In the interest of full-disclosure, I’m just going to say it: I’m running on fumes.
After four straight days of non-stop college basketball, I feel like Tom Hanks in the movie 'Castaway'; I’m disheveled, shirtless, 20 lbs. lighter than I was a month ago, and am pretty sure I stopped seeing colors at some point on Saturday afternoon. Loud noises scare me, the sun is my sworn enemy, and it’s been at least 100 hours since I was in a room with another living, breathing human being. Those though, are the joys of March.
And despite my pratfalls, it hasn’t stopped me from emptying my notepad, and filling the screen in front of you with a lot of words (most of them coherent), on everything that happened this weekend in college hoops.
Need a recap of everything that was? Too bad, I’m going to give it to you anyway.
Here is the weekend report card:
North Carolina (B+)
Let’s start at the top, and start with the all-time biggest downer any of us could ever imagine. That of course is the injured right wrist of North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall, an injury that could conceivably keep one of the key players in this entire tournament out the rest of March.
Now before we get too far into the Marshall mess, let me backtrack for a second, and give you all some background. As most of you already know, I’ve spent most of the season a bit underwhelmed by Carolina. A lot underwhelmed, actually. In essence, our relationship was like the movie ‘Meet The Parents.’ I was Robert DeNiro, they were Ben Stiller, and no matter what Carolina did over the course of the season, it just was never enough. When they beat Michigan State on a boat in November, I wasn’t impressed. When they beat Duke by 20 at Cameron, I wasn’t impressed. When Tyler Zeller tried to milk himself, I wasn’t impressed by that either (and yes, that’s definitely a ‘Meet The Parents’ reference, and definitely didn’t happen in real life. As far as I know of, anyway).
But Sunday? Sunday, I was impressed. For the first time all season, I saw what everyone else saw in Carolina from the beginning: A free-flowing, overwhelming offense that had more dangerous weapons than the entire North Korean military. At the lead was Marshall, who always seemed to find Harrison Barnes or Reggie Bullock for a three, or hit Zeller with a 75-foot chest pass for an uncontested lay-up. Carolina at its best, was literal poetry in motion.
That is, until word broke last night that Marshall had broken a bone in his wrist, putting his 2012 NCAA Tournament at risk.
Truthfully, it’s hard for me to put into words what the loss of this kid means. I can’t think of a single player that has more value to his team, or is more impactful on every possession than Marshall is to North Carolina. Thomas Robinson is close, but Kansas still beat Purdue despite an awful performance from him last night. Kentucky simply isn’t the same with Anthony Davis in the middle, but they can still get by with Eloy Vargas providing 40-50 percent of what Davis does.
But North Carolina without Marshall? It’s impossible. There is no back-up plan. Not only does Marshall have his fingerprints on everything they do on offense, but the entire offense was literally built for him. Fundamentally, North Carolina cannot run the same offense without him that they were running with him. The head of the snake has officially been cut off.
Now granted, as we got later into Sunday evening, reports did surface that Marshall will have surgery, and there is a possibly (albeit small) that he can play this weekend. For our sake, I hope he does. When it comes to this tournament, I’m not necessarily “rooting” for any specific team, but what I am rooting for is the best basketball, and for the most compelling teams to match up under the biggest games.
I don’t know if Kendall Marshall can play this weekend, or going forward, but I sure hope he can. It’s better for Carolina, better for us as fans if he’s on the court. Here’s to the hope for a speedy recovery.
Kansas’ Heart (A-)
Now, let’s get to something a little more fun, and that was Kansas’ wild, improbable comeback over Purdue Sunday night. I’m not saying it was the best game of the tournament, per se. But I’m not, not saying that either, if you know what I mean.
(You don’t? Let’s just move on then.)
In all seriousness , I’m just happy for Kansas, a club which unfairly has to carry the burden of every past team before them that has disappointed in the NCAA Tournament. We all know about the Jayhawks reputation, know that they too often lose to higher seeded teams, and that Bill Self is believed to gag in big spots. Believe me, there were a thousand bloggers, columnists and radio hosts ready to dust off their best Bill Self jokes had Kansas lost last night.
Me? I wasn’t one of those people.
Besides the fact that I have a bizarre affinity for Self (for which, Self might have to take out a restraining order), nothing bothers me more than when the national media tries to bring out old, boring clichés. Simply put, I don’t buy into the fact that “Bill Self can’t win the big one,” in the same way I don’t believe that there’s some strange karmic force keeping John Calipari from winning a National Championship. The truth is that college basketball rosters turn over so fast and so furious, that ultimately what happened last year has no relevance on what’s happening this year. I mean, what does Kansas losing to Northern Iowa in 2010 have to do the successes or failures of the 2012 team? Other than Tyshawn Taylor, there isn’t a single Kansas player who played in both games. What do the two have in common, other than the name on the uniform?
