And then there were four!
(I know, on the list of lame, cliched, bloggy catchphrases "And then there was (however many are left)" is right behind "Houston, we have a problem." but I'm still a little rattled from falling for the Dream Shake's April Fool's Day prank. I'm running simple plays here, nothing exotic today.)
The Final Four takes place in Atlanta this weekend. With a total sum of 18 on the Cinderella Scale (arrived at by adding the seeds of the four teams), this particular permutation of teams falls firmly in the "totally unexpected" category -- the tournament favorite (Louisville), two very live four seeds who spent most of the season in the top 5-10 (Michigan, Syracuse), and one nine seed who is, frankly, better than your normal nine seed.
On the way to Atlanta this past weekend, there were winners and losers. Let's take a belated look at who they are, shall we?
4. The metaphorical testicles of Louisville Three years ago, in the Final Four, Duke was playing West Virginia in a national semifinal game. With about ten minutes remaining in the game, and with Duke leading comfortably 63-48, West Virginia senior DaSean Butler drove to the hoop. His left knee gruesomely buckled, tearing ligaments, and ending his career:
The scene of West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins consoling Butler as he lay there waiting to be helped off the court endures to this day, a reminder of the "father figure" image that so many coaches claim to embody. In that moment, Huggins embodied just that. I didn't think that we'd ever see a more poignant moment between an injured player, helpless teammates, and a head coach again.
And then, Sunday, Kevin Ware happened.
That broken leg suffered by Ware was so nasty, so cartoonishly grotesque that I can't even embed it here. I'll link it above and let you decide to relive it or not.
I've been watching sports for the better part of four decades, and amidst the tragedy that there was a 20-year-old kid whose shin was split into a horrific shape of the letter "L" was some of the most compelling drama and inspiring leadership that I've ever seen in a sporting event. As players and coaches wept, Louisville center Gorgui Dieng (who might have been the most valuable player on Sunday for the combination of his play and his leadership) gathered his teammates and kept them focused.
Hell, Ware himself was imploring his teammates to win the game while EMT's were placing his tibia and fibula back inside his epidermis! I mean. Wow.
At the time Ware was stretchered off the court, Louisville led 21-20. When play resumed, the Cardinals scored a quick bucket, and then Duke quickly scored six straight. Somehow, some way, Louisville managed to take a 35-32 lead into the half.
Everyone -- announcers, fans, Twitter -- wondered how Louisville would react once the reality of their fallen teammate had set in, perhaps during halftime. Who could blame them if something this terrible, this unfair derailed them that afternoon?
I'm reminded of an exchange in the movie Apollo 13, when one of the NASA suits laments that the aborted mission to the moon could be the space program's darkest hour. Flight director Gene Kranz (played phenomenally by Ed Harris) says, "Sir with all due respect, I think this will be our finest hour."
Teetering on the brink of a totally excusable emotional meltdown, the second half of Sunday's game was Louisville's and Rick Pitino's finest hour.
Final score: Louisville 85, Duke 63.
3. Gregg Marshall's resume Gregg Marshall came to Wichita State from Winthrop because he hoped that life getting into the NCAA tournament would be a little less stressful. At Winthrop, he was stuck in a league where eleven months of hard work could get flushed down the tubes with a bad weekend in the conference tournament. At the time Marshall took the Wichita State job, the Missouri Valley Conference was a multiple-bid league. However, the last few years have not been as kind to the league, and there was actually a point earlier this season where Marshall was in fear the Shockers wouldn't even be in the field of 68, let alone Atlanta. But four games, including wins over his region's one and two seeds, and about a dozen Marshall WWE-style pregame promos in the locker room later, here they are. Here is Gregg Marshall, on the biggest stage.
By all accounts, Marshall is very happy in Wichita, and mid-major coaches are getting more and more of what they want these days from their schools (read: money, charter flights, money, facilities, and money), so jumping to a BCS conference job doesn't appear to be on Marshall's to-do list. That said, Wichita has to be breathing a sigh of relief that UCLA and USC have filled their vacancies before this tournament run is done.
2. The ACC So we have our Final Four -- Louisville, Syracuse, Michigan, and Wichita State. Hey look! Two Big East schools! Oh wait a minute, that's right. They are Big East schools now, but soon to be ACC schools (Syracuse next season, Louisville the following season). The last few years, the ACC had lost its mojo a little bit in the men's hoops department, but sweet fancy Moses, is this going to be a fun league to watch in a couple years -- North Carolina, Duke, Miami with this as Jim Larranaga's final stop, and they swap out Maryland for Louisville and Syracuse? That's gonna be awesome
until the SEC decides to swoop in and pilfer North Carolina and Virginia Tech!!!
