The NCAA Tournament isn’t all exhilarating buzzer-beaters and cuddly Cinderellas. Over the years, Slate has found a lot to hate about March Madness. In 2005, we loathed Chattanooga for “snatch[ing] aimlessly from a grotesque mascot grab bag filled to the brim with half-realized creatures, ethnic stereotypes, and footwear.” In 2007, we detested Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, a “man who had his wife induce their son’s birth so he could visit a recruit.” Three years ago, we scoffed at the “ill-tempered, well-liquored Larry the Cable Guy aficionados” who root for the West Virginia Mountaineers. In 2009, we jeered North Dakota State —“the Van Wilders of the NCAA Tournament: elderly undergrads delaying passage to the real world for as long as possible.” And every year, we’ve found it in our cold, black hearts to hate Duke. Speaking of which …
“When the teams were out there,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski tells Sports Illustrated, in an interview about last year’s national title game, “nobody watching was thinking, This pro and that pro. Where will they go in the draft? It was just about these kids at Butler and those kids at Duke. The word people kept using with me was pure. It just seemed pure.”
This is an amazing gloss on becoming the weakest champion in the history of the NCAA tournament. Only Duke, which got the softest draw imaginable and got lucky on top of that, could be smug about being bad at basketball. Any one of history’s pro-laden college champs—say, one of those Duke squads with Grant Hill and Christian Laettner—would have smoked last year’s Devils by 30. This makes the Kyle Singler version more pure, if you’re enough of a self-deluded moron to believe that an $11 billion industry is pure. Does Krzyzewski think the McDonald’s All-Americans who populate the Blue Devils’ lineup are picked out by Jimmy McDonald, an elderly retired coach who travels the country scouting high-school games and giving out penny candy to foster children?
“In 40 minutes that night there were no dunks,” the Sports Illustrated story continues. “The teams had only two fast-break points. Two. And no player can remember a syllable of real trash talk.” And thank goodness for that, because fast breaks lead to dunk shots, and dunk shots cause teen pregnancy. The Duke Blue Devils are not little basketball cherubs who play the way God and Clair Bee intended. Or maybe they are, and the school will soon announce its plans to tear down Cameron Indoor Stadium and Coach K Court and replace them with a rusty hoop nailed to a barn. Until that happens, Duke should do us the favor of shutting up as it rakes in its cut of the NCAA’s TV money.—Josh Levin and Tom Scocca
University of Akron*
College basketball has been a safe haven for those of us who are permanently disgruntled ex-fans of LeBron James. King James never played college ball, so March brings no lingering reminders of Cleveland’s one-time hoops savior, no matter how many screens you have tuned to CBS or the various ESPNs. Until this week, that is, when LeBron’s hometown Akron Zips upset Kent State to win the MAC tournament. The Zips’ coach, Keith Dambrot, guided LBJ to two Ohio state championships as a high schooler; his Zips bio makes it sound like the Akron coach all but molded James out of clay before presenting him as a gift to the world. Two of LeBron’s high school teammates, Romeo Travis and Dru Joyce, played college ball for Akron. A fourth teammate, Willie McGee, is now an assistant for the Zips. Ugh—it’s like a mid-major version of the Miami Heat. The only difference: When Miami loses, LeBron’s still on SportsCenter all night; when the Zips lose, they have the decency to disappear.—Rachael Larimore
Penn State University
Watching the Nittany Lions reminds me of that old joke: The basketball is really terrible … and such small portions. On offense, the Penn Staters resemble Hoosiers extras with chronic fatigue syndrome. To compensate for their inability to shoot, pass, and dribble, the maladroit Lions impose awfulness on their opponents, plodding along at a pre-shot-clock-era pace that makes their games a slog to the merciful final buzzer. Penn State’s 36-33 victory over Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament should have cemented its position as the one team in America that’s best kept away from television viewers—say, in the NIT. Instead, this slow-motion cavalcade of missed jumpers was the “quality win” that pushed the execrable Lions into the NCAAs. Perhaps it’s time for the selection committee to consider an aesthetic requirement: If a team’s playing style is like watching vomit dry, it’s best to ask them to stay home.—Josh Levin
The champion of the Ivy League gets an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament every year, no matter how bad that team might be. This year, that team is Princeton, which won entry to the tourney by squeaking out a playoff win over Harvard, 63-62. The matter is not completely settled, I’m told, because the Winklevoss twins are said to be preparing a lawsuit. But they’re likely to lose this legal struggle, too.
