Last week, ESPN.com’s Bill Simmons apologized for writing that he “hated” Duke. “I should have written ‘disliked,’ ‘loathed’ or even ‘abhorred,’ ” Simmons explained. ” ‘Hate’ is a strong word.”
Loyal Sports Nut readers, we make you this promise: We will never apologize for hating Duke, or any other team. But especially Duke.
In 2005, Sports Nut previewed the NCAA Tournament by spewing bile at the Blue Devils, as well as Syracuse, Chattanooga, and eight more reprehensible institutions of higher learning. This year, we’re bringing the hate to Florida, Eastern Kentucky, and Notre Dame. And don’t worry, Dukies—we’ve got a little more venom saved up for you.
Duke University, Atlantic Coast Conference, No. 6 in West Region
Duke’s hatefulness is a well-established theme. What makes this year special is that the Blue Devils have gone from being loathsome to being contemptible. Two weeks ago, Duke’s Gerald Henderson punctuated a blowout loss by viciously elbowing North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough. This wasn’t just the play of a goon—it was the play of a loser.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski denied that any thuggery took place. “That’s not the way he plays, and that’s not the way we play,” announced the celebrated motivational speaker and ethicist. Krzyzewski has yet to disavow his team’s pitiful state. Maybe the coach was busy doing makeup for a Chevy commercial when the NBA blocked high-schoolers from the draft. As the talent level in college rose, the talent in Durham somehow sagged to pitiful depths. Krzyzewski’s team looks less like a McDonald’s All-American Team than McDonald’s soft-serve ice cream: schlumpy, slow-moving, and vanilla.
Overmatched at skills like running and shooting, the Blue Devils have gone to a walk-it-up offense, backed by their usual grabby, rugby-rules defense. It’s ugly to watch—Duke scored fewer than 80 points in all but three games—but it’s also ineffective. The Devils lost at home to Florida State, were swept by Maryland and North Carolina, and got bounced from the play-in round of the league tournament. It’s a résumé that would get some schools into the NIT. It earned Duke a healthy No. 6 seed in the NCAAs. Even in eclipse, they still know how to work the officials.—Tom Scocca
Eastern Kentucky University, Ohio Valley Conference, No. 16 in East Region At first, I thought I might love Eastern Kentucky. The little-known school eked its way into the NCAA Tournament with a buzzer-beating, one-point win in the OVC championship game. Now the prognosticators think the Colonels will get slaughtered by the big, bad North Carolina Tar Heels. Well, call me cold-hearted, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. Eastern Kentucky is everything that’s wrong with the NCAA Tournament.
That’s a bold statement for someone who’s never seen Eastern Kentucky play. But the numbers alone tell me there’s nothing spunky or hard-nosed about this underdog. Like so many other would-be Cinderellas, the Colonels’ secret recipe consists of chucking up 3-pointers and hoping for the best. The Eastern Kentucky guys play lousy defense, they don’t hit the boards, and they almost never foul anyone. On top of that, the team takes it slow on every possession, endlessly passing the ball around the perimeter like a bunch of weenies.
On Thursday, the Colonels will do their best to slow down a talented Tar Heel team that loves to run the floor. Tune in and you’ll see an unexciting team fight desperately to impose its sluggishness on one of the most entertaining teams of recent years. It’s one thing to go down fighting; it’s another to make things boring when you do.—Daniel Engber
Texas A&M University, Big 12 Conference, No. 3 in South Region
There is an ongoing debate in college basketball about the morality of rushing the court after a victory. It’s far from a matter of settled law, but we state-school snots generally agree that court-rushing should be rare, safe, and legal. Act like you’ve been there, etc.
This brings me to the Texas A&M Aggies, the archrival of my alma mater, the University of Texas. A&M was playing a big game at Kansas on Feb. 3. The Jayhawks had never lost to a Big 12 South team on their home court, and a victory would cement the Aggies’ ascendance from also-ran to a national power.
Back in College Station, a few dozen Aggie fans gathered at Reed Arena, A&M’s empty home court, to watch the game on the Jumbotron. Sure enough, the Aggies won on a last second 3-pointer by their marvelous point guard, Acie Law IV. And then the students at Reed Arena rushed the court. That’s right, they rushed the empty basketball court. You can watch the YouTube clip of the sordid display here. It looks like something we used to do at church camp when told to “make some noise.” Should we hate them or just pity them?—Bryan Curtis
Oral Roberts University, Mid-Continent Conference, No. 14 in East Region
If Oral Roberts weren’t Oral Roberts, the Golden Eagles would be easy to cheer for. After 22 years without a tourney bid, ORU just won its second straight title in the Mid-Continent Conference, a bizarro grab-bag whose members include such far-flung institutions as Southern Utah and Michigan’s Oakland University. This turnaround, authored by second-generation coach Scott Sutton and NBA prospect Caleb Green, is a great story … until you remember that it’s ORU.
