At this time of year, the fervor of the college-versus-the-NBA debate typically reaches its peak. The professional game may lack a certain emotional draw, but there is no denying that the quality of strategy at basketball’s highest level is substantially better. In a very basic sense, Division I basketball boils down to the search for space. The NBA has typically held a monopoly on the art of spacing the floor, thanks to not only the influence of advanced stats but also the influx of spread pick-and-roll concepts from Europe. In the college game, methods for finding and exploiting this space are not nearly as widespread.
For a number of reasons — younger, less-skilled players; a more compact area inside the arc; fewer rules benefiting offensive players such as defensive three seconds — college basketball has a lot of trouble reproducing the refined play of the NBA. The teams that can pull this off are difficult to beat, especially if their style of play is carried out by players with NBA-level talent. Since inserting Mitch McGary into the starting lineup at the beginning of the NCAA tournament, the Michigan Wolverines have become one of those teams.
The 20-year-old freshman’s presence has allowed head coach John Beilein to (somewhat slowly) identify that his team can be an unstoppable force when it spreads the floor with dead-eye shooters like Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas and runs pick-and-rolls featuring McGary and another NBA-caliber talent, guard Trey Burke. Even though freshman forward Glenn Robinson III isn’t nearly as menacing a threat from beyond the arc as Hardaway or Stauskas — he’s shooting just 33.3 percent on the season — the Wolverines still have the perfect personnel to maximize space on the offensive end of the floor.
In case you were busy planning the ultimate prank (hint: you need Krazy Glue, a dozen Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, and three rubber snakes), here's what you missed in sports last weekend.
Despite a gruesome leg injury to reserve forward Kevin Ware, Louisville knocked off Duke, 85-63, to book a spot in the Final Four. "Man, that's the worst thing that I've ever seen on a basketball court," said Louisville coach Rick Pitino at his postgame press conference, "and I'm not talking about the refereeing. Zing. But seriously, I'm just gutted by what I saw today. Really soul-shaking stuff out there. And not just the refereeing — I'm sorry, I just can't stop zinging those guys. I know this isn't the time. Much as it wasn't the time for them to call a foul on every play right after Kevin hurt his leg. Damn it! Must. Stop. Zinging. Refs."
Brittney Griner and the Baylor Lady Bears were shocked by the Louisville Cardinals in the regional semifinals of the Women's NCAA Tournament, 82-81. "Can you dunk away the tears?" Griner asked her teammates after the game, before a horrifying wave of loneliness washed over her as she realized she was the only person in the room who could answer that question. Griner was later seen, alone in the deserted Chesapeake Energy Arena, yelling, "I feel nothing!" as she dunked ball after ball through the unguarded nets.
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.
The Sweet 16 continues tonight with another slate of intriguing games that promise to be unpredictable. Luckily for all you gamblers out there, I’m here to guarantee that the following five things will happen:
1. Florida will destroy Florida Gulf Coast
Just imagine what the past four days have been like for Florida Gulf Coast’s players and coaches. Since FGCU became the first 15-seed to advance to the Sweet 16, every media outlet in the country wants a piece of these guys. The players have become rock stars on campus, and at least one fan has gotten an FGCU tattoo that I’m sure they’ll never regret. The Eagles’ egos have probably (and understandably) swollen to unprecedented heights. I wouldn’t be surprised if instead of practicing this week, they just watched highlights of their first two tournament games and congratulated each other for being awesome. This isn’t meant to be criticism. If I were in their shoes, I wouldn’t even show up to play Florida because I’d be too busy partying on the beach and trying to convince girls to come home with me by telling them, “You probably saw me on TV beating Georgetown.”
I want to make a bold statement today, but first, let's have some fun and check out the highlights from what I'm calling "Seth Curry's Wonder-Half." In the first 20 minutes against North Carolina on Saturday night, he went 8-for-10 from the field, scored 18 points, and propelled the Blue Devils to a 42-24 halftime lead that became a blowout 69-53 win over North Carolina.
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 winding down all of your Italian business interests, here's what you missed in sports on Tuesday.
