Malcolm Armstead was the first one up the ladder. The senior point guard, the one who’d outplayed Aaron Craft all afternoon, made his way up the steps, scissors in hand, and gave a wave to the Wichita State crowd. After the climb down, Armstead tied his prize — a three-inch piece of Staples Center nylon — around the strap in his backward hat, and making his way out the lane, blurted to no one in particular:
“This is real.”
Questioned whether he actually believed that yet, Armstead said that for this team, he’d believe anything. “After everything we’ve been through,” Armstead said, “it’s real. From day one, just talking about the players and their life situations.” One of those situations belongs to Armstead — a transfer from Oregon who came to Wichita State without a scholarship and paid his own way by working part-time at a local car dealership. Carl Hall has his own story. Four years ago, a heart condition that caused more than one on-court collapse had forced him out of basketball. He didn't play for two years, opting for a job on an assembly line in a light bulb factory in Georgia. Eventually, church league games gave him confidence to return to the real thing, and his performance at Northwest Florida State caused Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall to take notice. And now, both Hall and Armstead — and the rest of the Shockers — roamed the Staples Center floor, wearing T-shirts declaring them regional champions, under a scoreboard that read Wichita State 70, Ohio State 66. The Shockers were going to the Final Four.
Trying to guess the legitimacy of the Indiana Hoosiers has been a season-long brain teaser, and I've consistently taken the "overrated" side of the debate. Every time it looked like I might be right, as with the near-loss to Georgetown and the losses to Butler, Wisconsin, and Illinois, the Hoosiers would do something spectacular, like decimate North Carolina or soundly beat Ohio State or Michigan State on the road. And each time they began to look like a dominant team bound for a title, there'd be a worrisome hiccup that made you think they couldn't win six critical games in March.
As Aaron Craft dribbled down court last night, with the game tied and 20 seconds remaining, the Staples Center looked it might on any other night. A 4:45 p.m. local start time had meant a slow-arriving, slower-to-settle-in crowd, but by now, the place was mostly full, and everyone was on their feet. Craft took the ball from the top of the key, drew an extra defender, and found sophomore LaQuinton Ross for an open 24-footer on the left wing. With no hesitation, Ross pulled up. The shot went down with just two seconds left, giving Ohio State a 73-70 win and a trip to the Elite Eight, and the Buckeyes crowd, much of it contained directly behind the team’s bench, exploded.
Inside the Ohio State locker room — normally reserved for the Lakers — the scene was like it might be after a big win in March. The nameplates were missing, but the cameras were there. The horde gathered around Craft, his baby face still beet red, but rather than slide on their designer shoes and quickly make for the door, the game’s lesser names all sat hunched over in their chairs and dug into plates full of meatballs, pasta, and chicken. There are only so many free meals.
I got a ton of e-mails this week and most of them were worth publishing, but I decided to limit the number to 16 in honor of the upcoming Sweet 16. Let’s get down to business.
Who do you see as the favorites to win it all, and why? Also, who has disappointed you? Between Florida Gulf Coast, Oregon, and La Salle, which team is your favorite Cinderella story? Also, who do you think has the best chance of going far and why?
Never mind. I guess I’ll answer 19 questions.
Louisville is the favorite right now, with Duke and Florida close behind. They’re the only teams that have been at the top of the polls all season and also looked dominant in their first two games. The obvious omission is Michigan, which has been highly ranked all year and just thrashed VCU. But I want to see how the Wolverines handle Kansas before I jump back on their bandwagon. The VCU win was impressive, but the Rams' style of play is possibly the worst approach against Michigan. If the Wolverines dispatch the Jayhawks, they’ll be favorites, too. But if they lose, I would have a hard time considering them contenders for the national title.
The obvious disappointments are Gonzaga and Georgetown. Both have histories of getting bounced early, but I thought this year would be different because of Kelly Olynyk and Otto Porter. I was wrong.
Finally, Oregon is the best double-digit seed remaining, La Salle has the easiest path to the Final Four of the three Cinderellas, and Florida Gulf Coast is the underdog most likely to say “Screw it, let’s go get shitfaced and party on the beach” after it loses.
Both Butler-Bucknell and Arizona-Belmont will be decided on the final play
Butler won by 12 and Arizona won by 17. Then again, these games technically weren’t over until after the final play, so technically I was correct (which is the best kind of correct).
At some point, Gus Johnson will trend on Twitter
Somebody get Darryl Worley back in the studio, because I’m starting to think we need him to call out America for forgetting about Gus.
(Shout-out to Grantland’s four country music fans who will get that joke.)
#Haith will also be trending
[***WAIT FOR MIZZOU GAME***]
Trey Burke will spoil the Nate Wolters coming-out party
Burke was just 2-for-12, but Wolters went 3-for-14. He finished with just 10 points and his team lost by 15. I’m officially on the board.
