The NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament returns to NRG Stadium this week, hosting the South Regionals on Friday and Sunday. And since the Texas-based college basketball teams all crapped out on Thursday (0-5 for the day), there will be no Texas team coming to Houston for fans to latch on to, like in 2010 when the city of Houston was suddenly full of Baylor fans.
Seeing the current state of college basketball in Texas, pathetic, people in the state probably aren't used to seeing the caliber of basketball that will be played this weekend. So while the stench of the rodeo is being cleared out of NRG Stadium and the environs, and the place is being turned into one of the worst basketball facilities known to man -- it'll never be understood why people pay hundreds of dollars for a seat in a building in which the best view of the action comes from watching huge video screens high over the court -- here's a quick little primer to help Houstonians figure out which team to jump on the bandwagon for this week.
Coming to Houston will be Duke (31-4), Gonzaga (34-2), Utah (26-8), and UCLA (22-13). Duke's a big name with one of those obnoxious fan bases convinced that they (fans), it (the team) and him (the coach) are far superior to anybody else -- think St. Louis Cardinals fans who consider themselves, and the organization, the class of Major League Baseball. UCLA is one of the great names in college basketball history, only it's been living off of that reputation for far longer than it held the title, kind of like the Green Bay Packers.
Gonzaga burst upon the national college basketball scene in the late-1990s, the proverbial Cinderella team that now rarely makes it past the Round of 32 but insists upon being treated as one of the country's class teams. It's kind of like how the Oakland A's have built up a consistent playoff team but are still seen asa that underdog Moneyball team. And then there's Utah which has slipped in under the radar while playing in the Pac-12, a conference which tends to fly under the radar because the games are played on Pacific time when most of the rest of the country's asleep kind of like how, while most of the country was sleeping, the San Fransisco Giants sneak into the postseason and win the World Series every other year. Duke actually has a connection to Houston as freshman forward Justise Winslow is the son of former Houston Cougar great Rickie Winslow. Duke had another Houston connection going into this season, Rasheed Sulaimon, but he was dismissed amid allegations of sexual assault of two female students -- allegations which the Duke coaching staff knew of for nearly year before acting upon them. Then there's head coach Mike Krzyzewski who like to wail about the corrupting influence of money to college sports while raking in millions of dollars from Duke, Nike, and lots of other advertisers while reaping an unfair recruiting advantage due to his coaching of Team USA. (The case of Coach K being scum is best established here by Deadspin).
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Utah is the team tasked with taking out Duke this year -- there's generally a team every year tasked with eliminating Duke, though it's generally a school nobody's heard of. Utah's making its return to the tourney for the first time since 2009 and it has one of the best defensive squads in college basketball, allowing just 56.6 points per game. Except for a regular season ending loss to Washington, Utah's losses were close, tight defeats to other teams that made this year's NCAA tournament, including two to Oregon and two to Arizona.
Gonzaga will be seen by most people as the underdog team. It plays in one of the mid-major conferences and doesn't get the same amount of national television airtime that schools like Duke get from year to year. But Gonzaga's not an underdog. It annually puts together one of the best records in the country, and it has become a NCAA tournament fixture. True, it has not made it past the Sweet 16 since 1999, and in the five previous years it lost in the Round of 32. But coach Mark Few is considered one of the best in the country, and the team is full of talented big men who can take over a game.
Gonzaga will face UCLA to tip things off Friday. And if any team in the region is Cinderella, it's got to be UCLA which is rather strange when thinking about it. UCLA under the legendary John Wooden in the 1960s and 1970s was the very definition of a dynasty, cranking out greats like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton while winning 10 national titles in 12 years. But aside from the occasional burst of sparkling play, UCLA's been rather mediocre since then, coasting on its name. The current squad, coached by Steve Alford, was one of the last picks for this year's tournament, and many commentators didn't think the team was worthy of a spot.
So there are the basics for fans looking for some non-Texas team to cheer for this weekend. And as long as that choice isn't Duke, it's probably a good, defensible choice. Unless you go to the games rooting for whoever plays Duke, which is probably the best, most fun approach to take.