This year of college hoops is already ridiculous. Everyone is fun, the good teams are all stacked, and there are too many stars to even keep track of on any given night. This is why I was huddled over a laptop at 5:30 in the afternoon in L.A. yesterday, watching two grainy ESPN3 feeds at the same time and going nuts for Joel Embiid. We kicked things off with that fever dream in Chicago, but Freshman Watch got real this week.
Every big name played Tuesday, giving us a nice little slice of the madness to come.
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.
In case you were busy waiting in line at a food truck for what turned out to be not the best pork buns you've ever eaten, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday.
Syracuse rode a dominant defensive effort into the Elite Eight, upsetting the Indiana Hoosiers, 61-50. "It's a disappointing loss for sure, but we can hold our heads up knowing we went down to one of the best coaches of all time in Jim Boeheim," said Indiana head coach Tom Crean after the game. However, Crean was apparently unaware that Syracuse had replaced Boeheim two years ago with a VHS tape of alumnus Jerry Stiller yelling, "2-3! 2-3! Rotate! Rotate! Come on, boys, get it together," playing on a loop on the sideline.
Marquette continued its impressive tournament run, as Buzz Williams's Golden Eagles knocked out Miami, 71-61. This marks Marquette's first appearance in the Elite Eight since 2003, which means it's time for About Last Night's newest feature: "What Ever Happened To " For our first "What Ever Happened To " we're going to look at former Marquette star Dwyane Wade, who led his team to the 2003 Final Four. It turns out that Wade has been playing basketball professionally with the Miami Heat since his college days. Thus concludes our first episode of "What Ever Happened To " If you have an idea for a long-lost star who you want to track down, leave his or her name in the comments, and we'll look into it for you.
Today is the first of March, and so I wish you a Happy March Day. March Day is the lesser-known cousin of May Day, which is a pagan holiday celebrated on May 1. But March Day is far more important because it means we're getting close to the most essential time of year: The Madness. When 64 become one, all shall be revealed. Hail March Day, for The Madness Is Upon Us.
(If there's ever an apocalypse that wipes out most of humanity, I hope the only thing future societies recover from our time is the paragraph above, with absolutely no context.)
Time for the top 10 games of the weekend. Note that a week from Sunday, the regular season is OVER.
In case you were busy settling up with Alamo Rent A Car after just driving, man, went horribly awry, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday.
The Los Angeles Lakers' troubled season continued, as forward Pau Gasol has been ruled out for at least six weeks after tearing his plantar fascia. Back in the Lakers' locker room, a frustrated Mike D'Antoni was confused by the diagnosis. "Oh, first Dwight is in and out of the lineup with undiagnosable shoulder pain, and now Pau tears a damn ribbon, and he won't play?" said D'Antoni, whose native tongue is Italian. "No, coach," interjected Lakers point guard Steve Nash, "I'm pretty sure fascia in English refers to the frieze of a building. Or like, the space around a column? His home must have suffered some cosmetic exterior damage, and that can be a real pain to deal with." D'Antoni countered, "Well, that's no reason to miss six weeks; with the amount he's paid, that's one week out tops." Metta World Peace then chimed in: "I don't mean to be a bother, but fascia can also mean 'bandage' in Latin. Perhaps we should give the Spaniard the benefit of the doubt and assume that he ripped a bandage, and then got one of those antibiotic-resistant infections." A dark hooded figure then emerged from the corner of the room, and bellowed, "Stai zitto!" A hush fell over the room until World Peace asked, "What's that mean, Kobe?" Bryant, deflated, responded, "It means 'shut up,' Ron. In Italian. Man, why'd you have to ruin my badass entrance. Whatever. All that matters is that Pau is feeling pain. Do we know whether or not he's feeling pain?" At this point Gasol himself got up from the trainer's table and said, "Uh, guys, I'm right here, and it's just a foot injury. I should be back in March." But his rational explanation came too late, as Kobe had already decided he was owed pain.
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.
