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.
If you read Friday's column, you know there's a big gray elephant in the room, and we might as well recognize it right off the bat. So, here you go:
Yes, I was right about Pittsburgh beating Syracuse, Miami beating NC State, Oklahoma State playing well against Kansas, and Florida blowing out Ole Miss.
Does that make me some kind of basketball genius? You tell me. I hate throwing words like "genius" around, because I'm not into labels and I know that as long as people perceive me as someone who knows more about basketball than any other human, it doesn't matter what title they choose, whether it's "genius" or "virtuoso" or "wunderkind" or
AHHHH ALL RIGHT ALL RIGHT ALL RIGHT, DAMN YOU! STOP LOOKING AT ME! I GOT INDIANA-MICHIGAN ALL WRONG. IS THAT WHAT YOU WANTED TO HEAR, YOU SAVAGE CUTTHROATS?
The most interesting part of the Puerto Rico Tipoff championship game, which ended with a 76-56 Oklahoma State upset over no. 6 NC State, was always going to be the point guard duel: Wolfpack junior Lorenzo Brown vs. Cowboy freshman Marcus Smart. Brown emerged as one of the most exciting point guards at the end of last season, and was a first-team All-ACC preseason pick. Smart has earned some recognition as one of the top freshmen in his class, but has routinely been overshadowed by players at high-profile programs like Nerlens Noel and Shabazz Muhammad. But after Sunday's game, when Smart spent 40 minutes embarrassing one of the best point guards in the country on his way to earning a tournament MVP, that should no longer be a problem.
Last week, we looked at the Dangerous Outsiders, the Royal Blues, and the Title Snipers. See the box below for those links. This week, we turn to four legitimate championship contenders, starting with the Wolfpack of NC State.
Today marks my only deviation from the consensus top five. Indiana, Louisville, Kentucky, Ohio State? Sure, they're among the sparkling elites. But no. 5 Michigan? I'm not sold, for reasons enumerated last week in the Title Snipers post. Instead, my pick for the fifth contender comes from ACC country, where the NC State Wolfpack might be about to emerge from the shadows of Duke and Carolina for the first time since 1987 — the last year they won a conference championship.
A quick one this week, amigos, with a rundown of the top 10 games and Your Perfect Saturday:
10. Kent State at no. 15 Rutgers
Big Ten fans will be unhappy to see that I chose this one over Michigan-Nebraska, if only because the Big East is starting to look like a pretty interesting race, and Kent State, at 6-1, is on a crash course with Ohio for a MAC East championship game on November 23. It feels like there might be upset potential here, but Kent State's blowout loss to Kentucky earlier in the season should give you pause.
Fair warning: Big-time North Carolina bias coming up here.
Raleigh has it tough, as far as North Carolina college towns go. First off, it's only a few miles from Chapel Hill, which is universally recognized as a pretty idyllic place to spend your university years. Then there's Durham, Duke's home city, separated from campus by a wall and a good amount of mutual resentment. Durham hasn't had the best reputation over the past couple decades, but it's got a lot going on these days, and it's becoming one of those classic cool-but-also-dangerous cities with a strong youth movement. In other words, it gets a lot of attention. That leaves Raleigh, which has a pretty staid, unglamorous rep as the state's capital. But I'm here to tell you that it's a sneaky-fun city, and while you might get lost in the shadow of the government buildings if you find yourself downtown on a weekend night, the NC State campus is underrated and there are fun places to be in the larger area once you know your way around.
So, there's my essay on Raleigh. As for Lawrence, Kansas? No idea, but doesn't the drone quality of the "Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk" chant make you think the town is depressing? Anyway, Raleigh wins. Life is unfair.
With 10:56 remaining in an easy win over Creighton, North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall drove right. As he rose for the layup, Creighton's Ethan Wragge put a forearm into Marshall's midsection. Marshall put out a hand to cushion the fall, but his right wrist buckled as it absorbed the full weight of his body.
The result was a fractured scaphoid — a nightmare for Carolina. Marshall will have surgery to put a pin in the wrist, but he's highly questionable for the rest of the tournament.
Good for you, NC State! I am thrilled that you are thrilled to be in the NCAA tournament. It's not always easy being a part of the Wolfpack, after all, what with all those Dukies and Heels around. Shane Ryan, a Duke fan himself, wrote on the plight of the Wolfpack earlier this season.
1. Brandon Marshall, Will Now Winter in Chicago
Bill Simmons chimes on in on the Bears' big trade acquisition: "When you're an All-Pro WR on a team that's trying to do everything it can to sign Peyton Manning, only you get dumped for two third-round picks right in the middle of the courting process I mean, that can't be a good sign."
