In case you were busy finding a new locker room from which to ban stat sheets, here's what you missed in sports last weekend:
Kobe Bryant returned to action after rehabbing from last year's Achilles tear, but his Lakers suffered a rare home defeat to the Toronto Raptors 106-94. "It's OK that we lost," Bryant said after the game while sitting in the locker room. "Fear can be a very powerful motivator." Suddenly the lights in the locker room went out, and horrifying screams echoed through the facility. The lights flickered on briefly, and a young girl was standing with her back to Lakers guard Nick Young, singing, "Do you want to play with me?" in a sweet tone. Then the lights cut out again before quickly coming back on. The girl had turned around, and instead of a child's face, she had the face of Popeye Jones. "Do you want to play with me?" the little girl with Popeye Jones's face sang in a scratch baritone to a terrified Nick Young. The lights cut out again, before coming back on to reveal everything back to normal. As Nick Young curled into a ball on the locker-room floor, Bryant chuckled to himself by his locker, and said, "Yes, things will be all right. Fear is a very powerful motivator."
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:
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.
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.
A few minutes before 8 a.m. yesterday, the line extending from the LVH sportsbook stretched back about 50 yards from the sign above its entrance. Those making up its tail end exchanged knowing looks as each new member asked the obligatory Is this the line? before taking his or her spot in front of the trio of blackjack machines on that end of the casino floor.
Seventy-five minutes before tipoff, this was the queue to make bets at the country’s biggest sports book on the country’s biggest sports day. The wait time stood at about 45 minutes, and as gamblers slowly rolled forward, faux-knowledge slowly rolled back. Someone a bit further up would mention that Bucknell on the money line looked attractive, and in a degenerate game of telephone, the conversation would trickle to the rear. An hour or so before tipoff, a man in a red UNLV T-shirt, who’d clearly been there before, but clearly never on this day, said what so many others were thinking. “This is fucking unbelievable.” Actually, it’s the first day of March Madness.
Later this week, we'll get down to actual science and go through every bracket pick by pick. (And don't worry — the rage I feel toward the committee for putting four of the tournament's best teams in the Midwest Region, a.k.a. "The Group of Death," will still be strong. They will have to answer to Shane Ryan.)
But today, I'm speaking more generally. Rather than look at the bracket or obsess about matchups, this is about identifying the essential core trait of all 68 tournament teams. Could they win the title? Are they tragically flawed? Are they doomed from the get-go? Are they Wisconsin? All will be revealed, and when the 68 are properly grouped, we'll be ready to take the next step.
Let's start with the worst of the worst, and make our way up. Each team's seed is in parentheses.
The football rivalry between Oregon and Oregon State, nicknamed the "Civil War,” has always had something of an image problem. Take the name, for starters: Though quite common, it’s not as deliciously ironic as the BYU-Utah “Holy War,” or as geographically appropriate as the West Virginia–Pittsburgh “Backyard Brawl.” But for decades, that name was all they had. Neither school was even remotely on the national radar before the mid-'90s. And if they were, it was because of their Disneyfied color schemes and innocuous mascots.
But now, the “Civil War” sounds entirely quaint seeing as how the Beavers have taken after the Ducks’ Decepticon rebranding and the two schools will appear to be reenacting Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen this December, right in time for Christmas. By this point, I don’t think I have to preface you on why it’s major news when Oregon State’s Nike-sponsored gear is dropping jaws. My lord, have you seen these new Oregon State unis? Being that Phil Knight is a UO alum, I’m unsure if OSU has much pull in Beaverton (oddly enough), but it appears as if the school took a gander at Nike’s Pro Combat line and said, “We’re trying to win football games, not look like we’re going to church.” Those Neopolitan face masks!
The lesson was important: The Beavers already had one of the most recognizable color schemes and logos in college football, but as coach Mike Riley tweeted, it’s all about luring 18-year-old kids who might base the next four years of their lives on the possibility of wearing socks that are inscribed with “hip hop hooray.” Oregon State can serve as an example for many other second bananas across the college football landscape that are seeking to gain ground on their more respected rivals through some kind of radical and ridiculous rebranding. Sure, it looks a little desperate and they might always be no. 2 compared to their wealthier, more successful elders, but there’s nothing wrong with being Solange these days. Here are some more glaring opportunities:
Nobody knew for sure whether Ryan Kelly would play against no. 5 Miami on Saturday. After Duke's loss to Virginia in Charlottesville, the incentive was certainly there. The Blue Devils were reeling; the team's perimeter defense was almost nonexistent, and Mason Plumlee had almost fully devolved into a state of Plumbledum after masquerading as a Player of the Year candidate in December. If there was any way Kelly's right foot had recovered, maybe it would mean a return to the success of the early part of the season, when Duke went 15-0 and reigned as the no. 1 team in the country. Without him, their record was 9-4, including an embarrassing 27-point loss to Miami.
