Man, this year is going to be good, not only because the teams are good, but because there are good stories out there. I tell myself that I don't care about storylines, but at some point, I absorb them. I repeat them. They become part of my conversations. All the extraneous detail from those player mini-profiles being produced by CBS will become cement itself in my memory; like Mateen Cleaves' from 2000 tournament: his storied high school career in Michigan, his drunken driving, the tough love of father-figure/coach Tom Izzo. Why do I remember this? Why do I care? Who knows? As Dick Vitale would say: It's March Madness, baby!
Let's start at the top
Memphis is the rarely defeated team with killer athletes and a dickhead for a coach; North Carolina has player of the year Tyler Hansborough and the electrifying "Carolina break" (formerly known as the Kansas break), but it's also got some glaring inconsistencies; UCLA has good balance, a great coach, good defense, and a stone killer in freshman Kevin Love; Kansas has experience, Darnell Jackson, and a recent history of flameouts [cf. Bucknell, Bradley] to overcome.
Mid-major blah blah blah
As usual, there are also a host of mid-major teams with chips on their shoulders. Butler had Florida on the ropes last year; this year, they have to travel to Birmingham as a #7 seed to play South Alabama (a #10 seed); if they win, they earn the right to play another fired-up southeastern team, Tennessee. And Gonzaga (#7) has to travel three time zones to play a team that's driving three hours within its home state, Davidson (#10). It appears that the tournament committee is no longer amused by fundamentally sound, deeply experienced, singularly focused mid-major teams taking down high seeds in the early rounds. An interesting development.
Mid-major dis disclaimer
By dissing mid-majors, you think I'm playing with fire, but I'm not. Oh, no. I've already been burned. Twice. There's nothing left to burn. I'm a blackened husk. It began in 2006; I wrote a long email about "the myth of mid-majors" to my friends. Then, I traveled to Austin, where I watched the the Jayhawks mail in a first-round game against Bucknell. Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell Bucknell that they were supposed to climb inside the envelope and disappear. To the delight of the entire bar from which I watched, they held off the Jayhawks and advanced. The next year, it was Bradley. I was in a hotel in Albuquerque. Alone. Agonizing.
Kansas & UNC earn a right to stay close to home
Both teams get to stay local, but each gets tested by an interesting foe. UNC doesn't leave the state until they travel to San Antonio for the Final Four, but they need to beat Tennessee — a team that beat Memphis, a team with a legitimate claim to a #1 seed — before they get to San Antonio. Kansas tours the Midwest, heading to Omaha, then Detroit, but they need to beat Georgetown — a consistent, gritty team that is well-suited to stick it to the inconsistent Jayhawks — before cutting down the regional nets. Seems fair, mostly.But does this obsessing over geography really matter? I don't know. On a purely philosophical level, the champion has to win six games, period. Georgia won four games in three days to take the SEC tournament; they'd won a total of four games in two-plus months of conference play. The Fab 5 advanced to the Final Four through Atlanta and Lexington in 1992, Phoenix and Seattle in 1993.
On a historical note
Last year, Kansas got shipped two time zones westward and played what amounted to an away game against UCLA. I was there, surrounded by cologne-wearing, hair-gelled, Steve-Lavin-look-alike douchebags who roared with every impossible fadeaway prayer hit by Arron Afflalo (not misspelled), and every brass-balled pull-up j by Darren Collison. It has taken me some time to admit that UCLA may have been the better team, a fact that wasn't made any more comforting by Bill Walton's pod-rhapsody about the beauty of UCLA's win [mp3]. The tournament committee's calculus: Kansas wasn't a clear #1 seed, so they needed to travel across the country to beat UCLA in their back yard in order to prove they belong in the Final Four. Which brings me to this year's Memphis team.
This year, Memphis gets sent through the fire
Don't you get the feeling that the tournament committee smells blood with Memphis? The Tigers were ranked #1 for a lot of the year, and they lost just ONE game all year. Except. Except they have the misfortune of playing in a weak conference, and their one loss happened to come at home against a team that got its ass handed to them by Texas. For this, they get sent to Houston for the South regional final, where they may in fact meet up with Texas. (Is there any way that the crowd won't be heavily pro-Horn?) The tournament committee is clearly saying: Show us what you've got, Derrick Rose and Joey Dorsey. Show up what you got, John Calipari! [Here it is again. John Cheney threatens to kill John Calipari. Thank you, YouTube]. Who knows? Maybe it's a sort of karmic payback for Dorsey referring to himself as Goliath, with Greg Oden as David during last year's tournament. Dude, if you're Goliath, then survive this rock-slinging gauntlet.
Rick Barnes can recruit, but can the dude coach?
Two things I noticed about Barnes during the Big 12 final: (1) The guy either can't consistently set up a decent play off a dead ball, or his players just can't execute one. I find it hard to believe that DJ Augustin, one of the most talented players I've seen in a long time, can't execute a play. So I'm left with the impression that Barnes is just a bad game-planner. Too many times, his team came out of a timeout with some crap play that resulted in a bad shot or turnover. Augustin can often bail Barnes out by hitting lots of bad shots, but how far can this take them, really? (2) Even worse, Barnes rides his stars, and they suffer against deeper teams. Augustin played all 40 minutes in the Big 12 tournament final and he averaged 39+ for the season. He finished with 20 points, scoring only 2 in the second half and missing all nine shots that he took. AJ Abrams is no help; he can spot up and drain threes, but he's my size and needs to run off a bunch of screens to get an open shot, and therefore he does little to ease the burden on Augustin.
Ol Roy on the horizon for the Jayhawks
While I love all of this, I'm also focused on the prospects of my team. To paraphrase a once-great Kansan, I could (mostly) give a shit about storylines. As a Kansas fan, I'm primarily worried about Portland State breaking new ground as a #16 seed. Let's take care of that one. Then I'm worried about UNLV; then Clemson; then Georgetown. Then: Ol Roy?In the Final Four, there's the potential for some great, great match-ups, which I'll detail in another post. Too much needs to happen between now and then.