NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 10: Chane Behanan #24 of the Louisville Cardinals celebrates after defeating the against the Cincinnati Bearcats during the finals of the Big East Men's Basketball Tournament at Madison Square Garden at Madison Square Garden on March 10, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Heiman/Getty Images)
The NCAA Tournament has provided a perfect Final Four scenario with the biggest rivalry in college hoops -- Kentucky vs. Louisville -- taking center stage in New Orleans. Plus: Roy Williams gets outcoached, Tiger isn't really back, and more.
Congratulations to the NCAA, which managed to crown a Final Four this weekend without the NFL stealing all its shine! Just in the nick of time, too, for Monday would have been too late. That's right -- Tim Tebow's having a press conference.
But back to college hoops ...
Who else can't wait for Kentucky-Louisville? Let's get this out of the way: Kentucky-Louisville is the best rivalry in college basketball. Because the series was discontinued for 61 years and has not received the same promotion as Duke-North Carolina (essentially an ESPN property), it does not fully resonate nationally. But what two fan bases could more capably fill the Superdome, a football stadium, with their passions and long-standing vitriol than these two?
Expect a crowd up there with the nearly 80,000 who attended the BCS Championship. The fans can't stand each other, the coaches aren't chummy, and the two schools combined boast as many national championships as the Blue Devils and Tar Heels. CBS couldn't have asked for a better matchup in the national semifinal, nor could it have expected it. No one ever would have imagined Louisville would make it this far. Now, few can imagine Kentucky losing in this tournament. There's a contrast in styles and expectations, a classic David vs. Goliath showdown within fierce rivalry, played at the sport's pinnacle. I can't imagine a better way to spend a couple of hours on a Saturday evening. Get ready for a game we may talk about forever. Speaking of Louisville...
It's Rick Pitino's turn to laugh. On March 29, 2009, Louisville was the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament and lost to Michigan State in the Elite Eight. Within 72 hours, Kentucky hired John Calipari. From that moment on, everything for both schools looked different. It wasn't long before Pitino was on the ropes, knee-deep in a federal extortion trial, losing recruits, and looking to be on fumes. But none of those things made him any less the basketball tactician, and he's one of the greatest. That is the only explanation for how in Hades Pitino got this team, ranked 101st in adjusted offensive efficiency by kenpom.com, to the Final Four. That's 50 spots lower than last year's Butler team that set the sport of basketball back. Yet, here's Rick Pitino, right where he swore he'd return. Aside from coaching the legendary ‘96 Kentucky squad, this is the most impressive run in Pitino's illustrious career.
In case you forgot, Ohio State's pretty good. For weeks, I noted that the Buckeyes were a power team ripe for the upset because of their inability to hit three-pointers. To make the Final Four, they absolutely could not fall behind. So, they didn't. The Buckeyes held on through the first half while Jared Sullinger sat with foul trouble, got good shots in the second half, and crushed Syracuse on the boards. Three Buckeyes had three or more offensive rebounds, while Syracuse had two players with more than three total boards. But nah, there's nothing wrong with playing zone defense all game long. Right, 'Cuse fans? Or would you rather talk about...
Another lackluster performance by the zebras. The officials were awful in Boston. It's impossible to believe a team playing so much zone could commit 28 fouls in 40 minutes of basketball. No one can answer whether or not that cost the Orange the game, but all can agree the officiating in this year's tournament has interfered with our ability to watch the games. We are all far too familiar with the nuances of the flagrant foul rules. Why? Because they're flashed on the screen almost once a damn game while the refs look on a monitor to see if a player's head was hit, triggering some mandatory minimum punishment. Rarely in college basketball are officials in the background. They cannot be avoided, and that's the worst thing anyone could say about them. The rules should be there to help officials maintain the flow of a game, not to give the zebras an excuse to have their say. And in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, the officials have said far too much.
