Madness, Seen and Read

I didn’t watch a single regular-season NCAA basketball game this year. Some college hoops purists would snort that this puts me in the same category as (Sir) Charles Barkley, the NBA opinionator who parachutes down to see what higher (basketball) education has to offer to the pros, when national tournament frenzy grips the upper Americas. It puts me in the same boat as lots of people, actually, who join me in filling out a bracket — after ignoring the game all year — for all the unpredictable agony and ecstasy that reduce 64 hopeful squads to four, in two four-day weekends.

Sometimes, I can get some good video from here in Dalian. Often, though, madness takes its toll…

Unlike most late-March bandwagon-jumpers, though, I care about the college game, though I can’t watch any of it here in China. (I suppose I could try to stream games on my computer, but that’s not a hassle I volunteer for easily. It reminds me of my youth, when college games were hard to find on Canadian TVs, when even The Tournament was only partly available in the early rounds. That was before March Madness became a Brand.) I did see the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels live, minus their likely one-and-done Canadian star, Anthony Bennett, when they edged the Carleton Ravens in Ottawa last summer on a northern exhibition tour. I have read about some of the Canuck lads who had jumped when Division 1 basketball offers: Brady Heslip at Baylor, Bennett, Ottawa’s Jahenns Manigat at Creighton, Junior Cadougan at Marquette, and especially the starring roles played by Kelly Olynyk and Kevin Pangos at Gonzaga, a top-ten ballclub all year. For various longstanding reasons, some not ridiculous, I pull for UCLA when they’re not too embarrassing, Michigan State even though they wear green, and Duke though it somehow brands me as elitist/racist/a frontrunner/a follower of the Dark Side. (I can also remember when the Blue Devils were the little-engine-that-could-graduate-players-and-still-win, but now they inspire hatred and derision at levels that make me scratch my head and despair at American education. I digress.)

Pangos is 4. No. 5, Bell, blew an ankle and was missed down the stretch. Olynyk is the big guy in the back.

Well, my bracket’s shot, as are most. I picked exactly EIGHT of the “sweet sixteen” teams that survived the Thursday/Saturday or Friday/Sunday pair of games that sent 48 teams (shudder) back to the classroom. (Allegedly.) Early last Friday morning, I got up hoping to watch an odd, characteristically Madness-flavoured matchup between national power Michigan, and their sure-fire NBA lottery pick Trey Burke, and the small-town-special Jackrabbits from South Dakota State, and their late-blooming point guard counterpart to Burke, a blonde and lanky Minnesotan named Nate Wolters. I’d read, thanks mainly to

Not many threes from S.D. State’s No. 3, or much in the way of treys from Mr. Burke, either. Still, an interesting matchup.

one feature article on the Grantland site last year, nearly as much about the remarkable numbers Wolters was putting up in mid-American obscurity as I have about the rise of young Mr. Burke to the NBA millions that have appeared inevitable since he was a high schooler. (And in the wake of the match, Grantland ran this sequel, which followed the Jackrabbits from Selection Sunday to their midnight flight home from Michigan, hopes and dreams and beanstalks withered. It’s a great look inside Division 1 basketball, away from the big dogs that lead the pack in the power conferences.) All of which to say, I didn’t know much about either kid, and I’d never seen them play.

Even among fans, I’m sure few Americans had ever seen Wolters play outside of his one previous appearance last March, and probably not even then. I like his story, surely in part because it’s a familiar one to me. He was lightly recruited (I never was recruited at all), and he came from a small town (ditto). He emerged from basketball nowhere to have, now, modest chat room buzz about where he’ll go in the NBA draft (and despite a substantial talent gap, he still reminds me of small town, country and reservation kids I coached for years, hoping one would someday get to The Next Level; none even made a Canadian university team, when I do the final sheepish accounting). Wolters’s modest aspirations probably didn’t extend to NBA levels until he was well into his college career, while we couldn’t even process an NBA dream when I was a kid; it would have been like hoping against hope to one day ride my bike around the rings of Saturn.

Maybe because it was early morning, I could see the South Dakota-Michigan game on my computer almost without pauses for buffering. It was the only one I was able to receive so clearly. Michigan, after years of unaccustomed wandering in the wilds of basketball mediocrity, are again a national power, though they’d had some uncertain steps throughout the year, and I picked (go figure) the Jackrabbits to bloody the Wolverines. I was fascinated with Wolters, and everybody loves to predict an upset. However, the point guard matchup was fairly underwhelming, as they defended each other competently and neither shot the ball well. Michigan, though, has at least a couple of other future NBA-ers, and they were too strong for a plucky bunch from a small school whose enrollment is bigger than the town that surrounds it. No blowout, but a solid win for the big boys. My bracket was off to a good (i.e. predictably horrible) start.

But Duke made another Sweet 16, and I’ve always admired the Coach K Blue Devils and once attended this clinic. (I was a high school Blue Devil, but even though Dook is a basketball machine now and their coach a corporate icon, I still believe that they mostly do it the right way, that many/most of their players actually get something resembling an actual college degree.) Louisville presses full-court, which I love, and they’re looking strong. My best basketball buddy, now watching from the best seats in The House, loved the Bobby Knight Hoosiers, and I’m nostalgic enough to be glad to see Indiana back as a national contender. I missed Florida Gulf Coast University, like everybody else did. (A fifteen seed?!) I should’ve had Oregon pulling at least one upset as a 12 seed, since  twelves knock off fives every year. (Three out of the four 12 seeds won this year, and I missed them all. Rookie mistake by a should-be wily veteran.) Unlike the mighty Rabbits, La Salle has won its first two games (three counting the play-in game) as a 13 seed, which gets my attention since Canada’s best university team, the Carleton Ravens, lost to them by 3 in Philadelphia last November. And a number 14, Harvard (!!) “shocked the world” (of New Mexico fans) by schooling the Lobos. I’ve been reading about ALL these games furiously, trying to feel part of the Madness and succeeding in bits and pieces. I know hundreds of nearly useless things.