Televangelist Oral Roberts, the school’s founder, preaches “seed faith,” a doctrine that’s indistinguishable from a constant pitch for donations. What do you get for your money? Campus landmarks like a 30-ton statue of praying hands and the TV studio whence the ministry pleads, hourly, for more cash.
If you think ORU takes a hard line on donations, check out this grandiosely illiberal liberal arts college’s policy on cursing. Or gambling, sex, homosexuality, and men wearing earrings. All are banned—though they may have a point on the earring thing. Like everyone else, I’m inclined to pull for double-digit seeds. But personally, I’d rather my underdogs be tougher on defense than they are on male jewelry.—David Roth
Indiana University, Big Ten Conference, No. 7 in West Region
As an Illinois fan, I find it almost too easy to hate Indiana. Mostly, I can’t stomach the trite mythology of the Hoosier State as the keeper of the Naismith flame, which is fanned by legions of towheaded middle-schoolers robotically practicing free throws on barn-door backboards. They do so, apparently, because Basketball Builds Character, although you wouldn’t know it from the odious coaches that IU tends to hire.
Implausible as it may seem, new Indiana head coach Kelvin Sampson is more loathsome than Bobby Knight ever was. Whereas The General was just an everyday chair-throwing hothead, Sampson’s more like Snidely Whiplash. He lurks in the shadows of high-school gymnasiums, tying rival coaches to the railroad tracks and absconding with their recruits.
Sampson thinks that ethics are a brand of sneakers. At Oklahoma, he and his staff committed 577 separate recruiting violations. As punishment, the NCAA restricted Sampson from telephoning or visiting recruits for one year. No big deal: He used e-mails and text messages to lure prize prepster Eric Gordon away from Illinois this fall.
It makes sense that Sampson must resort to extraordinary rendition in order to convince recruits to come to Bloomington. Indiana has dubbed itself “the Crossroads of America.” That’s just a nice way of saying that everyone who enters the state wants to leave.—Justin Peters
Wright State University, Horizon League, No. 14 in West Region
Two years ago, UT-Chattanooga entered the tournament with what I called “the most incoherent mess of logos in all of college sports.” I spoke too soon: Meet the Wright State Raiders.
WSU’s branding foibles began in the 1970s. With the Green Bay Packers and Oakland Raiders flourishing, Wright State brazenly Frankensteined together the former’s color scheme and the latter’s mascot to create … a green-and-gold Raider. Finding a mascot who matches that description has become an ongoing nightmare. After a brief dalliance with a one-eyed pirate—which probably looked a lot like this—Wright State ended its identity-thieving ways. Rowdy Raider, a fat Viking with red facial hair, was born.
Rowdy’s victory was short-lived, as critics pilloried him for being too, well, gendered. Around 2000, Wright State hired a marketing firm to stop the madness. It’s unclear whether the Wright State Eunuch was considered, but the firm eventually settled on a brown wolf named, yes, Raider. Seven years later, the wolf hasn’t caught on and Rowdy—who now looks a bit like Frazzle the Muppet—hasn’t disappeared. Adding to the confusion, at least one vendor has bred Rowdy and Raider to create an orange-yellow-green-brown armored dog.
With its mascot struggles, perhaps Wright State—classic tourney underdog—is trying to embody the Cinderella story. Cinderella, too, struggled through an identity crisis. She was a virtuous peasant girl who became a princess thanks to her fairy godmother. Wright State, on the other hand, hired consultants to turn a pirate-slash-seaman into a gender-neutral dog. That’s an entirely different beast.—Chris Park
New Mexico State University, Western Athletic Conference, No. 13 in East Region
There are no villains in this year’s bracket. Forget about Duke. The Blue Devils are evil, but they’re about as intimidating a villain as James Spader in a John Hughes movie. I’m talking about real villains—a squad full of avaricious cheaters like the untouchable Tarkanian-administration UNLV Runnin’ Rebels. Sadly, the best this year’s bracket has to offer is New Mexico State, a team of off-brand thugs that’s more a parody of villainy than a genuine force for evil.