But back to Syracuse ... and a job well done. One could argue how much of the din in the background of Syracuse’s season was their own fault, but that doesn’t mean Jim Boeheim and his team doesn’t deserve credit for what it accomplished this season. They lost their top assistant coach, Bernie Fine, at the beginning of the season as his child molestation scandal came to light. Their best defensive player, Fab Melo, was in and out with academic issues, and out for the tournament. Yahoo! came a-knockin’. Through it all, the Orange won game after game. They reached the Elite Eight for the first time in nine years. And considering the games were won by players who had little, if anything, to do with the surrounding drama, the Syracuse Orange deserves applause for what it’s done this season.
So now Bill Self is a great coach, right? There were no less than three games that, based on his tenure at Kansas, looked ripe for Self to find a way to lose. Those are the games that look like the Jayhawks should win, but the other team is just talented enough to keep it close. Self and his teams would wind up looking tight, and clever terms like "Bradnell" were born. This time, Kansas won all of those games. It withstood a phenomenal performance from Purdue and Robbie Hummel in the third round, held off upstart NC State in the Sweet 16, and beat North Carolina when Self made Roy Williams seem clueless. If a national title didn’t shake Bill Self’s bad rep in big games, maybe this year’s path to the Final Four -- with a team that isn’t exceedingly talented -- will do the trick.
What happened to Harrison Barnes? Much of the attention on Barnes is unfair. He was overhyped coming into school, but we all know better now, so there’s no use in rehashing that. That said, it was Barnes who seemed most offended when ESPN’s Doug Gottlieb said North Carolina couldn’t make the Final Four without Kendall Marshall. And one of the biggest reasons Gottlieb was correct was that no player’s game improves more in Marshall’s presence than Barnes’. It wasn’t until Roy Williams benched Larry Drew in 2011 that Barnes even showed glimpses of being the superstar he was forecast to be. And without him, in St. Louis, the sophomore forward often was invisible. He scored 13 points on 14 shots, putting up two fewer points than freshman James Michael McAdoo. The problem isn't that Barnes didn’t live up to the hype. It’s that he didn’t live up to this moment, and he was just like the rest of the Tar Heels when they needed a basket late -- scared to shoot. Marshall should make him better, but without him Sunday, Barnes shouldn’t have been irrelevant.
Tebowmania East. The Jets are holding the rare introductory presser for a backup quarterback Monday, and it will be so attended that the Jets had to move it to the practice field to accommodate attending media. What he says won't be particularly interesting. How his style is received by the media will be the story. He's not playing in Jacksonville or Denver. He'll be in New York City, where his brand of religiosity isn't nearly as common as it has been in his previous stops. He'll be in a city that appreciates edge at least as much as a pristine image. Tebow is a worldwide phenomenon, but New York has never cared much about what the rest of us think. And if they're not feeling him, we'll hear about it. That's before he plays, while he's on the field, and even years after he retires. There's a whole new ballgame waiting for Tebow, and the first pitch is thrown Monday.
No, Tiger Woods is not back. But see, if the NCAA Tournament is still going on, then they couldn't have played The Masters over the weekend. So I've got another week and change before I've got to pretend to care about golf, or before Tiger does something that truly rates. If Woods finishes 10th in Augusta, would anyone who says he's back now stick by that statement? That's what I thought. Holla back.
Was the Heat’s hoodie Twitpic a big deal? Those who pine for the good ol’ days when athletes stood for something were thrilled to see the Heat take a photo in hooded sweatshirts as a response to the shooting of Trayvon Martin. While the display was noteworthy, most interesting has been the lack of surrounding controversy. Maybe it was a sign to other athletes that the consequences for speaking on social issues aren’t as dire as many are led to believe. Or maybe it was a subtle reminder that there’s nothing controversial about opposing the profiling of people on the basis of wearing a garment sold at your local Wal-Mart. Either way, for better or worse, that Twitpic came and went. The story behind it? If only...