Trevor Mbakwe and the Minnesota Golden Gophers upset top-ranked Indiana, 77-73 in Minneapolis. Mbakwe, who started his college career playing for Indiana head coach Tom Crean at Marquette, said, "Something about Crean brings out the best in me. Maybe it's his smile that says at once, 'I care,' and 'I know this isn't forever.' Maybe it's that 'come-hither' stare, in which worlds are created and destroyed in his irises every time he blinks behind his wire-framed glasses. Maybe it's his lyrical name, 'Tom Crean.' All I know is, when I see his face, I'm compelled to be at once my best and worst self."
In case you were busy finding a Belgian who could fence $50 million worth of diamonds, here's what you missed in sports on Tuesday.
Indiana got its first win in East Lansing since 1991 with a hard-fought 72-68 win over the Michigan State Spartans. Missed free throws down the stretch hurt the Spartans, as they went 2-for-6 from the stripe in the final two minutes of the game. "I could just feel [Indiana head coach] Tom Crean looking at me as I was at the line," said MSU guard Gary Harris, who missed a chance to tie the game at the line after being fouled on a 3-pointer. Harris went on to explain, "I'm from Indiana and the guy recruited me hard, and I really wanted to go to IU, but then you see him smile, and it's not a real full smile, it's like a creepy half smile. And you start looking at his hairline, and the way it goes way back but he still gets all that volume in his hair, and you start realizing something ain't right. And then you realize Tom Izzo looks kind of the same, and so does Calipari, and so does Pitino, and you start to wonder whether your trapped in some sort of nightmare, where all of the best college basketball coaches out there are the same guy. Or maybe avatars of the same demigod? And that maybe there is no free will, and you'll always end up playing basketball for Tom Crean, or whatever it is that Tom Crean represents, assuming it's supernatural, which I now do. So, yeah, I missed some big free throws, but I had a lot on my mind."
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.
I'm having a hard time believing it's already February, gang. I know it's a bad weekend to complain, since the football fans of the world are just hours from hearing the last Super Bowl whistle and confronting the awful offseason, but I can feel March approaching, and it's happening too fast. Once it arrives, we'll all be too deep in the Madness to get nostalgic or fixate on the end, but the start of February is a dirty little reminder by whoever invented the calendar (Ben Franklin, probably) that college basketball is streaking past like UCLA on the break, even while winter plods on like the UVA offense. It's also a reminder that we've already failed to uphold our New Year's resolutions, and our lives are spiraling into failure and poverty. But as long as there's a game on, I can live with that.
Luckily, the shortest and supposedly most depressing month of the year is stocked with college basketball, and the first weekend kicks off with what might be the best regular season game of the season. Let's count it down.
Let's begin by delving into the realm of the imagination. Pretend it's November 1, 2012, and you and I are real-life acquaintances. Pretend we're having a conversation on a park bench near a vacant outdoor court. The wind is whistling, and it's far too cold to even consider playing, but we can't help stare longingly at the torn net hanging from the bent rim. The wind dies down for a moment, and I tell you that I've had a vision. There will be a number of buzzer-beaters this year, I say, but only one of them will be truly peculiar. You'll watch the replay over and over, but you still won't quite be able to wrap your mind around how it all happened. And tell me, I continue, as the wind begins to howl, tell me which team is involved. More than that, tell me which team wins.
We both know what you'd say, even without the benefit of a mystic vision. "Butler." Of course you'd say Butler. It's always Butler.
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.
Before we get going, I want to announce that I'm taking nom-nom-inations for the 2012-13 All-BeefyBulky Team. I was inspired to do this after watching Nebraska's Andre Almeida do battle in a losing effort against Creighton last night. At 6-foot-11, 314 pounds, the Brazilian Almeida is a man of some size, and the eye is immediately drawn in his direction when he's on the floor. Like the elderly couple entranced by the painting of Kramer, we cannot look away.
I was going to put together my own All-BeefyBulky team, but frankly, I haven't done the legwork. The country's elite teams are stocked with perfect physical specimens of varying height at every position, and my mental Rolodex couldn't produce five worthy BeefyBulksters. And this is not something you want to rush. The BBs represent the real America, and we can't risk choosing the wrong men. So far, my All-BB team has just two members: