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.
I had a chance to be in Chicago on Tuesday night to cover the college basketball games for Grantland, and I said no for two reasons. First, because most early-season college basketball showcases are sloppy and a little bit depressing. Second, because after the months of obsession over Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Julius Randle, there's no way they could possibly live up to it.
People were comparing Wiggins to Durant and McGrady. Jabari Parker was supposed to be Paul Pierce and Glenn Robinson, and Julius Randle was the closest thing people had seen to LeBron.
There were 80 NBA scouts in attendance last night, which is a reminder that (a) NBA teams probably waste SO MUCH money scouting players they'll never have a chance to draft, and (b) this has all gotten kind of ridiculous. The United Center sold out the stadium Tuesday, and tickets for what was basically a preseason basketball exhibition were going for $750 apiece. We were due for a letdown.
But then all the players in Chicago made me look like an idiot.
If we’re going off StubHub, which is the objective arbiter of all things hype, last night’s Champions Classic was one of the most anticipated basketball showcases in recent history. So while the basketball turned out so good that people seem to be overlooking the fact that the games were choppy whistle bonanzas, I was there for more anthropological reasons. To Chicago:
College basketball is back, and life finally makes sense again. Questions like "Where did all my money go?" and "Why am I such a disappointment?" and "How did I end up in this Dumpster?" no longer matter. Nothing matters, actually. Our salvation has arrived, and if you think I'm being overly dramatic, then you can get the HELL out of my Dumpster, pal.
As the headline on this post suggests, I recommend that you all take out the paper calendars you use to help remember when to watch sports (mine is the flip kind with autumnal photos above each month), and find a good, reliable pen, because you'll want to write this down. Below, I've listed the best possible games from each of the next seven days, along with some honorable mentions. Consider this your weeklong immersion guide. And it starts, as it should, in the mecca of the sport …
You can't go very far these days without hearing a sports fan say, "I can't wait until college basketball starts." I'm not sure why they keep mispronouncing it as "football" — it must be a joke I missed, or a meme, or something — but the anticipation in the air is palpable. We're still a few months away from tip-off, though, so here are a few bits of news you may have missed during the long offseason. November's coming!
On a Scale From 1 to Johnny Manziel, P.J. Hairston's Idiot Ranking Is 8
With all his noteworthy teammates opting for the draft, P.J. Hairston was set to be North Carolina's primary star in 2013. You could argue he was last season, too, when the sophomore guard led the team with 14.6 points per game while averaging just 23 minutes, and shot nearly 40 percent from 3. Everything about his game improved from his freshman season, and he'll arguably be the best pure scorer in the ACC this year.
Carping about the clothes at the NBA draft is a lot like complaining that onesies make your baby look fat. It's too soon! These guys have the rest of their careers to figure it all out. With the draft, what you're hoping for, at the very least, is that some of these players have been talked into putting on an interesting garment. At most, you're hoping for an indication that maybe just one guy knows what he's doing, that he's on to something.
It turns out that they're officially on to us. They all know we're looking. They might even know now what we want — excitement, cool, spectacle, a little glamour — and they're not taking any chances. The clothes are becoming conversation-stoppers.
Jalen Rose and Bill Simmons talk to NBA draft prospect Ben McClemore about the comparisons to Ray Allen, his struggles with poverty, and his reputation for having trouble asserting himself. Check out a short clip below, followed by Brett Koremenos’s scouting report and the full-length video. Watch all the NBA Job Interviews here. And watch this space for more NBA Job Interview videos, featuring Bill Simmons, Jalen Rose, and some of the best young talents from the 2013 NBA draft class.
At the end of Andrew Wiggins's signing ceremony Tuesday afternoon, a good chunk of the college basketball world felt deprived. Fans of Kentucky, Florida State, and North Carolina were chief among them, their hopes dashed when the no. 1 recruit chose Kansas instead. It wasn't a great day for devotees of garish self-indulgence, either; Wiggins spoke briefly, without theatrics, and allowed just one local newspaper reporter to attend the actual announcement. He didn't even have multiple hats spread out before him, awaiting his benediction! That's like having a dance without music, or a Jim Boeheim press conference without passive-aggressive behavior. If you were hoping for this year's Tony Parker, you were disappointed.
Note 1: The local reporter in question, Grant Traylor of the Huntington Herald-Dispatch, watched his Twitter followers balloon from fewer than 2,000 on Sunday night to just above 17,000 Tuesday at noon, and fall back down to 11,000 by 4 p.m. When I checked today, he was down to 9,197, but he at least has a sense of humor about the whole thing. Here's his feature on the event.
Note 2: If I ever have to make a recruiting announcement — and it seems like maybe I won't, at this point — I'd stage a choreographed production where I dance with five ladies decked out in spangled attire representing each school. It would last 40 minutes, with two intermissions because I'm out of shape, and at the end I'd be left with just one girl as confetti rained down from the rafters in the colors of whichever school I chose. Then I'd step forward, grab a microphone, and say, "Just kidding, I'm going to Duke." And then I'd dance with Coach K, if he was around and up for it. (And with a hyperrealistic Coach K doll if he was not.)