Wednesday, January 9, will go down in infamy as the Night of Two Dunks. It started with Illinois' Brandon Paul trying his luck against Minnesota's Trevor Mbakwe:
On any other night, that would easily be the top jam. It was so good that if you had to nominate 10 dunks for some kind of Dunk of the Year award, it would be an automatic entry. There's no way there will be nine better in the entire season. The idea of topping it that same night was ludicrous; at most, you might have a dunk that looked exactly the same, but it wouldn't be quite as cool because it came second.
And then San Diego State's Jamaal Franklin did this:
In case you were out pretending like you've seen and have an opinion about Oscar nominee Amour, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday.
The Cleveland Browns have filled their vacant head coaching position, hiring Rob Chudzinski away from the Carolina Panthers. It has also been reported that Chudzinski is targeting former San Diego head coach Norv Turner to be his new offensive coordinator. "I can't imagine a more Cleveland set of hirings than Chud and Norv," said longtime Browns fan Milt Johnson. When asked to try harder and really push his imagination, Johnson let out an exasperated sigh, saying, "Fine, I guess that they could have hired like Chan Gailey and an old, overweight Golden Retriever named Honey, but I don't really know how having a dog as an offensive coordinator would work."
This is a very, very special Monday in Shuffle-land. When we started this column a couple of weeks ago, I joked that "The Hardcourt Shuffle" sounded like a dance crazy from the 1920s, and I encouraged readers to write lyrics for the imaginary song. Today, I'm beyond thrilled to announce that reader Drew Bollinger did me one better; he wrote the lyrics, and then he wrote the damn song!
It's hard to explain how far my jaw dropped when I first opened Drew's e-mail and listened to the mp3. I'll let you judge it for yourself, but let me just say that Mr. Bollinger is now a charter member of the Hardcourt Shuffle Hall of Fame, which is a thing I just invented. And it's going to be a really exclusive club; so far, it's just Drew and Mason Plumlee. But man, does he deserve it. Enjoy the brand-new Hardcourt Shuffle theme song:
I've had ridiculously good luck appealing to readers so far, so why not press my advantage? My next request is for someone to invent the dance to the Hardcourt Shuffle song, and make a YouTube of yourself performing it to the music. I won't promise instant fame for the first person who follows through, buttttt … actually, screw it, I promise instant fame.
So thanks again to Drew, and now let's get to the hoops.
First things first — you might notice there's been a bit of re-branding in these parts. I've been using "epiphanies" as a catch-all term for the recap column this season (as in, "15 Epiphanies from the weekend in college basketball!"), but it gets tough having so many epiphanies every week. Eventually your brain begins to hurt from all that sudden insight and joy, and you start to think, hey, maybe I can fake an epiphany or two. Then you catch yourself typing things like, "EPIPHANY:Bo Ryan is secretly the most exciting man in college athletics," and it gets so bad you can't even look at yourself in the mirror. Such guilt!
So no more epiphanies. From now on, this is The Hardcourt Shuffle. Here are my two reasons for choosing the name:
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports over the weekend.
Tom Brady led New England on a stirring comeback, but the Patriots' 24 fourth-quarter points weren't enough to beat the 49ers, who prevailed, 41-34, and secured a playoff spot. After the final whistle, Jim Harbaugh and Bill Belichick stared at each other from across the field and simultaneously shouted, "It's probably better if we don't do this!"
When I was a kid, I was allowed to open one present on Christmas Eve. I'd get really psyched up for this ritual, even though all the prime booty was hidden in a closet somewhere and I had to choose from the secondary tier of gifts sent by relatives, which all looked suspiciously like clothing and had been under the tree for a week. Intuitively I knew that my Christmas Eve present would be crap, but did I care? Is a starving man picky when he finds a morsel of food? Hell no. It was a terrific moment, even if it lasted all of two seconds. But when it was over, and after I had tried on the hunter green JC Penney turtleneck from Aunt Maureen, I had to be restrained from attacking the rest of the gifts in a hurricane of arms, wrapping paper, and saliva (you can open three gifts at once if you're OK with biting). Every year, as I beat a hasty retreat to my room before temptation overwhelmed me, I realized that the Christmas Eve gift had been a mixed blessing. Yes, I got my pre-Christmas present-opening high, but it was only going to make the night that much longer. I was like a shark that tasted a drop of blood, and now I was in the frenzy zone.