Just two years removed from a 6-24 record, the Aggies won the WAC to claim a tournament bid. Reggie Theus—the rare coach whose résumé contains a Saturday morning TV acting gig—pulled off this turnaround by essentially firing the players he inherited and giving their scholarships to vagabond collegians and junior-college players. Among NMSU’s squadron of transfers are point guard Elijah Ingram—who had been “permanently suspended” by St. John’s for his involvement in a spectacularly dunderheaded sex scandal—and Tyrone Nelson, an All-WAC performer who served a suspension earlier this season for assaulting a pizza delivery man. Sure, these up-tempo, aggro Aggies are bad dudes. But real villains get killed off in the third act, not in the first round.—David Roth
University of Florida, Southeastern Conference, No. 1 in Midwest Region
There is nothing more irksome to me than Florida’s finger-wagging, fist-pumping, chest-thumping, dress-wearing, pom-pom-swiping center Joakim Noah. He bugged me so much last season—a major accomplishment in a tournament that featured both Adam Morrison and J.J. Redick—that I had to go against my Big Ten and Midwestern upbringing and root for UCLA in the final. But my dislike of Noah is petty, a mere pom-pom flutter in the face, compared with the deeper hatred for the Gators that’s been building since January. It’s a hatred born of fear.
On Jan. 8, the Gators trashed my beloved Ohio State Buckeyes in the BCS title game. Ever since, I’ve dreaded the thought that they could meet for a rematch in the Final Four. Now it seems inevitable. During football season, the Buckeyes cruised to the Big Ten title, while Florida looked unimpressive late in the regular season before beating Arkansas for the SEC championship. During basketball season, the Buckeyes cruised to the Big Ten title, while Florida looked unimpressive late in the regular season before beating Arkansas for the SEC championship.
All I ask is that if the Buckeyes do make it to the final, and they do face Florida, they don’t take the opening tip-off for a fast-break slam dunk. If they do, I’m shutting off the TV.—Rachael Larimore
University of Pennsylvania, Ivy League, No. 14 in South Region Remember when the University of Pennsylvania had a guy named “Michael Jordan“? That was pretty funny. Penn “competing” for the NCAA championship? Not so funny. Niagara and Florida A&M—the tourney’s other no-chance schools—were shunted to a play-in game that nobody watched. Meanwhile, the Quakers are ambling into yet another lower-lower-middle-seeded appearance.
For Penn, a tournament bid is just one more unexamined entitlement in life, like a job at Accenture or Smith Barney: If you don’t screw up, they’ll give you one. Yes, Penn won the Ivy League. The Ivy League is a sham. Each year, at least six of the eight Ivy teams have no chance or intention of competing for the conference title. With the collapse of Princeton’s basketball program, the number is up to seven.
Penn’s Ivy mark this year was 13-1. Against actual basketball teams, the Quakers went 9-7—losing to Fordham by 17, Syracuse by 18, and North Carolina by 38. On Philadelphia’s Big Five circuit, the closest thing to regular competition the Quakers see, they went 2-2 with double-digit losses to Villanova and St. Joseph’s.
As it is, Penn’s automatic Ivy bid is indefensible. They should be forced to defend it. Next year, shove the overprivileged Quakers into the play-in game against a snubbed and angry lower-conference squad, with a slot in the real tournament on the line. Set it up like that, and people might even watch.—Tom Scocca
University of Notre Dame, Big East Conference, No. 6 in Midwest Region
I have a lot of reasons to hate Notre Dame. The smarmy, self-entitled fans; the lousy, nationally televised Saturday-afternoon football matchups; the fact I grew up in a Purdue household. But nothing stokes my Domer enmity more than Mike Brey’s mock turtleneck. There are two typical schools of sideline fashion, both of which make a certain kind of sense. One is the sweater look, Bob Knight’s school-logo-studded (and, of late, auto-parts-ad-studded) crewneck being the quintessence. When you play for a coach in a sweater, you’re playing for Dad. And you don’t want to disappoint Dad. (He might kick you, for one thing.) The second option is the now-dominant coat-and-tie get-up. This look can be further subdivided: There’s the continental (Rick Pitino, John Calipari), the color-coordinated (Roy Williams, Bruce Pearl), and the Willy Loman (Jim Calhoun, Gary Williams). To varying degrees, these fashion statements exude seriousness to the suit wearer’s players: You’re part of a fine-tuned machine, and you better play like it. All of this makes me wonder: What in the hell are the Notre Dame players thinking when they look at Mike Brey? The sportcoat-plus-turtleneck thing—coupled with Brey’s Pat Riley-esque balding comb-back—makes the Fighting Irish head coach look like a pathetic middle-aged guy who’s desperate to seem cool. Hey, Mike, you know what’s in this season? Hoodies!— Mike DeBonis
Creighton University, Missouri Valley Conference, No. 10 in South Region
Last year, George Mason shocked and charmed the sports world by crashing the Final Four. The Patriots’ run in last year’s tourney was no miracle; it was a sign of the increased parity between college basketball’s elites and a heretofore unrecognized caste of high-ish majors. Who belongs in this caste? Gonzaga, Nevada, and the upper ranks of the CAA (George Mason’s league) and the MVC (the seventh-best conference in the land according to the RPI rankings).