Fantasies aside, here's everything you need to know about the announcement, the reactions, and what it all means.
In case you were out looking at buffalo and thanking the heavens that you never had to actually traverse the Oregon Trail by wagon, here's what you missed in sports on Tuesday:
Paul George and the Indiana Pacers remained red hot at home as they pushed the New York Knicks to the brink of elimination with a 93-82 win. This battle of the second- and third-best teams in the Eastern Conference has now tilted firmly in favor of Indiana, which has New York residents stunned. "This was our year," said Daniel Czaplinski of Woodside. "We at least had to make it to the Heat. The Pacers? Gimme a break. Who the heck are they?" When asked if he had seen the Pacers play at all this season, Czaplinski said, "Yeah, they had that Zeller kid, and Oladipo. Not sure what happened to them, but Melo shouldn't be letting this George Paul guy take over. This is an abomination and all these bums should be fired."
The Spurs grabbed a pivotal Game 5 win in the friendly confines of San Antonio, beating the Golden State Warriors, 109-91, behind 25 points and 10 assists from Tony Parker. Parker, a noted French person from Belgium, was quietly finishing off a pack of Gauloises after the game before he mused about the idea of a falcon he had in his mind. "You know, bird that does not exist, your ability to fly is less impressive to some because of your lack of corporeal form. But to me, nonexistent falcon I just named Tweet-Tweet, you are more impressive, as you at least know you do not exist, where as real falcons contend daily with the illusion of reality." After a brief pause when Tweet-Tweet likely asked Parker for his last Gauloise, as Parker dropped one onto the ground next to him, Parker added, "And that is how I defeat the Warriors. They expect me to move at speeds, or to distribute the basketball. But that's all the secondary creative act. The original creative act was forgetting my own creation. Here, let me imagine a treatise for you to read." Unfortunately, Tweet-Tweet does not read French, and used Parker's imaginary philosophical text as bedding for his imaginary nest.
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.
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.”
Andrew Wiggins, for those unfamiliar with his work, is the Canadian basketball sensation who spent this season as the Gatorade West Virginia Player of the Year at Huntington Prep. He still has yet to make a decision on where he'll attend school (for six months), but I'd say this 2:55 puts him firmly next to Jadeveon Clowney among candidates for bypassing those pesky NCAA rules. If you don't have a free three minutes, skip to the 2:17 mark. I would describe what happens — if I had any idea how.
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.
Confession time: I have a bad relationship with GIFs. I'm 100 percent alone on this one, I know, especially among young Internet sports types. But to me, GIFs are like "Harlem Shake" videos — hilarious visual gag at first, until you become so inundated that you go numb and begin to hate the person who bought you your first computer and sent you on this horrible, soul-killing journey into the heart of the Internet. (Important note: This is for comedy GIFs only it doesn't go for the ones that are just meant to show a sweet dunk, a great goal, or any of the other sincere uses of the form.)
Watching a GIF, I get the weird sense that I'm being manipulated, as though I'm laughing begrudgingly at a stand-up comedian whose only bit is to hit himself in the face with a baking pan. The endless repetition is supposed to be what gives the image its humor, but something about it drives me crazy. It's like we're making snark-commodities out of human moments. (Actually, pretend I just said something along the same lines, but less pretentious.)
This is my only soapbox. I only care about destroying the GIF culture. But after all that big talk, I have to admit that I still laugh at the really good ones that transcend the medium, like Ben McLemore dancing. And the reason I'm mentioning it now is that I violated my own principles and yeah, made a GIF. I couldn't help it:
I know I should have stuck to my guns, but the way the cameraman went into soft focus on Kelly and readjusted to the fan doing the White Raven arms — it's like he was begging me to make a GIF. He was my serpent, and his comic shot was the forbidden apple. I hope this isn't the start of a slippery slope, but in three months you'll probably find me lying face down in a dark Internet cafe, dead from a GIF overdose.
In case you were out stocking up on discounted Swedish meatballs, here's what you missed in sports on Monday.
George Karl's Denver Nuggets continued their torrid offensive play as they beat the Los Angeles Lakers at home, 119-108, to deny the Lakers a chance to get back to .500. After the game, Kobe Bryant was all smiles, joking around with teammates and coaches in the locker room. When asked about his cheery demeanor, Bryant said, "I'm so glad you asked. You see, I enjoy losing to Coach Karl in the regular season because it reminds me of the last time I lost a postseason series to him back in, hmmm, I can't remember when. He's been coaching my whole career, though, so I'm sure he must have beaten me once in the postseason. No? No." Bryant then pulled a microphone out of his waistband and dropped it on the ground.