Of course none of that would’ve mattered had Kansas lost last night, but thankfully it never became an issue. Most importantly, the win over Purdue proved something that I had felt all season long, but could never prove: This Kansas team has plenty of talent, yes. But it has way more heart than talent.
You saw the game just like I did, and what stuck out to me was just how bad Kansas wanted it. I know every team wants to win every game this time of year, but there was something different about Kansas, something about the way Thomas Robinson was practically in tears trying to get his guys motivated, that seemed different than previous Kansas teams in previous years. It was almost like Robinson and his teammates could feel the pressure of previous seasons, hear the jokes already being made, and wanted no part of it.
Well either way, they delivered. With the game on the line, Kansas made every, single, big play down the stretch. They made two huge stops in the final minute, there was a couple big buckets by Elijah Johnson, a big block and rebound by Robinson, and the finishing dunk by Taylor (which by the way, was the most Tyshawn Taylor-ish play I could ever imagine). Kansas didn’t make all the plays, but they made the big ones when they absolutely needed them.
One final thought on Kansas and that’s that I thought Kenny Smith had one of his most poignant comments of the weekend during the TNT postgame show, when he said: “To win an NCAA Tournament, you’ve got to win at least one game when you’re not at your best.”
That was Kansas Sunday night. They didn’t play well for 40 minutes, but did play well enough to win.
And now, it’s on to the Sweet 16, Bill Self’s fifth in the last six years. Who said the guy can’t win big games?
Steve Kerr and Robbie Hummel (A+++)
For those who missed it, Kerr had a poignant comment of his own, when just seconds after Kansas-Purdue went final, he said (and I’m paraphrasing): “When Matt Painter gets back to Purdue, the first thing he should do is retire Robbie Hummel’s jersey.”
Simply put, that’s a perfect way to cap off an incredible career for Hummel. And since I don’t have much else to add on Hummel, I’d instead refer you to someone else’s writing. Gregg Doyel was in Omaha last night, at Kansas-Purdue and wrote one of the most masterful pieces of sports journalism I’ve read in a long time. Take a moment and check it out. You won’t be disappointed.
Sticking with Kerr, how about…
Kerr and Marv Albert (A+)
I don’t care if these guys only do half a dozen college games a year, because I'm telling you that outside of Sean McDonough, Bill Raftery and Jay Bilas, they are the best announcing crew in all of college basketball.
To which I ask: I know they have responsibilities announcing NBA games and everything, but is there any way we could get them to call a few more games next season? Would it be too much to ask to steal them for a few weekends in January or February? Maybe a big game or two in December? If not, does anyone know if it’s possible for me hire them to do play-by-play of my buddy’s bachelor party in April?
I guess what I’m trying to say is, I need more Steve Kerr and Marv Albert in my life. Someone please help me make this happen.
CBS’s Sunday TV Schedule (C)
Let me start off by prefacing this comment and saying that no matter what complaints I’m about to give, I fully understand that the TV schedule now (with the addition of TBS, TNT and truTV) is roughly 60,000 times better than it was just two years ago. I will always, always, ALWAYS be grateful for that.
However, if I did just have one tiny complaint to lodge with CBS (and it would be minor), it’s this: Do we really have to have so many Sunday night games? I mean seriously, who exactly does playing so many games, so late in the evening really benefit? Fans are tired from watching college hoops for four straight days, writers are on tight deadlines, teams have late flights home, and the people in the stands have to get up for work the next day. Is a 9:40 tip on a Sunday night really necessary? Especially when you’ve only got one game being played from 12-2, and only one more game from 2-4?
Again, I’m hardly complaining. At the same time, I’m thinking that next year let’s tone down the Sunday night games a bit. My suggestion? Stagger start times (meaning, one game each hour) starting one game each at 11 (an Eastern region of course), 12, 1, 2 and 3, start two games around 5, and have one big game (say Kansas-Purdue) as a night-cap at 7:30. That way we get to basically watch all the games in their entirety, we don’t have to flip around too much, and we’re still comfortably snoozing by 10:15 p.m. EST at the latest.
I mean seriously, would anyone have a problem with that?
Anyway, let’s move back to Saturday, and discuss…
A team at this point, I have no words to describe. The Wildcats were my preseason No. 1, my pick to win the title last week, and yet somehow are still getting better entering the last week of March. How is that fair?
Saturday proved that beyond a reasonable doubt. Besides the fact that they got all their regular contributions, Marquis Teague also came out of nowhere to have his best game in a Kentucky uniform. A 24-point, seven-assist effort is invaluable for any team; but when you’re the No. 1 team in the country, the prohibitive title favorite, and you get that from your seventh best player? Holy schnikes!