Creighton is the elitest of the Missouri Valley’s elites. The Bluejays are in their seventh NCAA Tournament in nine years, a stretch in which they’ve taken down Florida and Louisville. This year, they’ve got a tough but nimble center named Anthony Tolliver and a sweet-shooting, mercifully non-Korverian guard in Nate Funk. Most people who’ve seen them play—their conference final was on CBS!—would find it completely unsurprising if they made it to the Sweet 16. But that hasn’t prevented SI.com or Foxsports.com or the Newark Star-Ledger from proclaiming, all season long, that the Bluejays are Cinderellas-in-waiting.
If you want a real Cinderella this year, ignore those overdogs from Omaha and look lower. How about 15-seed Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, a senior-laden team that has a real shot to take out injury-riddled Wisconsin. Now that’s a real underdog. Creighton is just Indiana with a lamer name.—Pete Segall
University of Tennessee, Southeastern Conference, No. 5 in South Region
In just two years, Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl has become college basketball’s greatest nuisance. He’s whored out his locker room to ESPN cameras. He’s stood on chairs in campus cafeterias to drum up student support. He’s painted his chest orange and gone shirtless for the cameras at a Lady Vols basketball game. All this would be faintly entertaining if Pearl didn’t look and sound as genuine as a carny at the ring-toss tent.
I am an Illinoisan, Urbana-born, and thus an extreme partisan on the topic of Bruce Freaking Pearl. In 1989, when he was an assistant at Iowa, Pearl secretly taped a recruit, Deon Thomas, “admitting” that he’d been offered a Chevy Blazer and $80,000 to join the Illini. The charges proved unfounded but ultimately led to NCAA sanctions against Illinois for a “lack of institutional control.” As a consequence, Pearl was foremost among my childhood sports villains—and that was before I fully perceived the creepy Nixonian overtones of what he had done.
Pearl, of course, insists he was merely ferreting out the cheaters, a characterization that’s been scooped up by those members of the media who think of basketball coaches as a congregation of Trappists. I disagree. This is a lifelong careerist who wears his ambition like a cheap mango blazer. A man who had his wife induce their son’s birth so he could visit a recruit, who watched game tape at the hospital during his daughter’s delivery. “I’m a cad,” Pearl told a reporter, joking around about his fatherly negligence. “An absolute scoundrel.” For once he wasn’t lying.—Tommy Craggs
University at Albany, America East Conference, No. 13 in South Region The nation as a whole might find the Albany Great Danes rather inoffensive. I find them despicable. Let’s begin with the uniforms, which read “UAlbany.” That’s not a word, and it isn’t the name of the school. You don’t see UKansas or UFlorida, do you?
And consider the home arena. Once upon a time, it was simply the Recreation and Convocation Center, euphonically shortened to “RACC.” But money came calling, and the front office sold out. Now the Great Danes play in the State Employees Federal Credit Union Arena, aka “the SEFCU.” It’s probably the only arena in America whose name sounds like an Eastern European curse word.
Mostly, I hate Albany because my brother Mark went there. He knows in his heart that his school is inferior to my alma mater, Syracuse, but has still always argued the case—except when it comes to sports. Until recently, it was like comparing plankton to a whale shark. Now he finally has cause to gloat.
Mark got a little obnoxious after last year’s close shave against Connecticut, when Albany almost became the first 16 seed to win a first-round game. Now that Syracuse has been jobbed by the NCAA selection committee, my brother can sniggle away, bragging that his school’s the finest in New York state. And until next March, I have to take it. SEFCU, bro, SEFCU.—Robert Weintraub