What better way to celebrate the upcoming Final Four than to bust out another mailbag? I again got a ton of great e-mails, and after sifting through all the ones that were some variation of “I’m a Kansas/Ohio State fan, and I need you to help talk me off the ledge,” I was left with these. Let’s talk a little college basketball, shall we?
While watching The Heartbreak Kid Shawn Michaels cut a promo to hype the Brock/HHH match, I couldn't help but wonder about his self-proclaimed nickname of "Mr. WrestleMania.” Even in professional wrestling, you would think one would have to have an outstanding record to warrant such a lofty nickname. But his record is 6-11, and this includes his matches while he served as the captain of the Rockers.
Is he only Mr. WrestleMania because he has competed at 17 of them? Surely it isn't because of his win-loss record.
Malcolm Armstead was the first one up the ladder. The senior point guard, the one who’d outplayed Aaron Craft all afternoon, made his way up the steps, scissors in hand, and gave a wave to the Wichita State crowd. After the climb down, Armstead tied his prize — a three-inch piece of Staples Center nylon — around the strap in his backward hat, and making his way out the lane, blurted to no one in particular:
“This is real.”
Questioned whether he actually believed that yet, Armstead said that for this team, he’d believe anything. “After everything we’ve been through,” Armstead said, “it’s real. From day one, just talking about the players and their life situations.” One of those situations belongs to Armstead — a transfer from Oregon who came to Wichita State without a scholarship and paid his own way by working part-time at a local car dealership. Carl Hall has his own story. Four years ago, a heart condition that caused more than one on-court collapse had forced him out of basketball. He didn't play for two years, opting for a job on an assembly line in a light bulb factory in Georgia. Eventually, church league games gave him confidence to return to the real thing, and his performance at Northwest Florida State caused Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall to take notice. And now, both Hall and Armstead — and the rest of the Shockers — roamed the Staples Center floor, wearing T-shirts declaring them regional champions, under a scoreboard that read Wichita State 70, Ohio State 66. The Shockers were going to the Final Four.
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.
As Aaron Craft dribbled down court last night, with the game tied and 20 seconds remaining, the Staples Center looked it might on any other night. A 4:45 p.m. local start time had meant a slow-arriving, slower-to-settle-in crowd, but by now, the place was mostly full, and everyone was on their feet. Craft took the ball from the top of the key, drew an extra defender, and found sophomore LaQuinton Ross for an open 24-footer on the left wing. With no hesitation, Ross pulled up. The shot went down with just two seconds left, giving Ohio State a 73-70 win and a trip to the Elite Eight, and the Buckeyes crowd, much of it contained directly behind the team’s bench, exploded.
Inside the Ohio State locker room — normally reserved for the Lakers — the scene was like it might be after a big win in March. The nameplates were missing, but the cameras were there. The horde gathered around Craft, his baby face still beet red, but rather than slide on their designer shoes and quickly make for the door, the game’s lesser names all sat hunched over in their chairs and dug into plates full of meatballs, pasta, and chicken. There are only so many free meals.
In case you were busy waiting in line at a food truck for what turned out to be not the best pork buns you've ever eaten, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday.
Syracuse rode a dominant defensive effort into the Elite Eight, upsetting the Indiana Hoosiers, 61-50. "It's a disappointing loss for sure, but we can hold our heads up knowing we went down to one of the best coaches of all time in Jim Boeheim," said Indiana head coach Tom Crean after the game. However, Crean was apparently unaware that Syracuse had replaced Boeheim two years ago with a VHS tape of alumnus Jerry Stiller yelling, "2-3! 2-3! Rotate! Rotate! Come on, boys, get it together," playing on a loop on the sideline.
Marquette continued its impressive tournament run, as Buzz Williams's Golden Eagles knocked out Miami, 71-61. This marks Marquette's first appearance in the Elite Eight since 2003, which means it's time for About Last Night's newest feature: "What Ever Happened To " For our first "What Ever Happened To " we're going to look at former Marquette star Dwyane Wade, who led his team to the 2003 Final Four. It turns out that Wade has been playing basketball professionally with the Miami Heat since his college days. Thus concludes our first episode of "What Ever Happened To " If you have an idea for a long-lost star who you want to track down, leave his or her name in the comments, and we'll look into it for you.