Before 2 p.m. EDT, the annoying commercial of this year’s tournament will have already revealed itself
I can’t tell if the commercials this year aren’t annoying or if they’re all just equally annoying. Either way, no clear-cut favorite has emerged. Yet.
If the e-mails I sent to my editors reached a level you might call "pleading" or even "begging," you can't blame me. The college basketball currents had been colliding for three months, creating the conditions for a freak wave that finally crested last week and may break at any moment. Against all odds, the bastion of stodgy basketball that is the Big Ten had become the biggest and best show around. I knew I had to get to the Midwest fast, while the magic was thick.
What Big Ten magic, you ask? Oh, the two epic Burke-Craft battles; Indiana's first-half blitzkriegs against Michigan and Minnesota, and the furious comebacks that followed; the Illinois Miracle Minute; Bo Ryan, great coach that he is, stealing game after game despite losing his best defender for the season. And then there's the talented group out in the Twin Cities, the underachievers who rebound like men possessed but keep just losing and now stand on the verge of total collapse ... and it goes on and on. This is a constant, brutal war of attrition, and it's terrific theater.
THE PITCH: Watch the six best Big Ten teams face off in a span of five days. Indiana at Ohio State on Sunday, Michigan at Michigan State on Tuesday, Wisconsin at Minnesota on Thursday. Simple, profound, necessary. The editors sensed my desperation and agreed.
1. First and foremost, there's no avoiding the question surrounding Aaron Craft's last two shots. It began with nine seconds remaining and Ohio State trailing 75-74, when Craft drove by Trey Burke, pulled up for a jumper, and had his attempt blocked. After intentionally fouling Glenn Robinson III and watching him make one of two free throws, Craft again had the ball in his hands. He drove the lane, was blocked by Tim Hardaway Jr., and stared at the ceiling in disbelief as time expired. Game over, Michigan wins.
Was either block actually a foul? Let's go right to the video:
Two weeks ago, when I predicted that Michigan would beat Ohio State on the road, and Minnesota would do the same to Indiana, I was hit with an avalanche of Big Ten fans insisting that I didn't know what I was talking about, and that IT WAS REALLY, REALLY HARD TO WIN ON THE ROAD IN THE BIG TEN. It was repeated so often that I started to wonder what the hell goes on in Big Ten gyms that makes them so different from everywhere else. Are the visiting players poisoned in some subtle way before the game? Does the home team get an extra player? Do they flash the lights and pump loud metal music into the visitors locker room, like the torture scenes in Homeland? What was this damn mystique?
I really wanted to be cynical about the whole thing — sure, it's not easy to win on the road, but it's no harder in the Big Ten than anywhere else — but then Michigan and Minnesota had awful first halves, came up short in their second-half comebacks, and the avalanche quickened. Big Ten road games were like land wars in Russia, said the legions. Then the anti-ACC comments trickled in, and I bunkered down in defense, accepting the Big Ten Road Logic against my better instincts.
Last week, we looked at the Dangerous Outsiders, the Royal Blues, and the Title Snipers. See the box below for those links. This week, we turn to four legitimate championship contenders, starting with the Wolfpack of NC State yesterday and continuing with the Ohio State Buckeyes today.
Ohio State: The Sneaky Contenders
The Gist: One of the great stories in American politics is how Abraham Lincoln secured the Republican nomination for president in 1860. It's worth reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's excellent Team of Rivals for the full story, but the broad outline is that although Lincoln was a visible public figure by that time, he wasn't expected to win. (Unlike today, where the conventions are a three-day coronation, the 1800s versions involved uncertain outcomes, electioneering, and backdoor deals that often shifted crucial votes; sort of like a modern-day caucus on steroids.) William Seward was the front-runner, and the vote-leader in the first two rounds of ballots. But he fell just short of the necessary majority both times (too radical), and Lincoln's supporters slowly but surely whittled away votes from the less popular candidates. Seward's supporters held firm, but they wrongly expected their numbers to increase without much sweat. Finally, on the third round of voting, the relentless Lincolnites swayed enough minority candidates, and suddenly their man was the head of the ticket. The reaction around the country, and even at the convention, was mild to major surprise. "Wait, Lincoln won?"
Don't get too high, don't get too low. A lot of famous folks have uttered those words, or some close approximation thereof. I remember Barack Obama uttered something like that during the campaign. Dollars to donuts ole Abe Lincoln uttered them too. In fact, I'd wager right here and right now -- I would throw bills on your doorstep, amigo -- that every single American president has uttered those words at some point. All of them except Taft. William Howard Taft didn't have time for philosophical utterings; the man was an eatin' fool.