In case you were murdered on the steps of some forum or another Friday, here's what you missed in sports this weekend:
The NCAA tournament field is set with Kansas, Indiana, Louisville, and Gonzaga your four top seeds for March Madness. Expect upsets this year, as Louisville, despite being named the top overall seed, was drawn into the presumptive "group of death," featuring such dangerous teams as Duke, St. Louis, and Michigan State. Also, Gonzaga faces a potentially tough early round game against Pittsburgh oh, god, I'm talking myself into it who, based on advanced statistics, could actually be a slight favorite over the Zags DON'T DO IT; DON'T PICK PITTSBURGH making Pittsburgh my upset special of the tournament NOOOOOOOOOOOOO.
Surprisingly omitted from the top line of the NCAA Tournament were the Miami Heat, who won their 22nd consecutive game Sunday, beating the Toronto Raptors, 108-91. "Who needs this NCAA crap," Miami forward LeBron James said after the game, before teammate Shane Battier handed him an economic study on the long-term earning effects of college educations that he had co-authored during the offseason with Duke economics professor Arnaud Maurel.
In case you were out drunkenly explaining that Joel Schumacher was never a good enough director to "lose it Rob Reiner style," here's what you missed in sports on Tuesday.
The Los Angeles Lakers were again bested by the Oklahoma City Thunder, 122-105. The Thunder played solid fundamental basketball, limiting themselves to only two turnovers on the night while shooting over 90 percent from the free throw line. "We give the fans what they want here in Oklahoma City," said Kevin Durant after the game, before spending the rest of his night handing out small bags of baby carrots to kids asking for his autograph.
The Big Ten Road Trip, with all its local comforts, is over, and now it's time to plunge back into the chaos of the national scene. A huge part of college basketball analysis is projecting what will happen in the postseason. It makes sense, because the sport is defined by a few crazy days in March, but I always get a fleeting sense of regret around this time of year. I wish conference tournaments meant more, and I especially wish regular-season conference championships meant more.
I love March Madness as much as anyone, but the truth is it's one of the worst postseasons in terms of crowning the actual best team. That's why it's great; you have to win on a given day, and the small sample size allows for the upsets and anomalies that give the tournament its character. In fact, of the six major American professional and college sports, I'd argue that college hoops is at the bottom of the postseason reliability spectrum. Here are my rankings, from most to least reliable:
There have been signs, here at the tail end of my weeklong swingthrough the Midwest, that the tenuous grip on sanity I've maintained for three decades might be careening into the abyss. I woke up in a fog in Madison, Wisconsin, for instance, to read a story about a kangaroo delaying the Australian Open, and wondered if maybe Rafa Nadal was involved. But it was a women's golf tournament, and I was left wonder, in a daze, why I thought Rafa would be conspiring with kangaroos in the first place
But mainly, there's this whole pillow episode, which I'm not even sure I should mention. My sleep has been iffy for most of the week, and after the first restless nights, I thought I'd diagnosed the problem. I was accustomed to sleeping next to my wife, and the absence of another human being was throwing off my circadian mojo. In desperation, I decided to place the extra hotel pillows vertically, creating a vaguely person-shaped companion by my side. I swear this was not an emotional crutch. I didn't spoon with this new pillow-person (or worse, you sickos), I didn't give it a name, and I didn't make further attempts to humanize the thing. I would just sort of pat it, once or twice, to trick my brain into believing things were back to normal. It maybe worked, a little. It wasn't until Thursday, driving northwest on I-94 through western Wisconsin when I began to consider that constructing a pillow wife might have been an odd maneuver.
But the ultimate sign of impending hysteria — and the simplest, I think — was the mere fact that I was going to a basketball game between Minnesota and Wisconsin. That's Minnesota, the team in a perilous free fall whose season might be kaput if it lost, and Wisconsin, the brutally efficient, molasses-paced team that brings out the ugly in even the prettiest teams. I was bound for Williams Arena, a.k.a. "The Barn." And I got exactly what you'd expect. But, craziest of all, I enjoyed it.
Today's Shuffle is going to be a quick one — to get your college hoops fix, check out dispatch no. 1 on Indiana-Ohio State from my Big Ten road trip — but, wow, the wheels have really come off, haven't they? Let's do a list of 10 thoughts and conclusions from the weekend, except let's make it just like college basketball rankings and have the numbers mean absolutely nothing.