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.
In case you were busy soothing your aching joints with an old-fashioned Epsom salt soak, here's what you missed in sports last weekend.
The NCAA tournament Sweet 16 is set, and the biggest story thus far has been the run of Florida Gulf Coast University, who find themselves among college basketball's elite after an 81-71 win over San Diego State. Based on all my knowledge of the school from before the tournament started, "FGCU," which has probably been around for over a decade, has amassed a number of victories on their way to becoming a true school where NCAA basketball is played. The team features players, of which five play on the court at the same time, barring truly unusual circumstances, who shoot basketballs toward baskets, which is a thing those players do to get basketball points. They employ strategies regarding where they should run so that they can shoot basketballs from preferable positions, implemented by a coach with a unique backstory that I remember hearing about once but mostly forget. He might have been a baron of some sort? So mark it down in your personalized line drawing of college names: Florida Gulf Coast University is a school from Florida, probably located along the gulf coast, that plays basketball and is eligible for advancement in the NCAA basketball tournament. Up next for Florida Gulf Coast University is the University of Florida, a school that is also run by the state of Florida. Expect basketball shots, two strategic men telling basketball players what to do, and collusion.
Louisville, the tournament's no. 1 seed, advanced to the Round of 16 after dismantling Colorado State, 82-56, at the University of Kentucky's home court, Rupp Arena. Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said after the game, "Man, it's nice to be back at the old stomping ground, playing out of the home locker room. Hey, has anyone heard how the Wildcats are doing? No? Yeah, no, me neither. That's really unusual. But hey, tell John, old friend of mine, 'Thanks for the hospitality.' Also, we used all of the condiments that were in the fridge here. Hope that's not a problem."
Both Butler-Bucknell and Arizona-Belmont will be decided on the final play
Butler won by 12 and Arizona won by 17. Then again, these games technically weren’t over until after the final play, so technically I was correct (which is the best kind of correct).
At some point, Gus Johnson will trend on Twitter
Somebody get Darryl Worley back in the studio, because I’m starting to think we need him to call out America for forgetting about Gus.
(Shout-out to Grantland’s four country music fans who will get that joke.)
#Haith will also be trending
[***WAIT FOR MIZZOU GAME***]
Trey Burke will spoil the Nate Wolters coming-out party
Burke was just 2-for-12, but Wolters went 3-for-14. He finished with just 10 points and his team lost by 15. I’m officially on the board.
Before 2 p.m. EDT, the annoying commercial of this year’s tournament will have already revealed itself
I can’t tell if the commercials this year aren’t annoying or if they’re all just equally annoying. Either way, no clear-cut favorite has emerged. Yet.
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.
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.
The game that changed my mind about no. 2 Indiana and made me realize that maybe the Hoosiers weren't overrated, came on February 10, when I saw them play in Columbus, Ohio. That road win was so dominant, and so clear-cut, that the critiques previously leveled against Indiana — poor perimeter defense outside Victor Oladipo, Cody Zeller's tendency to get pushed out of the lane, lack of alternate scoring options (again, outside Oladipo) — started to seem inaccurate and irrelevant. Finally, a Big Ten pecking order had been established, and when Indiana rolled into East Lansing and came away with a four-point win against Michigan State, that was the confirmation. In the country's toughest conference, we knew which team belonged at the top of the totem pole.
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:
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.
I was going to make a video of Illinois's comeback against Indiana, but then my editor Sarah Larimer sent me some of the coolest guerrilla footage of the year, from someone standing on the baseline. It starts with Brandon Paul heading to the line for two and hitting the first on a bank shot that Spike Friedman rightly called the most underrated part of the game, and continues through the end: Oladipo's turnover, Oladipo's block, and the incredible inbounds play to end it. Credit goes to Rob McColley for the greatest non-TV footage of the season. It's six minutes long, but the good stuff happens in the first three: