Sports Nut

Cocktail Chatter: NCAA Tournament Edition

How to fake your way through March Madness.

Kentucky Wildcat Karl-Anthony Towns dunks the ball against the Arkansas Razorbacks in the championship game of the SEC championship game in Nashville, Tennessee, on March 15, 2015.
Will the Wildcats go all the way for a perfect season? Above, Karl-Anthony Towns dunks the ball in the SEC championship game in Nashville, Tennessee, on March 15, 2015.

Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

So everyone in your office is talking about the NCAA Tournament, but you don’t know the difference between John Calipari and calamari? (One is a slimy bottom-feeder; the other is squid.) Fear not! Your friends at Slate are here with a cheat sheet to help you fake your way through the early stages of the tournament. 

Midwest Region

Talking points: College basketball purists hate Kentucky coach John Calipari for building his teams around so-called one-and-done players who leave school as soon as they become eligible for the NBA draft. These people are assuredly aghast at the chance that the top-ranked Wildcats, who went 34–0 this year, might end up running the tournament and posting a perfect season, thus validating Calipari’s tactics to those who claim he doesn’t do things “the right way.” Talk these people off the ledge by noting that this year’s Kentucky squad relies heavily on veteran players like junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein and sophomore guards—and identical twins—Aaron and Andrew Harrison. Then push them back up on that ledge by noting that collegiate amateurism is a farce and that in a system that’s already ethically bankrupt, “the right way” is any way that wins.

Historical context: The last men’s Division I collegiate basketball team to post a perfect season was the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. This year’s Indiana squad, seeded 10th in the Midwest region, would have to make it to the Elite Eight in order to have a chance to help preserve the school’s legacy by toppling Kentucky. The Hoosiers are relying on junior guard Yogi Ferrell, who can score from anywhere on the floor, and who wreaks havoc on opposing teams by sneaking into their locker rooms before the game and stealing their picnic baskets.

Upset threat: The University at Buffalo Bulls, coached by former Duke star Bobby Hurley, are making their first-ever tournament appearance this year. The 12th-seeded Bulls play fast, and their up-tempo game will give them a fighting chance against fifth-seeded West Virginia. You’re not quite sure why the Buffalo Bulls have a name that sounds so similar to the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, but you nevertheless hope that the eighth-seeded Bearcats will jump on this trend and change their name to the Cincinnati Rods.

Conversation starter: “It doesn’t matter that Notre Dame hasn’t reached the Sweet 16 since 2003. Did you see what Jerian Grant did in the ACC tourney?”

Conversation stopper: “Or maybe they could change their name to the Cincinnati Bangles. Get it? The Bangles? (pause) I need another beer.”

East Region

Talking points: While the first-seeded Villanova Wildcats haven’t lost a game since Jan. 19, you know that the team to watch in the East is Virginia. The second-seeded Cavaliers don’t score a lot, but they play a smothering help defense that leaves opponents desperate. Coach Tony Bennett’s “pack line” scheme is designed to minimize paint scoring while forcing low-percentage jumpers, and it’s very effective. Feel free to yell “Defense wins championships” at the top of your lungs whenever the Cavaliers force their opponents to take an ugly outside shot. You can also feel free to croon a few bars of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” whenever the coach is shown on TV. It’s not the same Tony Bennett, but that joke doesn’t wear thin until like the fifth or sixth time.

Historical context: 2015 marks the 30th anniversary of Villanova’s last—and only—NCAA Tournament title. Back in 1985, the Wildcats rose from the eighth seed to topple Georgetown in one of the most exciting college championship games in history; they remain the lowest-seeded team ever to win the NCAA Tournament. Tell everyone who will listen that this year’s Villanova squad should try to “recapture the magic” by surreptitiously dressing Ed Pinckney.

Upset threat: The 13th-seeded UC–Irvine Anteaters have a secret weapon: 7’6” center Mamadou N’Diaye, who is the tallest player in Division I college basketball. Like Shawn Bradley, Manute Bol, and other man mountains before him, N’Diaye isn’t particularly skilled: He’s good at dunking the ball, occasionally rejecting opposing players’ shots, posing for comical photographs with very short people (presumably), and other things where the primary qualification is “being one of the world’s tallest men.” You, however, know that N’Diaye doesn’t need to be Dirk Nowitzki in order to give the Anteaters a chance. He just needs to stand in the paint, wave his long arms like a wraith, and intimidate Louisville into settling for a bunch of outside shots.