And really, that’s the crazy thing about Kentucky at this point. Entering Saturday’s game, you knew what to expect from them. You knew to expect complete domination in the paint from Anthony Davis, and somewhere between 8-10 altered shots a game. You knew to expect at least two of those thunderous Terrence Jones dunks that end with him flexing at no one in particular and staring into the camera, while the other team pushes the ball up-court. You knew to expect a few of those Kyle Wiltjer, “Oh yeah, we totally forgot about him” three’s, and for Darius Miller to make big plays all over the court. You knew to expect Mike Kidd-Gilchrist to do Mike Kidd-Gilchrist things. But Marquis Teague? Nobody was ready for the day that he put together a game like he did against Iowa State.
Well it happened Saturday, and I’ll tell you what. If it continues to happen again, nobody is beating Kentucky. Or even coming close for that matter.
Marquette-Murray State (B+)
Staying in the Louisville, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Marquette-Murray State game from earlier on Saturday. Granted, it wasn’t the prettiest game, and yes, the star of the game was undoubtedly the back iron on both baskets. At the same time, I can’t think of a better, more hotly contested, energetic game, from the opening tip until the last whistle. It was fast-paced, exciting and played hard, to the point that by the end of the game, even I needed an oxygen mask and power bar… and last time I checked, I didn’t even play.
Regardless, this game was everything that the tournament is supposed to be about. And when the score went final, it was the first time this March where I said, “Man, the loser here doesn’t deserve to go home.”
Murray State may have lost on Saturday, but they won’t be forgotten.
No.1 Seeds (B)
Sure it wasn’t always pretty (yeah, I’m looking at you Syracuse), but credit to all the No. 1 seeds are all still alive. Speaking of which, did you know this was the first time since 2009 that all four advanced to the second weekend?
Unfortunately, you also know what that means: Every schmuck in your office who picked all four No. 1 seeds to go to the Final Four is walking around with a little too much of a strut right now. Trust me, I hate those fools as much as you do.
The Refs (F)
It wouldn’t be a full report card without a couple of bad grades throwing off the bell curve, and well, this weekend, the referees were the worst. In an otherwise brilliant tournament, the zebras have simply been as bad, as bad can get.
A couple things here.
First off, I find it strange, ironic and stupid that any time anyone (including myself) tries to criticize the refs, someone jumps to their defense and says “they’re human, they make mistakes!” Of course they do. At the same time, that doesn’t mean that they should be absolved from those same mistakes either, the same way your boss wouldn't let you off the hook if you accidentally lit the break room on fire or something. The refs aren’t amateurs (like the kids on the court), but paid professionals, and in the same way we criticize the coaches getting paid big money, we need to criticize the refs, who get paychecks at the end of the day of the day too. If they can’t handle the heat, tell them not to step into the kitchen.
Now, with that little disclaimer out of the way, let’s start with the specifics, and start with those two goofy lane violation calls which got so much attention this weekend.
For starters, let me say that I understand that by the book, both were the right call. I get that. At the same time, I’ve got ask, if those calls were so freakin’ obvious, then why have I never seen that call made in… ANY OTHER GAME I’VE EVER WATCHED? EVER? Seriously, if I had to guess I’d say I watched parts of at least 500 college basketball games this season, and thousands over the course of my life, and over all those games, I’ve never seen that rule called. Not once. A rule is a rule, yes. Still, if the rule isn’t important enough to call on a Tuesday night in December, why is it important enough to call in the biggest games of the season?
Then there’s the old “Hanging on the rim” technical, which has to be the dumbest rule in sports. It bothered me in the regular season, but didn’t fully drive me bonkers until it inadvertently cost South Florida their season on Sunday night. If you didn’t see it, the call was made with South Florida up by five with nine minutes left. After the (dumb) technical was called, Ohio got the ball, got two technical foul shots and made a three, turning the call into a five-point possession for Ohio, and handing them all the momentum. Now I’m not saying it cost South Florida the game. What I am saying is that the game would’ve been just fine if the call had never been made.
And finally, there’s the block/charge call, which at this point isn’t just bad, but a downright epidemic. Off the top of my head, the referees egregious misunderstanding of this rule swung at least two games, when Vanderbilt was called for six- SIX (yes, both bold and italicized to prove a point)- offensive fouls in their loss to Wisconsin and when Georgetown’s Henry Sims was hit with two charges in the first couple minutes of play (neither of which, was a charge by the way), sending him to the bench. Ultimately, I’m not saying those calls cost either team a win, but they did completely change the course of the game.
A couple things bother me about the block/charge epidemic.
The first is that taking charges has officially gone beyond “trendy fad” into “legitimately lame defensive tactic.” The days of trying to contest shots and make solid basketball plays, has been replaced by simply trying to slide your feet in under the opponent and get a call the other way. In the process, it helps no one. Not the refs trying to make the calls, not the players who just want to play ball without the whistle blow every 10 seconds, and not the fans who pay good money for their seat in the arena. And the sad thing is I can’t totally blame the players. As I said repeatedly on Twitter this weekend, I don’t know why any college basketball player would ever contest a shot at this point. Why jump when you’re going to get a charge called nine times out of 10.
