NCAA Hoops Lookback: The Fatal Four

Due to, in no particular order, the following factors –

  • a super-concentrated acidic splash by John Oliver, indicting and ridiculing the entire NCAA basketball enterprise (can’t hyperlink right now, but it’s here: ),
  • my own manic attention to the CIS version of March Madness, spent watching the games of the (Ontario University Athletics) Wilson Cup and the following week’s Final 8 in Toronto (and a blizzard of hoops-related words that can be accessed just down there),
  • we don’t have a television hook-up, and apparently one of Howdy’s Current Foundational Principles (HCFP) is the refusal to pay for live-streaming of games on my laptop,
  • I don’t have many basketball friends,
  • increasing miles on the spectator-sport odometer, games-related grumpiness, impatience with commercials, crankiness over announcers’ clichés, and
  • (possibly?) growing good sense –

I didn’t watch any of the opening weekend of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. (HCFP No. 2: the “play-in games” earlier in the week to decide the last four Cinderellas invited to the Big Dance of 64 do not count. Round 1 of the tournament starts Thursday, not Tuesday. Lines must be drawn. <cough> Ahem. Right. It’s not climate-change denial or global terrorism, but from tiny seeds does a mighty apocalypse grow.)

(None of which explains why I’m writing about it so late. I plead lethargy, sloth, intermittent apathy and mild existential angst. And books. I was tired of writing there for a bit — well, my own, anyway. Glad that’s all over now!)

Okay, and since truthfulness is the foundation of all human virtues, and I do aspire to virtuosity of some kind or another, I clarify: I did invite myself to Bernie and Wendy’s living room for the second Gonzaga game in the opening weekend, in case they failed again to make it to the Sweet 16. The Zags did, though CBS had switched to Oklahoma/Dayton, which had very little interest for me even though Dyshawn Pierre is an Ontario kid I liked reading about from China last March, during the Flyers’ stirring run ascent to the Sweet 16, to national jock consciousness and, lest we forget, to millions of new dollars flowing to a previously obscure Ohio school. (Well, obscure from an athletic point of view, that is. To me. I know nothing of its standing in biomedical research or the teaching of the humanities.  And who would care about THAT?)

Yes, and I waited ‘til the actual weekend of the second weekend — also known as The Elite Eight — jimmied the rear door at Wendy and Bernie’s (twice), and lingered like an especially blue-cheesy smell in their otherwise pleasant back kitchen. Here’s what I saw:

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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.

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Dream On, Yanks

If you’re a basketball lover, 1992 seems like a long time ago. In Barcelona, the American “Dream Team” of mainly NBA pros (‘member who the lone collegian was?) waltzed and shimmied and giggled and jammed their way to uncontested wins over the world. (It was Duke U’s Christian Laettner.) Only ten years later, Dream Team Whatever was griping and stumbling its way to a sixth place finish in the world championship, right in Indianapolis. Then came another shock with the scuffling bronze in Olympic Athens. And so the Americans have gotten serious. They have player commitments through to Beijing in 2008. They have had actual tryouts. They have trained. And they hammered most of their opponents, though the Italians obviously got neither the memo nor the white flag. And come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve heard anybody dropping the “Dream Team” name for a while now.

And then came Greece. Did you see it? I’m fascinated by this surprising (but the more I think of it, not stunning) semifinal result, 101-95 for the Greek national team. They have not one NBA-er. (That will change.) In part, this is due to a 180 degree turn in the sociology of sport — turnabout fair play? — a case of a racism reversal from the once-widespread resistance to accepting black athletes. In basketball, certainly among its North American fans, there is now obvious suspicion about Caucasian ones, Nowitzki and Gasol and Nash notwithstanding. Perhaps a topic for another day.

Anyhow, I wouldn’t have thought the Americans would lose with their improved preparation, but then I’m a Coach K fan and a Bosh/Wade/Heinrich/Battier/Brand fan AND a build-for-the-future fan. Once (if ever) the basketball public in the States gets over the bitterness, it may be a good thing that they did lose. (I’m a big Silver Linings fan, too. It helps make sense of all the seemingly lost causes I’ve embraced, not to mention the ones I’ve coached!) At least now the Americans can’t so easily say “our game is fine”, even though it’s tough to find great shooters or passers or, apparently, defenders. Meanwhile, the Canadian hockey establishment continues to bellow exactly that, even when the NHL’s dash and delight are mainly imported from Europe. That’s where the NBA goes looking for outside shooters now, too, although the top scorers are still homegrown.

The Don, my one-time coach and long-time coaching buddy, wasn’t short of opinions. He views the American game as follows: about looking good, not about winning…can’t defend…it’s all 1 on 5…it was men against boys – talented boys, but boys…they don’t create for anyone but themselves…Coach K needs more time, I suppose, and so do a trio of superbly talented captains whose average age must be about 22.7. Yup, they’re young. From what I can tell, the players had their heads on pretty straight, but they started into their victory lap a bit too soon in the Greece game. For a change they had started quickly, and maybe they thought they could cruise from there. (That worked against Angola in ’92, but not against Greece on an ’06 evening in Japan. The Americans would even have to pay attention against a massively improved Angola squad, these days.)