If you love college basketball—and I don’t—you’ve got to admit that the Ivy League’s guaranteed entry to the tournament is less defensible than any set-aside, quota system, or welfare operation known to man. It rewards mediocre players and mediocre teams from a mediocre league for merely showing up. Like the old-fashioned legacy admission to universities, the Ivy berth is an insult to everybody else who worked hard and excelled. If the Ivy League possessed self-knowledge in the quantities that it possesses self-esteem, it would reject this annual gift and demand a more meritocratic distribution of slots. As for the news outlets that hyped the Princeton-Harvard game (c’mon, New York Times!), we’re on to you. Just how worried are you that your kids are headed to a safety school?—Jack Shafer
University of Kansas*
For an unaffiliated fan, the greatest joy in college basketball is watching a contemptuous, overconfident powerhouse crumble. Of March’s perennial contenders, the Kansas Jayhawks have been the most generous in providing these moments of unadulterated chokery, failing to make it past the Sweet 16 as a No. 1 seed five times in nine tries. The satisfying schadenfreude of watching Paul Pierce’s 1998 squad (coming off of a 58-point win over Prairie View) humiliated by humble Rhode Island, the thrill of last year’s top-ranked team spitting the bit against Northern Iowa … it’s hard to pick my favorite Jayhawks loss.
While I sometimes feel bad for rooting against a team I don’t care much about, this time around there’s no reason to feel guilty about pulling for a Kansas collapse. The Jayhawks’ starting point guard Tyshawn Taylor is a bully, both in real life and in the virtual world. Twin brothers Marcus and Markieff Morris, meanwhile, have a habit of hitting opposing players in the face. Worst of all, senior forward Mario Little was suspended for part of the season after he “allegedly battered [his girlfriend] and pushed her into a sink.” So, come on Boston U., UNLV, Illinois, or anybody else—rock, chalk these Jayhawks out of the tournament. This year, they deserve the pain.—Jeremy Stahl
Boston is celebrated for its universities, and surely the city wouldn’t be the same without them. They attract world-class intellectuals, support vibrant cultural institutions, and drive the high-tech economy that has allowed the city to remain wealthy and influential. But there’s a drawback: undergraduates. The city is teeming with them. They’re loud, they’re brash, they lack shame. They pummel you with their overstuffed JanSports on the Green Line. They drip their Emack & Bolio’s on you on Newbury Street. They desecrate Faneuil Hall by keeping bars like the Purple Shamrock in business. (Yes, Samuel Adams was a brewer and a patriot—that doesn’t mean he’d approve of cobblestones running with Jägermeister. Positively Hessian.)
All that is why, despite being a Boston native, I cannot support its college sports teams. (At the Beanpot, I root for everyone to lose.) There was a moment earlier this winter when it looked like three Boston schools might make the Dance. Thankfully, Clemson routed B.C. in the ACC tournament and Harvard lost a heartbreaker to Princeton. That leaves B.U., the only member of the trio actually located in Boston proper. If the Terriers somehow pull out a miracle win, I will feel no hometown pride. Rather, I’ll think of what the great Sam Adams once said: “The liberties of our country, the freedoms of our civil constitution, are worth defending at all hazards—except, perchance, those packs of co-eds who maraud through Kenmore Square, sloshed out of their mind on Jäger bombs.”—John Swansburg
University of Memphis
When John Calipari decided he’d prefer to vacate his next Final Four appearance elsewhere, the Memphis Tigers reverted to their true identity. The low-grade bully of a backwater league, Memphis must now toil to attract the factory seconds of the AAU circuit. As soon as Calipari went off to Kentucky, future lottery picks Xavier Henry and DeMarcus Cousins reneged on their commitments to the Tigers and signed with the sport’s true blue bloods, KU and UK. In college basketball’s one-and-done age, you’re only as good as your last recruiting class. While second-year coach Josh Pastner has brought in a more-than-respectable haul of slightly sub-Calipari talent, the next wave of aspiring pros will figure out that Memphis is an empty vessel—southwest Tennessee’s answer to Conference USA brethren East Carolina and Southern Miss. For now, Pastner is like a stick-up man with his finger in his coat pocket, desperate to convince everyone he’s got a gun.—Josh Levin
*Correction, March 16, 2011:This piece originally and incorrectly referred to Akron University and Kansas University. The schools are the University of Akron and the University of Kansas.