SIV Week: Devils Rule in the NCAA Roundball Arena

As mentioned over in At First Glance on Monday — I know, it says ‘April 11’ but trust me, that post leads off with several hundred outstanding words of April-fresh commentary — this is “Stubbornness is Virtue” week. That SIVW declaration gave me a timely little excuse to meditate about my mother, and the stubbornness I inherited. SIV Week is mainly dedicated to finishing and posting the incomplete essays that plague my nights, and to get old biz out of my head. Like, say, the NCAA Final Four, the result of a March Madness that ends in early April and must be written about (Rule 37.3, clauses b-e, of the Howdy Index) before May. It’s April 30, yo.

Here are the hardcourt meditations of a man too far away, for five years, to pay much televisual attention to American college basketball, and then was too immersed, upon his return to Canada, in his club and high school coaching gigs (and too resolutely cheap and determinedly active and frantically multi-interested to pay for access to spectator sports television) to watch anything the NCAA had to offer unless it was Indiana or Memphis in an Ottawa gym in August, BUT whom, when he finally started watching the Elite 8 and the Final 4, got SO stubborn that he felt he HAD to write about it even when it was one week two three weeks past…

I’m thinking about basketball an awful lot. It’s the off-season, in some ways my favourite part of the year, because next year’s team not only hasn’t lost yet but also has a potential that is unknown and therefore exciting, and players who can grow and improve so much by next November. Yes. And I do love teaching kids to play, the individual skills of the game, ways to understand sport, whereas in season there are always the team needs and, of course, the whole winning anlosing dynamic. (Reader Alert: can you smell an excuse coming?) It was, in small measure, because of basketball and off-season club commitments that I haven’t gotten around to sharing my desperately awaited insights on what was a strong and storied Final Four this year. (Though mostly, it was because of disorder, distraction and authorial dismay. I got thoroughly dissed.)

[I wrote about the “fatal four” — Elite 8 losing teams — just down below. Sorry — can’t hyperlink right now.]

Sat., April 4. (Yeeeessshh.) Wendy & Bernie’s living room. For game one of the Saturday Night Special doubleheader, I did get my utterly under-keen 15-year-old – the one I’m trying not to plan my grand off-season vision and workout schedule around – to sit down and watch Duke-Michigan State. He knew nothing of either team, but liked the underdog Spartans, maybe because of some of the pastings our high school team took in tournaments we weren’t quite ready for.

The big names. Which one of these will not make the NBA?

The big names. Kaminsky, Trice, Okafor, Towns. Which one of these will not make NBA millions?

People loved this edition of the Final Four partly because of the high-profile coaches there – Kentucky’s Calipari, Duke’s Krzyzewski (didn’t even check, that’s how well I can spell!), Bo (the Badger) Ryan, and MSU’s Tom Izzo – three future Hall of Famers and one (Coach K) already bronzed. TV also sold the perfect, please-everybody configuration: number one-seeds in profusion meant a high quality of teams and athletes, and one lower seed was there to carry all the hopes for those who like the story of The Little (Multimillion Dollar, BigShoe-Funded) College Team That Could.

Continue Reading >>

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.

Continue Reading >>

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…