The NBA playoffs are in full swing, and as the amazing continues to happen, the Grantland crew wants to help you buff up on some of the lesser-known faces who will be populating basketball's second season.
Who Is He? Draymond Green.
Where Is He From? Michigan State.
Years Played: Rookie.
What’s His Salary? $850,000.
Nickname: In college, Tom Izzo used to call him “Tragic Johnson,” which was apparently meant with as much love and admiration as could be possible.
His Game in 25 Words or Less: A below-the-rim tweener whose only plus NBA skill is his passing. Relies on positioning and discipline to be an adequate defender.
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.
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.
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.
Remember that period in college basketball history when the last two weeks of December were the worst of the season? When exam time and cupcake schedules made for a miserable, dormant period leading up to the excitement of conference play? That epoch lasted from 1891, when James Naismith invented basketball, to 2011, when Kansas beat Toledo A&M 145-6 on December 31.* But it all came to an end in 2012, because, holy sweet Moses, we were treated to some spectacular action in the last two weeks of 2012. (I want you all to know how hard it was for me not to swear in that sentence. Right now, looking back, I can spot nine different places where an f-bomb would've felt really good.) It started with three exciting games on Saturday the 22nd, when Temple upset Syracuse, Kansas beat Ohio State, and Missouri out-gunned Illinois, and continued all the way to New Year's Eve and Gonzaga's road win over Oklahoma State. Hardly a day passed without a great game, or at least an interesting one. Our fan cups ranneth over.**
*Some liberty is taken with historical facts.
**My fan cup has a magazine photo of Coach K steam-pressed onto the side.
It felt like I should've been there for you guys, writing something smart, but instead I just gorged on cookies and pie at my mom's house for two weeks. In the end, I think I made the right choice. (You don't know heaven until you've dipped a snickerdoodle into pumpkin pie and then poured milk all over yourself just because it's not your furniture and you've always wondered what that would be like.) But to atone for my absence during that solid stretch of hoops, I've put together a few videos of the most amusing/heartbreaking/theatrical moments of the year-end frenzy, and I'll include them along with the top 10 games of the weekend.
There are times when sports give me the urge to stand on my rickety wooden desk (Target, $80 in 2005), brave the first wobbles, and shout some English-based gibberish while gesticulating like an insane maestro. Tuesday night's Michigan State-Wisconsin finish prompted one of these episodes, and today I can't restrain myself from thinking this cliché: If I live 1,000 years, there will still be something to surprise me in sports. It never ends.