a largely mythic city championship and bragging rights at Sonny Hill League summer games.