Post-game email of the day was The Don at his most acerbic. Answer: BALL MOVEMENT. (Question: What aspect of the game does Team USA know nothing about?) John Stockton, come back! But he acknowledges their youth, and recognizes what the American players themselves may be starting to get. The international game is different. Clearouts don’t work so well. The individualism that sells so many NBA tickets, but that remains the bane of purists such as the immortal Coach John Wooden, can now be countered and even overcome by the teamwork and experience of national sides whose players have spent so much of their development together.

There are a few voices, mostly drowned out by the And 1 videos, that have been crying in the American sporting wilderness about how poorly taught too many of the best American kids are. (It’s the same in Canada for hockey.) While most thoughtful youth sports people advocate a 2:1 ratio of practices to games, it’s often the reverse (or worse), especially in the summer camps, the AAU all-star tournaments, and the high school hoops factories masquerading as private academies (the “diploma mills”).

Athletic kids can pick up flashy ballhandling, dunk-sickness and a certain kind of brittle, macho competitiveness from each other. Many of them, though, suffer from a lack of fundamental coaching – glaringly evident when it comes to shooting the ball – as opposed to just playing game after meaningless game. There are some who think this accounts for some of the problems in American ball. Kids play so many games that are really just about an individual’s Oooh Factor that, quite aside from limited skills, they develop an “oh, well” attitude toward team wins and losses. The elite kids must be playing 80 or more games per year for four or five different teams. Loyalty? Team feeling? The hoary old benefits of playing team sports? Hmmm.

Maybe the K can develop these things with the marvellously talented young men he has chosen. (And maybe a few others, speaking of Kobe.) Canada will have a heckuva job just qualifying for Beijing, especially since this loss means that the Americans will now have to compete for one of the same qualifying spots as we are. (Good luck, red ‘n’ white!) But that’s not the only reason I have for not gloating over the American loss, as many will. As long as they’re not playing against the maple leaf, I have no problem cheering for this American squad. Maybe what they’re learning will help make team play cool again. Now there’s a dream.

Tournament Time

It’s March Break for all the school kiddies, and I still feel like taking a week off. I spent a lot of years desperate for the break from the chalk-stained grind of teaching. I’d have put away my whistle by now, too, because high school ball was finished. Provincial championships were decided last Friday (and who won? I can’t believe how clueless I am these days). The days are longer and brighter and the ice and snow are melting furiously.

But the biggest sign of spring is good ol’ March Madness, the NCAA tournament back with all its hoary old stories that I can’t get enough of: the grizzled old coach faces his protégé, the little-known mid-major David faces the big-time razzle-dazzle Goliath, the hard-luck athlete triumphs over his disadvantaged background…(and who knows, he may even graduate one fine day!)

As much as I love Davids — the teams I coached were generally composed of skinny or lead-footed underdogs with slingshot dreams — I’m pulling for Duke. People say they’re the Evil Empire, that they’re the Yankees, for cryin’ out loud, but I don’t see them that way. They’re good because they’re GOOD, because Mikey recruited ’em good and made ’em better. They play hard. They play together. They graduate. And besides, I Was A Teenage Blue Devil, and later coached for years at that same small-town high school. (“Devils Rule!” was our football team’s favourite slobbering victory chant, which might have been a bit disturbing to our local church elders; thank God nobody paid much attention to high school sports! Whew.) In ’01, I went to a fall coaches’ clinic at Cameron Indoor Stadium, where we could watch the Dookies practice and then hear from Coach K and the boys about what they were trying to accomplish. Their practices were tough, disciplined, ferociously competitive and surprisingly profane.

American college athletics is a deeply hypocritical institution, in many ways, and the abuses in the name of big-time sport are easy to find and may be getting worse. But Lord help me, I still love it. And I’ll be trying to find televisions that receive the Tournament, which my home-rigged antenna most emphatically won’t. (We get TVOntario’s sweet and heady offerings, and the local French stations come in pretty well, thanks.)

And I don’t forget the CIS Nationals. The playing levels and, especially, the TV production values are much higher in the Excited States, but I’ll still be paying attention to the Canadian championships. I’ll be conflicted. My alma mater, McMaster, and its terrific coach Joe Raso will be trying to shed their bridesmaid status; they’ve won four CIS silver medals in his 14 years, so they’re in Vikings/Bills territory. Go, Marauders! If they play Carleton, the team I follow closest now, The Dynasty That Came From Nowhere (or perhaps the Smart family driveway), I can’t lose, I guess. Coach Dave is after his fourth consecutive title, and his teams are astoundingly focused. Go, Ravens!

Yes, and Go, Duke, too! And if the UCLA Bruins meet them in the Final Four, a hinted return to the glory days under John R. Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood and my hero, then I will be a little twisted up for that one, too. Go, Bruins! Go, Everybody! (Cripe, Syracuse even has a Canadian kid, Leo Rautins’s son, so I may even have to pull for the Orange a little. Yecch. But not Florida. Can’t stoop that far.)

And while we’re at it, God bless all the countries…