Conversation starter: Michigan State wasn’t particularly great during the regular season, but you should never, ever, count out a Tom Izzo team come tournament time. There’s a reason why they call him ‘Mr. March.’ ”

Conversation stopper: “Coincidentally, Izzo is also ‘Mr. March’ in my homemade ‘Coaches of the Big Ten’ boudoir calendar. Here, have a look!”

West Region

Talking points: The University of Wisconsin Badgers won their first-ever No. 1 seed this year largely behind the play of senior forward Frank Kaminsky, a goofy-looking white dude who is favored to win the Wooden Award, honoring the collegiate player of the year. Kaminsky is a fearsome scorer and defender, and he’s also immensely likable—he rides around Madison, Wisconsin, on a moped, is known on campus as Frank the Tank, and really, really enjoys being a college student. While it’s hard to begrudge Kaminsky his fame, his teammates deserve some recognition, too. So while your friends chant for Frank the Tank, you should raise your voice for some of the Badgers’ lesser-known talents, like junior forward Sam “the Sham” Dekker. That’s not actually his nickname, but it could be, if you scream loud enough.

Historical context: Former Pennsylvania Sen. Harris Wofford, who is 88 years old, has had a very interesting life. He was the first white man to enroll at Howard Law School, advised President John F. Kennedy, was involved in the civil rights movement, and helped found the Peace Corps. To be clear, Harris Wofford is not at all affiliated with the 12th-seeded Wofford Terriers, who will probably lose to Arkansas on Thursday. But if the watercooler conversation somehow shifts from basketball to underrated senators, then you’ll be golden.  

Upset threat: While the 14th-seeded Georgia State Panthers probably won’t go deep into the tournament, they’ve got something to play for in the first round: Head coach Ron Hunter tore his Achilles tendon while celebrating the team’s Sun Belt Conference title on Sunday. “Let’s win one for our clumsy coach” isn’t quite as stirring a slogan as “Win one for the Gipper,” but the Panthers need something to get them going against a much better Baylor team. Will Hunter’s tragic and sort of funny injury inspire his players to come together and beat the Bears? If so, I hope the lesson he draws is “Now we know we can play with anyone,” not “Let’s keep this train rolling with another, even stupider injury!” (Falls off ladder while attempting to cut down the net.)

Conversation starter: “Watch out for VCU at the 7 seed. Shaka Smart’s teams always seem to go farther than you’d expect.”

Conversation stopper: “Watch out for the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers at the 16 seed. Their Renaissance choral harmonies are breathtaking!”

South Region

Talking points: Every year around this time, college basketball fans fall to their knees, clasp their hands, and pray that Duke will lose in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Last year, those prayers were answered when 14th-seeded Mercer upset the third-seeded Blue Devils in the Midwest region. Duke is a No. 1 seed this year, and a first-seeded team has never, ever lost in the first round. That’s not going to stop you from finishing up your hand-crafted Christian Laettner voodoo doll with lifelike super-punchable face. Take that, Christian Laettner!

Historical context: The sixth-seeded SMU Mustangs, making their first tournament appearance since 1993, are coached by temperamental drifter Larry Brown, who is the only coach to win both an NBA title and an NCAA championship. The 74-year-old Brown has coached 13 different teams in his more than four-decade head-coaching career, one of which was UCLA, which is SMU’s first-round opponent this year. Make your friends laugh by quipping that the only way the Bruins will win this game is if Brown somehow gets disoriented and starts coaching from the UCLA sideline. Then, make things weird by insisting that you turn off the television and have a serious conversation about the horrors of late-onset dementia.

Upset threat: Eastern Washington Eagles guard Tyler Harvey leads the nation in scoring with 22.9 points per game. If Harvey gets hot, the 13th-seeded Eagles could overwhelm an overrated Georgetown squad. You’re rooting for this to happen, both because it’d be fun to see a former walk-on like Harvey succeed on the national stage and the “Hot Harvey” is a sex move that you’ve been trying to popularize for quite some time.

Conversation starter: “Gonzaga’s Mark Few might be the most underrated coach in college basketball.”

Conversation stopper: “Seriously, guys, I’m starting to get worried about Larry Brown.”