Also, you know what really pisses me off? That no two games are refereed the same.
At the same exact time that the 2012 Wisconsin Flop Fest (against Vandy) was going on, Marquette and Murray State were playing one of the most hotly contested games of the tournament. In that game, the pace was up and down, the style of play just as physical, but there was one noticeable difference… the refs swallowed their whistles. Two days later I still haven’t heard anyone complaining about it.
Anyway, let me wrap up by telling one quick story.
Late Sunday, my buddy James, a huge Knicks fan who doesn’t watch much college basketball until the tournament, sent me a note on Twitter.
This was how his tweet read, word for word:in college do you not have to have your feet set to take a charge?
The sad thing is, he was 100 percent serious.
If that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about the refereeing in this year’s tournament, nothing will.
In addition to another disappointing end to Vanderbilt’s season (which I blame more on the refs than anything), I must say, what did the poor folks of Nashville do to deserve the games they got in their region this weekend.
I mean seriously, look at what those people had to suffer through. You could argue that South Florida-Ohio was the least compelling game of the weekend, and while I heard Florida State-Cincy was a great game, if a game tips off at 2:40 a.m. EST and no one sees it, did it really happen?
Apparently, someone in Nashville did something to piss off the basketball Gods. Why do I feel like Kevin Stallings was in some way involved?
Greg Anthony and ‘March Monotony’ (D-)
Look, I know Mr. Anthony was probably paid a lot of money by T-Mobile, or whatever the company was who produced those commercials, and honestly, nobody loves more money than me. I understand why those 'March Monotony' commercials ran all weekend.
But I mean at the same time…. eeks, how awful were they? I feel like from now on, every time I even hear the word “monotony” I'll get uncomfortable, and probably get that same queezy feeling in my stomach I do whenever one of Rick Barnes’ teams is up by two points with 90 seconds to go.
At the very least, ‘March Monotony’ has definitely replaced Aaron Rodgers ‘Discount Double Check’ as my least favorite sports-themed commercial of 2012.
The Big East (B+)
If you needed any further proof that the NCAA Tournament is an event that’s totally dependent on matchups, well, I present you the Big East. How ironic is it that last year the Big East was considered to be arguably the best college basketball conference of all-time and only got two teams in the Sweet 16, yet this year we all agreed it was “down” and got four teams to the second weekend? How goofy is that?
Xavier and Cincy (A+++)
Let’s toast to the idea that we are now only four wins from each away from having a Cincinnati-Xavier rematch for the NCAA Tournament title. In case you don’t remember what happened the last time they played, I highly encourage you to check out the video below.
Simply put, if your team isn’t still in the tournament, you need to be rooting for this.
Draymond Green (A)
We are now 3,500 words in and I’m running on fumes at this point, so I’ll be quick and blunt: If you don’t appreciate everything Draymond Green does for Michigan State, you simply don’t understand basketball.
North Carolina State (A-)
It’s ok, I already know what you’re thinking, and I feel the same way… Every time I see Mark Gottfried on my TV screen I feel like he’s going to try and sell a 1994 Oldsmobile with the odometer turned back. The guy could go to six Final Fours and have a hospital named after him, and I don’t think I’d feel any different.
But you know what? I don’t care. In a tournament where matchups are everything, let me tell you, North Carolina State is a bad matchup for everyone. Everyone. They have a good point guard in Lorenzo Brown, two of the most versatile bigs anywhere (CJ Leslie and Richard Howell) and a shooter in Scott Wood. Basically, they’re just like Duke… only the exact opposite.
Also, I found it interesting that in yesterday’s postgame show, Charles Barkley mentioned something that I had been thinking as well: If Kansas isn’t afraid of NC State, they should be.
In addition, let me ask: Can you think of one good reason why NC State can’t get out of the Midwest region and go to the Final Four, because I can’t.
I’m not saying that the Wolfpack should be favored, or that they will beat Kansas. At the same time, they do present plenty of matchup problems for the Jayhawks, and if they were to sneak by Kansas would have a matchup with either an injury ravaged Carolina team or Ohio ahead of them. Considering that they nearly beat the Tar Heels when they had a healthy Kendall Marshall, you mean to tell me that NC State can’t get to New Orleans? I sure think they can.
And the final grade goes to…
The First Weekend of the NCAA Tournament (A++++++++)
Which there is simply nothing like.
The games will start up again this Thursday, but it just won’t be the same.
Until the second weekend of March next year…
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And finally if you haven't heard, Aaron Torres has written a new book, 'The Unlikeliest Champion' on last year's NCAA Tournament Champion UConn Huskies. It's available in paperback and on Kindle right now at Amazon.com! )