The game I really wanted to see, especially after they almost made history as the first top-seed to go down in the first round, was Gonzaga against Wichita State. The Bulldogs, now more often called the “Zags”, are that former mid-major darling that used to make exciting tournament runs as the “Cinderella” team, but now that they are consistently good, people are almost as sick and resentful of them as they are of Duke. (Friends, I’m sorry, but this is weird. We love the upstart from the small town/city, but then loathe them when they show sustained success?) Gonzaga also has the two Canadian stars, Kevin Pangos and Kelly Olynyk, so I was all-in from the patriotic angle, too.

It was only a slight consolation that, as it turns out, the 9th-seeded Wichita State Shockers (it’s a wheat thing) team that, um, startled Gonzaga has a couple of Canadian lads sitting on the bench for them, which was after-the-fact news to me. (One, Chadrack Lufile, hails from Burlington, Ontario, not far from my hometown, and he did get some useful big-man minutes against the Zags. The other, Nick Wiggins, didn’t, but he isthe older brother of the Next Big Thing in college basketball, possibly the first Canadian to be the top draft pick

Don’t go to Kentucky, Andrew.

of the NBA, in 2014. His name is Andrew Wiggins. O, Canada.) I couldn’t watch it live; the feed was impossibly slow on my local Chinese server. Because it was my last chance this year to see Pangos and Olynyk, and first time ever, in fact, I sat down and watched the replay on my little laptop screen even once I knew the result and had read numerous post-mortems. I had read about these two young men quite a bit, and continue to do so. My rampant favouritism towards Bill and Patti Pangos, a lovely couple I knew for a short while, caused me to chafe that the Zags coach, Mark Few, needed to turn Kevin loose! (I try never to let my lack of familiarity prevent me from making fearless critiques of other coaches.1) And although Olynyk is obviously a gifted big man, so quick and so skilled, one of the best collegiate players in

Don’t go to the NBA, Mr. O. You haven’t had The Big Shout yet.

America, he showed the strain of expectations. Come on, Kelly. One more year with Kevin in Spokane. The NBA will still be there. You still have some muscle and some domineering confidence to gain, and a Final Four to reach. Coach Jay is always there for wise counsel to the oblivious.

So, heading into the second big weekend, I say a little prayer for my Internet connection. I want to watch Louisville. I want to see La Salle against Wichita State in a battle of double-digit seeds. Duke-Michigan State. Florida, against their cross-state little brothers at FGCU. I want the Hoosiers to de-pulp the Orangemen. (I’ve always disliked Syracuse.) My bracket is largely destroyed, so here’s my revised Elite Eight prediction: Louisville will play Duke, Wichita State gets favoured-Canadians status and the right to be drilled by Ohio State, Kansas gets Florida, and Indiana faces their little in-state brother, Butler. (Uh-oh. I do love Butler, but I know they lost in the round of 32. I’m still in denial, as I am with the other defeated Bulldogs, those from Gonzaga. Right. Marquette.) Okay, Marquette has a Canuck point guard named Junior Cadougan. So go, Marquette!

My buddy Don loved Al McGuire, too. So I can get with Marquette.

May the spirits of former coaches Al McGuire and Rick Majerus guide you! (And now that I think of it that way, I just found my new favourite dark-horse team. And their coach, Buzz Williams, is rumpled and quirky and brilliant, like those two dearly departed predecessors. I’m getting a Buzz.)

My only two Final Four candidates from my original bracket are Duke and Indiana, so I’ll stick with that as my final, with the Hoosiers raising another banner to the ceiling in that oddly shaped Assembly Hall arena. Whom do you have? (And what was your initial pick?)

And you’re welcome.

1 Here’s what I wrote to Bill, Kevin Pangos’s father and a long-time university head coach in Canada: Well, dad, here’s what I saw from afar in my first view of Kevin and Kelly. You will no doubt forgive my bias, which grew from my long-ago association with you and Patty, what I’ve read of Kevin’s career so far, and probably from the way Doug Gottlieb spoke about his leadership on the telecast. I think Kevin should have taken over more. Is that something Coach Few would support? (My ill-informed opinion is that he holds the reins pretty tightly, and his success is a testament to how well trained his horses are. But sometimes you gotta let ’em run!) Especially once Bell was out, Kevin seemed too dutiful to me in doing the good-little-point-guard thing, passing too often to “open” guys off the pick’n’roll, especially to a determined non-shooter like David Stockton. I wanted him to take over, keep the ball in his hands ’til he had something he really liked. And you? As for Kelly, he seemed to feel the pressure, especially when he had opportunities to score inside. What skill, though!

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  1. […] in every hoopshead’s favorite March-April past time: NCAA March Madness. He first checked in during the early rounds, now he’s coming back to us with a Final Four update. To all our peeps in China who […]

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