For the first time in nearly three decades, roundball curmudgeon Billy Packer will not be on CBS complaining about the quality of play in the Final Four. Without Packer around to slag on the Missouri Valley Conference and overpraise the ACC—and to say other things one should never utter around a live mike—you might think that this year’s NCAA Tournament would be nothing but sweetness and light. You couldn’t be more wrong. Once again, Sports Nut is your guide to everything evil in college hoops. While in years past we’ve restricted the hate to America’s basketball-playing universities, this year’s suspects include an individual player, a Packer heir, and a bracketologist. But don’t worry: There’s always room for Duke.
Compared with past Duke teams, the 2009 model isn’t particularly deplorable. With point guard and assistant-coach-in-waiting Greg Paulus getting an early start on his bench-sitting career, this squad fails to fulfill the most-irksome Blue Devil trait: the cultivation of underachievers who comport themselves like overachievers. Indeed, Duke got off to a strong start after coach/ American hero/ ethicist Mike Krzyzewski disowned the school’s floor-slapping legacy, benching the runty Paulus for talented sophomore Nolan Smith. And after a midseason slump in which the Devils lost three of four games, the team found its mojo by rebenching Paulus—who had somehow wormed his way back into the lineup—in favor of freshman Elliot Williams.
While reasonable fans might wonder why Williams, a reigning McDonald’s All-American, wasn’t seeing more time to begin with, Krzyzewski got credit for unearthing a diamond in the rough. “He’s been really good in practice and always has a good attitude,” Coach K explained. This, of course, is the Duke way—basketball as leadership seminar, where winning is an outgrowth of “a good attitude” rather than the simple act of replacing a substandard basketball player with one who’s capable of passing, shooting, playing defense, and dribbling. Actually, strike that last one—at Duke, dribbling is always optional.
After securing his 800th career victory last month, Connecticut’s Jim Calhoun explained his philosophy of coaching. “Any day that I sat down on a kid and didn’t really push them, and then loved them as much as I possibly could and backed them, then I’m not really doing my job,” he said. “That’s the only way they’re going to give you the type of performance they gave me tonight.” A decent man credits others on the occasion of personal success. Jim Calhoun discusses his players like a jockey talks about his mounts.
Big-time college basketball coaches aren’t sympathetic creatures, but Calhoun’s classlessness and self-aggrandizing bring shame to a shameless profession. Another recent lowlight came when Calhoun shouted down a writer—”My best advice to you: Shut up”—who questioned his high salary during a time of economic hardship. The coach isn’t an AIG executive, and he should get some leeway for his brusqueness, because he was ambushed at a postgame press conference. (Let’s also assume Calhoun didn’t understand that he was confusing revenue with net profit when he yelled that his program “bring[s] in $12 million [a year] to this university.”) But even days later, when he had a chance to say he could have handled things better, Calhoun instead chose to call attention to all the charity work he does.
Leave aside the fact that the Big East legend coddles felony-committing stars and takes away the scholarships of kids who fail to live up to expectations—so do a lot of other coaches. What sets him apart from his peers is his misplaced self-regard. Somewhere along the line, it wasn’t good enough for Calhoun to have built a hoops dynasty at a very unlikely school. Instead, he feels compelled to turn his life story into a fantasy in which Connecticut, if not America, is saved by a coaching messiah.
North Dakota State University
Believe it or not, the North Dakota State Bison have a shot at beating defending champion Kansas. Point guard Ben Woodside, who scored 60 points in a game earlier this season, will put up enough points to keep things close. And since the game is being played in nearby Minneapolis—where 30,000 North Dakotans traveled to watch the school’s football team beat Minnesota in 2007—NDSU is guaranteed to have the home-court advantage in the final minutes.
So what’s to hate about the plucky Bison? They’re a bunch of old men. Way back in 2004, the North Dakota State coaching staff redshirted Woodside and three other incoming freshmen with an eye toward 2009, NDSU’s first year of tourney eligibility after transitioning into Division I play; the five-year plan worked perfectly, as the quartet of now-23-year-olds just won a Summit League title. Running an extended-stay university isn’t quite cheating, but it is a bit devious for a team that’s being portrayed as a bunch of aw-shucking upstarts. The Bison aren’t modern-day versions of Jimmy, Ollie, Buddy, and the rest of those underdeveloped upstarts from Hickory High. Rather, they’re the Van Wilders of the NCAA Tournament: elderly undergrads delaying passage to the real world for as long as possible. Beat Kansas in the first round, and they can wait a little longer.
Three years ago, Robert Weintraub wrote a piece for Slate on college basketball’s “Annoying White Guys”—those players, often coaches’ sons, who irritatingly scrap their way into our living rooms every March. At the end of his essay, which focused on Syracuse’s Gerry McNamara, Weintraub nominated fellow Orange guard Eric Devendorf as the NCAA’s next-gen Annoying White Guy. Never has a better prediction been made.
One might normally feel pangs of guilt for rooting against college kids—I was just kidding, North Dakota State!—but Devendorf isn’t merely annoying. In December, he was suspended from school for assaulting a female student while on probation for “harming” a different Syracuse student. In a Calhoun-esque move, Coach Jim Boeheim let Devendorf suit up while the case was under appeal, and the suspension was later reduced. In the end, he sat out only two games.
