Forward to the Final Four

When last your confused hoops correspondent waxed prophetic in It’s All About Sports! after the first weekend of American collegiate March Madness, when his bracket was significantly hobbled, he predicted an NCAA Elite 8 as follows.

Some of them really are students, I swear. But this image is disgracefully disingenuous, not that this post really wades into that swamp of “Student Athlete” dismay.

Louisville was to play Duke. Bingo! (Okay, a number one seed against a 2; it hardly ranked with Nostradamus, but I’ll take my successes where I find them.) I picked Duke to win through to tomorrow’s Final Four, because I always do, because: A) they often do, and B) I’m a Blue Devils loyalist. Coach K is great, even if he does do too much commercial shilling, and I always argue that there is a large percentage of available high school recruits that Duke can’t even consider because they genuinely need to be students in Durham. (I hope this is still true.) Louisville was just too relentless, and too quick in the backcourt, for Duke. Lots of people forgot, as Coach Pitino

Ah, the white suit. Pitino and his Senegalese Big Man on the Louisville Campus, Gorgui Dieng.

stumbled from his previously shiny pedestals of unrelenting winning and (presumed) moral rectitude, that Slick Rick is really good. As a young coach, I wore out his 4-part video cassette series; this was before he even went to Kentucky.

Wichita State was given “favoured-Canadians status” (they have two, but few minutes between them) and “the right to be drilled by Ohio State” in the Elite 8. Well, I had the matchup right, but wasn’t impressed by my first and last view of the Buckeyes this season. The Shockers were full value, and are the latest and greatest “best story” among the teams in the Tournament.

I picked Kansas to play Florida, but the Jayhawks fell apart late to Michigan. (On the plains, they’ll remember that loss for a generation or two.) Florida had little difficulty downing the little brother across the state, Florida Gulf Coast, though they had an early nap and gave the underdogs hope. I was mildly surprised they didn’t give Michigan a better game, but then the Wolverines did have their Secret Canadian Weapon, Nic Stauskas, gunning threes like he was in his Mississauga driveway.

I had Indiana for the championship, actually, but Syracuse took them apart defensively before doing the same in the Eight to Marquette, whom I had picked, partly because of a Canuck point guard and partly because they’re really tough. But neither of the teams facing the Orange could solve their zone. I know it’s a bit unusual to face a zone-only team, and I know that Syracuse has really great athletes in that zone. But still. I did a lot of shouting at the computer screen in the Syracuse games, since I wanted them to lose AND because their opponents kept failing to get a guy to the high post! Come ON! Hit any guy in the “D” area (enclosed by the top of the circle and the free throw line) and the defence is in trouble! One more pass – backside wing or a Big showing himself from behind the zone – and it’s OVER! I had a

Even these guys, though far from my best team, could get good looks in Breaker. Ah, the Merivale Marauders, 2008-09. The guy in the red shirt is nearly 5’11”. You see the problem. (One of ’em.)

little zone-attack set, one of the few things in my coaching repertoire I can claim to have invented, that  I called “Breaker”. It was adapted from what my own high school coach had later designed, and had elements of what lots of teams do, but I still think it’s pretty brilliant. Truly mediocre players could be trained to take apart more talent-ridden zone defences, even with limited ability to “punch the gaps” off the dribble. And top-flight teams, with allegedly superb coaching staffs, STILL whip the ball around the perimeter, or run dribble-handoff crap. Sheesh, say I. Thanks! says Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim.

My original bracket, though? I had picked Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals, but nobody else. They’re interesting, and not only because of the groundswell of feeling (some of it smarmy and manipulative) arising from the horrific injury to their backup guard, Kevin Ware. I think they’ll overwhelm Wichita State, and I’ll wake up early Sunday morning (6 a.m. in Dalian) to see how they do it and how well the Shockers withstand their furious pressure on the ball. The more interesting game is the second one, and I’ll root fairly hard for Michigan to attack the Syracuse zone intelligently. So, Wolverines and Cardinals in the Monday night final – Tuesday morning here, and I’ve got a class to teach!! – and while I think I’ll be pulling for Michigan, the Cards are my pick. I suspect neither of their dominant guards, Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, will have much of an impact at the NBA level, but they’re a superb pair at this level.

Bucket list: it would probably be a disillusioning romp, but I’d still like to take in a Final Four (or at least a regional final) someday. As for this year: to Atlanta, by laptop!

A little provocation, a little rain on my NCAA parade. I love the game, I love the mythology, but the reality hurts if you still believe in “education through school sport”, the Ontario athletic motto. And I do, dammit.


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