marchmadness

Tonight Is The Best Night Of The College Basketball Season

Perennial powers on the one hand, bloodthirsty underdogs on the other. Let’s go.

Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer / MCT

1. The Sweet 16 is the most objectively perfect part of the college basketball season. If you disagree with this, then you do not appreciate what makes college basketball college basketball; you may enjoy the sport as much as anyone, you might be cheering harder for your team than is medically advisable, but you dont truly understand why the sport captivates so many people.

2. Because of the nature of playing eight games in two days, one night is bound to be better than the other. Last night’s slate had some appeal — Arizona and Ohio State, Syracuse and Indiana, elite programs all, plus Marquette and Miami, major-conference strivers. The night was hampered, however, by having Wichita State and La Salle, two quality underdogs, play each other. Tonight’s schedule is clearly the superior of the two.

3. Duke vs. Michigan State is the basketball equivalent of Rip Torn striking Norman Mailer with a hammer. There’s a real kinship between these schools, born of being constant presences in the deepest reaches of the tournament. And, despite or because of this kinship, there is also a hatred both vicious and cerebral, the kind of dislike that can only come from immense respect. Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo know Mike Krzyzewskis and Tom Izzos when they see them, and the recognition of themselves in each other just makes the killer instinct even fiercer.

Nhat V. Meyer/San Jose Mercury News / MCT

4. Human beings thrive on the sense of feeling underrated. It motivates them to correct what appears a cosmic imbalance in the world; it creates a vacuum of space that must be filled either by the underrated party proving its worth or by the underrating becoming the rule. In the NCAA tournament, every good team has to feel like it’s underrated, except for the No. 1 overall seed, i.e., Louisville, which has to believe that no alternative reality is even possible. But some squads achieve this reality more poignantly than others. This year, it’s Oregon, a team that won the Pac-12 tournament — in name, if not in respect, one of the major conference-postseason contests — yet was given a mid-major at-large-esque No. 12 seed. So far, Oregon has played like the legitimate team it is and not the cast-off it was branded by the selection committee, and, running up against Louisville, the question of motivation vs. ability will be answered in very concrete terms: one of these teams will move, one of them will not.

5. College basketball teams are often filled with players you’ve never heard of, because there are approximately 95,000 Division I teams in the country. Michigan is not this kind of team. Michigan has a national player of the year candidate in Trey Burke, two NBA sons in Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III, and a vaunted recruit in Mitch McGary. Michigan has name-brand players, who you’d be interested to hear about even if they didn’t make the tournament. It’s a miracle one of the Jordan kids isn’t on this team.

The News-Press, Sarah Coward / AP

6. There’s something slightly off about this Kansas team. The what and why is elusive; it has all the ingredients of a marquee March Madness squad — a big, defensively dominant center in Jeff Withey; a star freshman in Ben McLemore; capable, effective upperclassmen in Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson — but something doesn’t quite click. The most obvious evidence in its not-clicking is how Kansas has struggled to beat two inferior teams so far this tournament, stumbling through a half of unwatchable basketball before putting away UNC, whose small-ball approach should’ve been butter to Kansas’ knife, and needing all 40 minutes to eliminate the threat of 16-seed Western Kentucky. But watching the Jayhawks, the most problematic thing seems to be a distinct lack of confidence, particularly on the part of frosh McLemore, whose 16 points per game in the regular season fell to 11 against WKU and only 2 against UNC, a game in which he made zero shots from the field. The rest of the offense seems uncourageous as well, constantly forcing the ball into Withey in the post, where he’ll fumble it away in a tangle of his own limbs, or jacking up inefficient midrange jumpers. What we’ll find out tonight is whether Kansas has actual basketball deficiencies or if they’re just playing down to their opponents — because against Michigan, there won’t be room to play down.

9. Florida Gulf Coast, aka Dunk City, aka Rap Game 15-Seed, aka Young Money Cash Money Fort Myers Billionaires, aka the Basketball Spring Breakers, a.k.a. Top Underdawgs Entertainment. I used that description in a post from yesterday, and I’m using it again, because introducing FGCU without treating them like a pro wrestler just seems wrong. Our seemingly unquenchable capacity for rooting for underdogs is puzzling for the fact that, almost every time, they come crashing to Earth in a crush of fire and tears. It happens every year, and this time around, it’ll happen to FGCU. Unless it doesn’t. What if, just what if, the Eagles managed to beat their in-state rivals the University of Florida on the momentum of last week and the adrenaline that come from squaring off against another Florida team, and then, somehow, they topped Michigan/Kansas, the winner there exhausted from a brutal Sweet 16 victory. Then they’d have gone from being the first 15-seed in Sweet 16 history to the first in Final Four history, and they’d meet either Syracuse or Marquette, both very beatable teams, there. And then, in the National Championship, realizing that they had absolutely nothing to lose — they should’ve been done five games ago — they beat Louisville/Oregon/Duke/Michigan State/Wichita State/Ohio State, and it’s Dunk Country, not just Dunk City. This won’t happen. But it could. But it won’t. But you never know.

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