Upon his return to the court, the shooting guard played with the joylessness and hostility of a schoolyard bully. Actually, more like the schoolyard bully’s yappy best friend. In the Big East Tournament, Devendorf repeatedly talked trash to opposing defenders after his teammates found him for wide-open jumpers. It was like watching John Paxson pop his jersey. Let’s make a deal, big guy: You can start woofing the next time you create your own shot.
In the run-up to Selection Sunday, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi appeared on the network by the hour to dispense his bracketological wisdom: who’s in, who’s out, and where everyone should be seeded. Lunardi, the longtime editor of the hyper-detailed hoops preview magazine Blue Ribbon, worked hard to earn his perch. (He did not, as alleged in his Wikipedia entry, win the role on a reality show called Dream Job: Bracketology Edition.)
If only he were up to the job of being the nation’s bracket sage. This year, Lunardi predicted 64 of the tournament’s 65 teams correctly—OK, more like 33 of 34 considering that 31 spots are taken by automatic qualifiers. Not bad, right? Well, according to the site the Bracket Project—which collected the picks of 61 March Madness prognosticators—92 percent of the bracketeers agreed on 32 of the 34 at-large teams, and a healthy 82 percent agreed on 33 of 34. Bracketology, you see, isn’t very hard. Joe Lunardi’s entire job this year was to identify a single team. He went 0 for 1: Creighton out, Arizona in. Lunardi also whiffed on the one No. 1 seed for which there wasn’t an iron-clad consensus, guessing Memphis instead of UConn.
Perhaps it’s unfair to ding him for these slip-ups, as the selection committee doesn’t necessarily behave consistently year-to-year. Then again, he’s the one who’s selling the idea that bracket predicting is a science. If bracketology is indeed a skill, then Joe Lunardi hasn’t mastered it. The Bracket Project has ranked the 12 tourney scholars who’ve been publishing guesses for at least four years, grading them based on how many teams they pick correctly and the accuracy of their seeding forecasts. Lunardi is 10th out of 12. My early bubble picks for 2010: Bracketology 101 in, Joe Lunardi out.
University of Dayton
In sports, the saying goes, the breaks even out. Unlike most athletic clichés, this one turns out to be kind of true. College hoops genius Ken Pomeroy tracks a statistic called “luck”—to oversimplify things, a team is considered “lucky” (subscription required) if it pulls out an unexpectedly high number of close victories, whereas a squad is “unlucky” if it absorbs a lot of close defeats. In college basketball, luck doesn’t last: Last year’s six most-fortunate teams have all regressed substantially in 2009. Conversely, three of Pomeroy’s four unluckiest teams in 2008 were Illinois, Utah, and Missouri. All three missed out on March Madness last season, and all three earned surprisingly good seeds to this year’s tourney.
This year’s luckiest—in other words, least deserving—at-large NCAA Tournament team is the University of Dayton. Of the Flyers’$2 26 victories, 12 came by an average of 3.25 points, including five decided by 1 or 2 points. By contrast, Dayton earned its seven defeats, losing by an average of 11.7 points. If those fluky Ohioans didn’t get a tournament bid on merit, then somebody must’ve been jobbed. It wasn’t St. Mary’s or Penn State or Creighton or San Diego State—each of those teams had above-average luck, too. Of all the legitimate at-large candidates, Florida (luck ranking: 324 of 344) got most screwed over by the fates. Gators fans should find some solace in the fact that next year can’t possibly be as bad. The reverse is true for Dayton: Savor that first-round loss to West Virginia, Flyers. Next year’s going to be a lot worse.
With Billy Packer now yelling at the TV from home, you might think that the NCAA Tournament would be free from the scourge of the know-it-all in a network blazer. Tune in on Thursday, though, and you’ll hear Packer’s heir, a color commentator who never misses a chance to point out that he’s the smartest guy in the arena.
Judging by his performance on Selection Sunday, Jay Bilas is already in postseason form. During an ESPN studio show (Bilas does most of his work for ESPN but moonlights for CBS during the tourney), the hoops analyst smugly rolled his eyes at Dick Vitale’s argument that Arizona’s selection over St. Mary’s was a defeat for the “little Davids.” Bilas, a sometime litigator and erstwhile actor, won the debate less because of the substance of what he said—condescendingly conceding that Vitale’s point that big schools won’t schedule mid-majors might have been correct “30 years ago”—than with the fact he was dueling with a man who tends to punctuate every statement with, “It’s awesome, baby!”
Examine Bilas’ words in a non-Vitale context and it’s hard to find anything enlightening. The biggest accomplishment of the Duke grad’s announcing career is bringing the word bouncy into the basketball lexicon. His most frequent announcerly flourish is to call someone “a man” without further explication. (Which leads one to wonder: If Bilas called a WNBA game, would he declare that “Candace Parker is a woman”?) Bilas’ twin hobby horses this year, though, have been the scourge of elbow-throwing—except when the elbow throwers go to Duke—and the concept of “toughness.” In a 3,000-word piece for ESPN.com, Bilas articulated his belief that “people [don’t] really understand what coaches and experienced players mean when they emphasize ‘toughness’ in basketball.” So what does it mean, smart basketball man? Setting a good screen, talking on defense, and taking a charge—that is, the same exact stuff that every coach and announcer has extolled for 100 years. Billy Packer would be proud.