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:

THE FATAL FOUR: Don’t forget the losers. Remember the (Less Than) Titan(ic)s!

Notre Dame: A compelling early moment in my heels-over-head adolescent tumble from hockey madness to hoops-love involved the Irish of John Shumate and Adrian Dantley. College basketball games were hard to get on southern Ontario television back then, but when the Wooden ‘n’ Walton Gang blew into South Bend with an 88-game win streak at their back, I was watching. I was all in for the Bruins, and yelled uselessly at the screen every time Shumate pushed away Bill Walton’s shot-block with his inside arm. (But my goodness, the “baby” or power hook is a great and still underused postup weapon!) In 2015, though, I was pulling for the underdogs of Our Lady and their (come to think of it) ‘70s-retro uniforms with the cursive “Irish” script. (Will anybody ever go back to the nuts-huggingly tight shorts of that bygone, thigh-gone age?)

Kentucky were the bad guys, except that on first sight I found it hard to dislike them. They work, they listen, and they play well together, even with all that barely-past-high-school, waiting-for-the-NBA talent. Zach Auguste of Notre Dame, who had a breakout game against Kentucky’s bigger, faster but less experienced big guys, was actually the preening, tongue-wagging swaggart you might expect to see in a Wildcats jersey — if you insist on hating coach John Calipari, that is, which I’m finding harder to do. (I don’t like the slickness, and how well he games the system, but in this recent dominant run his players have seemed, from my pew waaayy in the back, to read low on the look at me! meter.) Auguste will have a nice career in Europe, but he likely prime-timed his way into at least considering the NBA draft. I guess knowing right where the camera is after a dunk isn’t a mortal sin, but gosh kid, don’t you have something to do on the other end of the floor right now? Jerian Grant comes from NBA stock – his younger brother is already there, and his dad Horace and uncle Harvey were overachieving, undersized power forwards – but I imagine him cursing the basketball fates, or maybe his father’s failure to marry a taller woman. He’s a 6’5” (really?) guard who, in contrast to the Kentuckians, is already five years past his high school grad. Knows how to play, though, as does his fellow senior Pat Connaughton, who racked an improbable nine rebounds in his night against Wildcats four years his junior but five to eight inches bigger. Apparently he has a major hop on his 95 mph fastball as a pro pitcher, but I loved his repeated two-footed rise into and above the treetop arms to snare two-handed boards. Fundamentals and fun! Loyal. Great student, sworn to graduate. Deferred his baseball millions. Weird dude, eh!

Arizona: This was my first real look at any live games of the NCAA tourney in six seasons, what with China’s utter disregard for the American college game. Yet even as a coach who loves the respect that college coaches (sometimes deservingly) get, I could get tired of the Miller Family Coaching Fetish. (American broadcasters always overdo everything.) Especially last year, when Arizona head Sean met his younger brother Archie, the Dayton Flyers’ Cinderella-in-Chief, under the watchful eye of their high school coach/dad John, well, who could get enough of that? A tradition like no other – the Masters Millers, on CBS. (Full disclosure: I am sickly green with monstrous envy of the whole Miller thing: the legendary high school coach, his sons become stars under him and overachieving D-1 point guards – I’d forgotten what a good player Sean was at Pitt – and both outreach their daddio by early and significant Division 1 coaching success. Not that I was a less-than-legendary but bloody dreamy high school coach myself, whose kids suffered their father’s absorption with good grace and only moderate interest!) I knew much more about Wisconsin than Arizona going in, and never really took to the Wildcats much. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is lithe and quick, and Kaleb Tarczewski is huge, bronzed but slow; both should have a few years of incredible cheque-cashing in The Association. (I liked how Mark Titus of Grantland referred to the latter as Zeus “Zeus” Tarczewski. Titus tries too hard sometimes, but he has a great perspective on big-time college ball.) And that was about all, until the final moments when it became clear to plucky PG T.J. McConnell that his last 38 minutes as a Wildcat just hadn’t been enough. His streaming tears cut through all the tinsel. These are young men who give everything – well, he had – and suddenly I was like everybody else: entranced by the story line in the moments before the next weekend’s narrative arcs could be loaded into the Sports/Hype hopper.