When Kelly came on the court as part of Duke's starting five, there was a sense of relief and hope among Duke fans. Still, they had no idea this would happen:
There have been two really great moments for Duke since winning the title in 2010. The first was Austin Rivers's shot to beat North Carolina in Chapel Hill last season, and this was the second. The fact that Kelly put the team on his shoulders, scored a career-high 36 points on 10-14 shooting (7-9 from 3), and led Duke to a revenge win over Miami is almost too hard to believe. I watched the game in a state of anxious ecstasy, thrilled and worried at the same time. But mostly thrilled, because watching the Crazies flap their arms as the White Raven hit shot after shot, I knew that this was turning into a special moment. Kelly was so good that a loss felt impossible.
In case you were out getting back what's rightfully yours, here's what you missed in sports this weekend.
Duke avenged an earlier loss at Miami to beat the Hurricanes at Cameron Indoor Stadium, 79-76, behind 36 points from Ryan Kelly. Kelly, who had missed the previous two months with a foot injury, said after the game of Miami's NCAA title chances, "We have done far worse than killed them; we have hurt them. And I wish to go on hurting them. I shall leave them as they had left us: marooned, on the periphery of contention. Buried alive. Buried alive."
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.
Eight years ago, college basketball was the most important thing in my life.
Wait, wait. I worry what you just heard was “Eight years ago, I really liked college basketball.” What I said was: “Eight years ago, college basketball was the most important thing in my life.” When I was 17, sports were everything, and college basketball was, by far, my favorite. As a Duke sympathizer (it’s a long story that involves a lack of college basketball in Chicago and Jay Williams) living in Illinois in 2005, I felt it was my moral obligation to both the sport and mankind to remind everyone at my high school that ACC basketball was superior. This led to watching games every night, starting arguments every morning, and eventually going to that year’s Final Four just to watch my least favorite team in the history of sports lose to North Carolina.
As I hit my 20s, that love of college basketball — and Duke — slowly fell away. I like to think it’s because I became less of an asshole, but I suspect there’s more at work. When the latest Golden Age of the NBA began to take shape, and it became clear that I was free of experiences like the Baby Bulls and the 2005 Finals, it felt like pro basketball had again turned into the product worth watching. Players like Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose only stoked that fire, and by this season, I’d managed to make it until February before taking in a full college basketball game. With the lackluster slate of NBA games last night, Indiana–Michigan State seemed like as good a place as any to see if I could start things up again.
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:
I first met Keaton Gillogly, the radio voice of the Michigan State women's basketball team and a below-average pool player, at an East Lansing sports bar called Reno's. He had offered to be my tour guide, and proceeded to do an excellent job. He introduced me to several morally dubious university ambassadors, coordinated an emotional face-to-face with a life-size Mateen Cleaves bobblehead at the Hall of Fame Sports Cafe, and even indulged me in a traditional exchange of gifts (he got a travel-size bottle of Gilchrist & Soames dental rinse that purported to be from London, England, but which had come into my possession in Columbus, Ohio, and I got a Spartans Nerf basketball). But the most profound moment of our new friendship might have been the first, when he greeted me at the bar and pointed to a crowded banquet hall just past the entrance. I walked into the din, followed everyone's eyes to the small stage at the front of the room, and saw ... the man:
Tom Izzo. At the weekly Tom Izzo radio show, starring the great Tom Izzo.
In case you were busy finally figuring out the trick to seeing the hidden image in those Magic Eye posters, here's what you missed in sports on Tuesday.
LeBron James became the first player in NBA history to score 30 points on better than 60 percent shooting from the field in six consecutive games as the Miami Heat beat the Portland Trail Blazers, 117-104, at home. "What's with these newfangled statistics?" asked elderly Miami resident Saul Zinman. "Points? Shooting percentage? When I played, we only had two statistics in netball — bouncy passes and bloody noses, and I led the Staten Island Pantaloons in both. Also, all the teams used to be named for types of pants: The San Francisco Denim Men, the Columbus Corduroys, the Weehawken Torn Trousers. I bet you three nickels there's not a single team left named after a type of pants."