December basketball feels like those late-night moments, stuck in my room, shaking and knowing that sleep is a fantasy. We've already had the epic November games, which get better every year, and in a few days we'll have conference play. But now? Now we just had a stretch of four days in which the best game was unranked Tennessee upsetting barely ranked Wichita State. Or maybe it was a Big Five game nobody noticed because both teams are in a down year. Brutal, brutal stuff. Unlike the turtleneck, I wouldn't trade in the November experience, but man ... we need some real action bad.
When my wife read Friday's post, she asked me why I cared who was the beefiest or bulkiest player in the country. And I have to tell you guys I didn't have a good answer. Let's move on to this week's epiphanies and observations.
I spent about five hours on the highway this weekend, and before we get to the college basketball–related epiphanies for this week, I have three driving-related epiphanies:
1. In my mind, the worst breach of highway etiquette is when a driver in the left lane travels at the exact same (slow) speed as the driver in the right lane, clogging the highway and making it impossible for anyone to pass. It's selfish, stupid, and beyond infuriating. I used to deal with this problem by stewing in anger and shouting a few obscenities inside the safety of my car. Not effective. Eventually, I began tailgating in an effort to show that I hated the driver and would like to pass. More effective, but sometimes they'd become obstinate and refuse to move. But now, my evolution is complete, because I've reached a point in life where I just drive up, wait a few seconds to make sure I'm not being an impatient douche, and then hit the horn at reasonable intervals until they move. And the crazy part? It works, and I'm a lot less angry. I just sail by while the offender glowers at me from the slowpoke lane where he belongs. I'm pretty sure this new Zen-like approach contains the seeds of a great motivational book.
2. Things can get really, really odd when you're alone in a car. I once had a roommate in New York who told me he was looking forward to visiting his family in Kansas City for a holiday so he could "get in the car and just get weird." I knew exactly what he meant. And I'm not talking weird in any kind of perverse way. I'm talking, like, singing freestyle blues songs about highway signs. I'm talking about giving fake interviews in foreign accents. I'm talking about carrying on one-sided conversations with other drivers. Just letting the brain roam where it will, which is always some place bizarre. If there was a TV show that was just footage of people who thought they were alone in a car, it would be a smash hit. And if aliens ever considered invading, but that show was the only thing they watched ahead of time, they'd immediately cancel their plans, since we are clearly a planet of psychopaths.
3. If someone is exhibiting "dickish" behavior on the road, there is a 95 percent chance that he will be driving a pickup truck. Pickup trucks are the new 18-wheelers, and 18-wheelers are the new sports cars. I know a lot of good people who own pickup trucks, including my father, so please don't think I'm stereotyping. This is just a scientific conclusion culled from years of observation; among the thriving group of respectable pickup truckers, there is a group of renegade road terrorists. And if you bike? God help you, because then it goes up to 100 percent. Pickup truck people hate bikers and love to buzz them or scream out the window as they pass. Someday, I'm going to bike past a pickup trucker stopped for speeding, and I'm going to get my revenge by mocking them on the fly. And on that day, the driver will probably be my father. Sorry, Dad.
On to the hoops! Here's what we learned from the past week:
In just its sixth year of existence, the Legends Classic isn’t exactly legendary or classic, and as early-season tournaments go, it certainly isn’t as renowned as the Maui Invitational. But this year’s Legends Classic was played in Brooklyn’s new Barclays Centre and featured the no. 1 team in the country (Indiana), the no. 1 recruiting class in the country (UCLA), another team that should comfortably make the NCAA tournament (Georgetown), and a team that is Georgia (Georgia). Because of this, this year’s Legends Classic was must-see TV for me. If you didn’t feel the same way, here’s what you missed: four takeaways from Monday's and Tuesday’s games.
Indiana Answered Some Questions
Because of their inconsistency a season ago, the two big questions concerning the preseason no. 1 team in the country this year were whether they could handle being the hunted rather than the hunters and whether they could beat a halfway decent team outside of Assembly Hall. Both questions were answered last night, even if they were answered less emphatically than Hoosiers critics might like.