Louisville: The Cards were another case where I was interested in the coach – and in Rick Pitino’s matchup with another icon, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo – and knew and cared little for who the cogs in this year’s PitinoMachine were. I knew about Montrezl (I already forget which consonant is silent) Harrell, who will be an underskilled man-among-other-men at the NBA level if he can stick there, but aside from Wayne Blackshear, the others were mainly placeholders to me. This was not a Louisville team that had the overall quickness to play “Slick Rick”’s signature full-court press, but I loved the occasional intrusions of their attacking mentality. At least three times, Louisville guards stole the ball from complacent Spartans simply because they didn’t do the standard thing: instead of just jogging back to play the same halfcourt “game managing” defence that nearly everybody plays, they were constantly hunting for ways to help their team, and catching the Izzos off-guard (and off-forward, too!). Pitino is a genius at creating such a context of relentless effort; even when they’re not applying pressure all over the court, they still practise dictating the game with their defence. It’s a good thing, too, because this team, at least on this day, shot the ball like bricklayers. (In the case of guard Terry Rozier on a tough-luck day, this may be an affront to masonry.) When Michigan State figured out how not to turn the ball over and made some shots, Louisville’s halftime advantage melted. I admire these two mega-successful coaches, but it has to be said: this was industrial basketball, without a lot of scope for fans of skill.

Gonzaga: I was a high school Blue Devil, so I’ve long been a fan of Duke, but because of their Canuck content, I actually knew and cared more about Gonzaga. (But seriously: they couldn’t come up with a better name than “Zags”? What is a Zag? Were they also Zagging when John Stockton played there? And should they have zigged?) I’m pretty sure I carted around a baby Kevin Pangos when I coached with his parents at a northern Ontario summer sports camp, and I certainly watched Kyle Wiltjer’s father Greg when he was a seven-foot plodder for Canadian national teams. They even have a non-playing freshman named Triano, whose father Jay not only coached the Raptors and the Canadian national team but, I’m sure more importantly in his hoops odyssey, was the best Jay at a player identification tryout in Ontario’s Niagara region in, oh, 1975? (Yes, the other one was me, not that anybody noticed. Triano was a great high school basketball player; I was a high school player, too!)

I thought Kelly Olynyk, the previous Canadian Zag forward to take a redshirt year to rebuild his body, should’ve stayed for another year in Spokane. (He might point to his bank account, grin, and say, “Scoreboard!” And his Celtics, it appears, are going to make the NBA playoffs.) I have the same feeling about Wiltjer, who had some nice moments against Duke but still is underpowered in the post and underquick on the perimeter, despite his high skill level. Olynyk was a first-round draft pick, but nobody seems to be projecting Kyle even as a second-rounder, to say nothing of Pangos, the little engine of the Zags team that quite disappointingly couldn’t get his team past the Elite 8 as a senior. Pangos was kept under wraps by Duke’s Tyus Jones, a freshman with an NBA future. As an expert on Kevin Pangos after seeing him for all of, what, two games in his career, I’ve often thought – ahem, er, well, I’ve thought this twice – that he was too dutiful, too constrained to get the ball to the Gonzaga bigs, who are definitely big, instead of looking for his own shot and taking people off the dribble. The alternative, more rational explanation seems to be, unhappily, that he peaked early. When he was the coach’s-kid, a precocious-coach-on-the-floor who was the top point guard in a teenaged international tournament, maybe his maturity and skills were ahead of everybody else. As a 20-something senior player, everybody loves his smarts, leadership and shooting, but nobody talks about him as an NBA prospect anymore, or even necessarily as a fixture for Canada’s national team. Duke OmniCoach Mike Krzyzewski, in the post-game handshake line, took a remarkably long pause to console and congratulate Pangos. How I’d love to know the nature of that little speech! I’m not sure Pangos hasn’t been passed by the CIS’s dominant player, Carleton’s Phil Scrubb, as both (longshot) NBA prospect and as backup to Tyler Ennis and/or Cory Joseph as Canada gears up for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Great career, Kevin. Hope there’s more.

I’ll have more soon. From Fatal Four to Final Four. I’ll have more than a few words, and maybe even a few pictures. You’ll have to supply your own today. (I don’t recommend Zach Auguste’s tongue, however.)

If you’ve made it this far, please reward yourself by sending me a quick comment to post. Let’s break all HOWDYdotCOM records for fan response, even if it’s just a Hey, you! or maybe What are you doing writing this stuff up so long after the fact? I’m having fun thinking and tapping about it, better writ than never, so please join in.

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