2. Jarrad Page, Bo Knows!
Bill Barnwell dusts off his no. 16 Royals jersey: "It is my duty to nominate former Chiefs and Patriots safety Jarrad Page, who appears to have finished a somewhat bizarre six-year NFL career by signing a minor-league contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers to play baseball. Page, who apparently impressed the Dodgers in an open tryout, was selected three different times in the MLB draft before moving on to football. Page spent two years playing baseball alongside football at UCLA, and, well, his performance record isn't sterling. In 221 at-bats over two years, Page put up a .195/.270/.285 line while striking out 94 times. Because we grew up in the early nineties, though, we are nostalgic for baseball/football crossover players and want them to return. So yay Jarrad Page!"
3. Evan Turner, Scottie Pippen, Basically
In four games as a starter, the former no. 2 overall pick is averaging 17 points, 12 rebounds, and 3.5 assists. He spent the first year and a half of his career doing some interesting things, some silly things, or nothing really at all. But ever since he replaced Jodie Meeks in the Sixers' starting lineup, he's been a powerhouse. Forget Linsanity (you probably already have) (what up, Knicks), this is EVANDEMONIUM.
"The ACC tournament doesn't start until Friday," is a phrase I heard more than once Thursday, the day on which the ACC tournament actually started.
I was especially prone to hearing that sentiment, considering my penchant for complaining about the lack of quality basketball. Still, all good drama needs a setup; those first two establishing acts that make us care about the climax. Even a joke needs a foundation, and it remains to be seen which path this tournament will take.
Before we take a tour of the notable events from Thursday, here are the basics you need to know.
As the ACC tournament kicks off in Atlanta, two teams are in a dog fight for their NCAA tournament lives. The committee is notoriously mum about bubble teams in the week leading up to Selection Sunday, and nobody quite knows where NC State and Miami stand at the moment, but the consensus is that there's work to be done for each. Without one or two wins this week, the pity and consolation of the NIT awaits.
And that's not all they have in common. Both teams finished tied for fourth in the ACC with a 9-7 conference record. Both teams have first-year coaches — Mark Gottfried at NC State, Jim Larranaga at Miami. And both are enduring NCAA tournament droughts — three years and counting for Miami, five years for a State team recovering from the painful Sidney Lowe era.
I promise there's basketball later in this post, but I have to start off with the fans. Because Wednesday night at the RBC Center in Raleigh, while N.C. State and Miami were playing for their tournament lives, the Wolfpack faithful taught us all the three most important lessons about comedy.
1. Brevity = soul of wit.
To understand this one, you need to know three quick facts. First, Reggie Johnson is a Miami center who was recently suspended because his family received "impermissible travel benefits" from a team representative. Second, Reggie Johnson returned for last night's game against N.C. State. Third, Reggie Johnson is a big dude. A big, heavy, chunky dude.
When the games ended Thursday night and I considered the results, my stomach sank. The world craves variety, but the unavoidable, incorrigible ACC had reeled me in again.
If you've read Grantland'scollege basketballcoverage over the past two weeks, you probably think my official title is "junior ACC correspondent." Today, I had actually planned to write about the Spartans of Michigan State, whose easy 69-55 win over Wisconsin served the usual Tom Izzo narrative of a team peaking at the perfect moment.
But how can I avoid the real story? My hands are tied! What can I possibly do when the ACC, like some kind of insane nocturnal mailman, just delivers night after night after night? I heard the knocks on the door, and I tried to ignore them. I promise I did. But this conference can't be stopped. Dormant for so long, the teams of the ACC finally have their revolution, and man are they seizing the day.
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday.
The Comeback Kids have done it again. Trailing by 20 with less than 12 minutes remaining, no. 4 Duke rallied to beat NC State 78-73 at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Once again, it's a tale of pluck and resilience befitting a school filled with so many rags-to-riches students — the downtrodden, lowborn souls yearning outside the gates of power — who never stopped believing in themselves and their ability to climb within the system. O, Duke, you beacon of the little man, you shining symbol of mobility! Lady Liberty is your virtuous maiden, Uncle Sam your protecting angel!
Not to be outdone, no. 21 Florida State kept pace at the top of the ACC by coming back from an eight-point deficit with just 1:29 left and beating Virginia Tech 48-47 on Michael Snaer's late 3. The struggling Hokies got more bad news after the game when they found out that their legal status as a basketball team had been revoked by President Obama to save money.
Sports fans can be a savage lot. When it comes to cruelty, is there any group more relentlessly inventive? Chanting in unison, they pick at the heart of the enemy. But in my book, there's one chant more brutal than any other. It's worse than insulting someone's family, worse than hurling the most unspeakable epithet, and worse than mocking a personal handicap. This one cuts the deepest.