7. Nobody is good. Or everybody is good. But if everybody is good, then nobody is good. So in the end, nobody is good. Unless you reverse it, in which case, OH, JUST SHUT UP. THIS YEAR IS COMMUNIST. IT'S A PERFECT COMMUNIST YEAR.
With that in mind, who is communist icon Karl Marx's college basketball doppelganger? What about Friedrich Engels? If you take away the beards, I'm going with Marx as a young Bobby Knight and Engels as a fatter-faced Aaron Craft. But I'm not really happy with either of those, so please help me in the comments.
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.
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.
What's often lost in the ACC–Big Ten Challenge is that it's a challenge between the ACC and the Big Ten.
That might be the dumbest opening sentence in Grantland history, but I swear it's true. College basketball fans know that the cross-conference event, which will be held for the 14th straight year over the next two days, tends to match up some very good teams, but they willfully ignore the fact that this is more than just a set of individual games. Sure, they love that no. 4 Ohio State is visiting Cameron Indoor Stadium to take on the resurgent Duke Blue Devils, and they look forward to a young North Carolina team testing itself on the road at no. 1 Indiana, but they couldn't care less which conference comes out on top when the 12 games are over. In fact, the list of people who actually follow the overall result is fairly short:
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Monday.
Backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick threw for 243 yards and two touchdowns as the 49ers trounced the Bears 32-7. "Not bad for an intellectual," sneered Randy Moss, just before snapping Kaepernick with a towel. Kaepernick seethed with pain and anger, but he knew from experience that it was useless to explain the difference between himself and the 16th-century Polish astronomer Copernicus.
On Monday, the Big Ten powers that be held a conference call to outline their thoughts on a college football playoff system. Their preference, they declared up front, is to do nothing. “I think if the Big Ten presidents were to vote today, we would vote for the status quo,” Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman said, and then Perlman and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany spent the rest of the call trying to convince the media that they were not stonewalling but were open to any and all ideas, including a four-team playoff that isn’t dependent on conference champions, if that’s what everyone in those other conferences really wants, because the Big Ten isn’t going to stand in the way of progress unless they have enough leverage to stand in the way of progress.
Regular-season championships are vastly underrated in America. In the four major professional leagues, the aura surrounding the playoffs completely eclipses anything that came before. And it makes sense — drama is heightened in the short series or single game, and the romance of sport is built on the heroism that emerges from these moments. They also take place after the regular season, increasing the prominence and the stakes. Extreme tension ensures that success or failure will obliterate all previous memories. Do Giants fans care that the team's 9-7 regular-season record was the worst of any NFC playoff team? Do Patriots fans care that their team won the division with the best record in the AFC? Of course not. The Super Bowl takes precedence.
It's a very human reaction, and it makes everything more fun. But the playoffs are still an unjust mechanism for determining a champion. This is true in professional baseball, basketball, and hockey, with their short series formats, but it's especially glaring in the single-elimination playoff formats used by the NFL and college basketball. These aren't measures of the best team, necessarily, but the best team at a specific moment. Those are very different things. A regular-season championship rewards consistency and sustained excellence, while a playoff championship rewards peaking at the perfect time.
This weekend, third-ranked Ohio State defended its home court against no. 22 Michigan, beating the Wolverines 64-49 on Sunday. For those of who didn’t watch, here’s a peek at some of the highlights from the game.
There are times when sports give me the urge to stand on my rickety wooden desk (Target, $80 in 2005), brave the first wobbles, and shout some English-based gibberish while gesticulating like an insane maestro. Tuesday night's Michigan State-Wisconsin finish prompted one of these episodes, and today I can't restrain myself from thinking this cliché: If I live 1,000 years, there will still be something to surprise me in sports. It never ends.
2. You decided to remake 1997's The Devil's Advocate, a film starring Keanu Reeves as a hotshot lawyer and Al Pacino as his boss. For those who don't remember or haven't yet seen it, Pacino's character turns out to be Satan. Sorry for the spoiler. (At the end, Reeves kills himself in a display of free will after finding out that Pacino is both Satan and his father. But it turned out all to be a dream, or a premonition, or something.)