1. Nerlens Noel I did a blog post on the speculative top portion of the 2013 NBA Draft last week. It was not flattering. Of the potential top 5 picks that I outlined last week, let's see how things went:
1. Ben McLemore, Kansas Scored 20 points in the heartbreaking loss to Michigan in the Sweet 16. The good? Scored all 20 points in an 18-minute span, showing just how explosive he can be. The bad? None of those 18 minutes occurred in the last ten minutes of regulation nor overtime. In fact, McLemore didn't touch the ball in overtime. The McLemore Situation (yes, it deserves proper noun status now) in the draft is one of the strangest I've ever seen -- it's not that he plays poorly in big spots. It's that he just disappears, just blends in, to the point where you forget he's on the floor. Isn't that almost worse than a guy who at least has the balls to try to put the team on his back and fail?
2. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State 3. Otto Porter, Georgetown4. Nerlens Noel, Kentucky More on him in a second.
5. Cody Zeller, Indiana I hate typing paragraphs like this because a) Zeller seems like a great kid, b) he obviously took a measured leap of faith in being the centerpiece to restoring Indiana basketball after the Dark Times, and c) it perpetuates every truth about the thought process that coming back to school can only hurt elite-level NBA prospects.
If Zeller came out last season, he'd have been a top-five pick easily. However, he stayed around for another season, which allowed scouts to pick away at his game and come up with reasons he'd fail at the next level, as opposed to his freshman season when experts are finding reasons he will succeed. It probably didn't help that he was surpassed by Victor Oladipo as the best player on his own team either. And then came the Syracuse game, a game in which Zeller looked completely outclassed athletically -- he had five shots blocked that game...FIVE! Now people are saying he needs to come back for his junior year? Why? So he can fall to the second round? Ask Josh McRoberts about that.
Which brings us back to Noel. Keep in mind that this is a kid who has been rehabbing a gruesome torn knee ligament since February. At that time, he was sitting at the top of most mock drafts (despite the lack of any semblance of an offensive game). He got hurt, he fell to around five or six. Slowly, he's climbed back up toward the top again. Is it possible that Noel's forced absence from a knee injury, along with the failure of virtually every top prospect surrounding him at the top of mock drafts, are the catalyst to his being the first overall pick? Highly likely.
4. Reggie Miller and all of us subjected to hearing him One simple question for the executives in charge of programming at CBS -- why is Reggie Miller on these broadcasts? (I could expand this, and ask why is Reggie Miller on any broadcasts, but I'll eat what's on our plate for now.)
Len Elmore is already there to handle color duties, and Reggie brings nothing of substance to the table. Even worse, he takes stuff off of the table. In particular, he feels the need to diagnose injuries from the announcers table based on viewing video footage on his monitor, and without an actual medical degree that I'm aware of. At one point during Wichita State-Ohio State, Miller speculated that a collision between two players could result in "spinal injuries," and then later in the game he said with supreme confidence that an Ohio State player suffered a torn Achilles....just seconds before he walked off the floor under his own power. I'd hate to hear Reggie's diagnosis of Kevin Ware's broken leg --- "Looks like a sprained ankle from here..."
3. People on the "Ryan Kelly is back!" bandwagon In early January, Duke senior forward Ryan Kelly went out with a foot injury and missed the next 13 games. In the three games after Kelly left the lineup, Duke lost two of them, including a 27-point pounding at the hands of Miami. This perpetuated a twofold line of thinking that a) Duke was an average team without Ryan Kelly and b) that once Ryan Kelly came back, look the fuck out! Duke will be back! When Kelly returned to the lineup in early March and scored 36 points in a "conquering hero" performance against the aforementioned Hurricanes, the myth only grew even more. And that's exactly what the whole "Ryan Kelly is back" thing turned out to be, a myth. In the subsequent seven games, he averaged 8.4 points per game, and a meager 6.3 points per game in the tournament.
2. Marquette's pop-gun offense At the 10:55 mark of the second half of the Syracuse-Marquette slugfest, Michael Carter-Williams (NBA stock way the fuck up on him, by the way) made a layup to make the score 37-25 in favor of the Orangemen. At that point, I tweeted the following:
Ball game. Marquette might not score 12 points the rest of the game.
— Sean Pendergast (@SeanCablinasian) March 30, 2013
I was only slightly joking around. As it turned out, Marquette needed a garbage three-pointer in the last few seconds from their big, fat center to score 14 more points. How in the blue hell did Marquette score 74 points when those two teams played in the regular season?
1. Dorky advanced statistical field goal percentage analysis A couple days before the Sweet 16, I stumbled across a piece that was put out by a very analytic handicapper. It went into a great detail about all of the advanced statistics that analytic types like to bring into the bathroom or extended, um, sessions, most of said sessions requiring a towel of a sock at the very end. Things like effective field goal percentage, situational stats, two-point field goal percentage, points per possession, all that good stuff.
Like an idiot, I bought into what these guys were dishing out, as if they had just cracked the third code to blow up the world like in Olympus Has Fallen. And in the Sweet 16, I followed those picks. Big mistake. In the Elite 8, I went back to things like "Ohio State has barely gotten by these last two games, they've been lucky" and "Duke doesn't have the athletes to hang with Louisville." It went much better Saturday and Sunday. Thanks for nothing, dorks.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 Yahoo! Sports Radio from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and nationally on the Yahoo! Sports Radio network Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon CST. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.