There are a lot of things to love and hate about March Madness. This is how we feel about those things.
Aaron Craft: In the final second of Saturday's Big 10 tournament semifinal between Ohio State and Michigan, senior Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft was airborne. A second earlier, with OSU trailing by three, Aaron Craft had gathered himself to attempt a potential game-tying three-pointer from the top of the key. But the bigger, stronger, longer Glenn Robinson III had noticed what Craft was up do, and elevated. Maybe Robinson would've punched that shit into the lake, but maybe Craft would've gotten it off. It doesn't matter, because as he rose, the ball slipped out of his hand, floated just out of reach, then fell harmlessly back to Earth as time expired. And then Twitter exploded.
Aaron Craft is polarizing, and not in the way that, say, Tim Tebow was "polarizing." (You know what was polarizing about Tim Tebow? Being told 629 times a day that he was polarizing, as if there were two equal sides to the question of whether or not he was a viable NFL quarterback.) As far as I can tell, there are two schools of thought on Aaron Craft, and no more than two. There are the people who love Aaron Craft, and there are the people who hate Aaron Craft.
It's pretty easy to see why. He seems to work at cross purposes with himself. He's laughably limited with the ball in his hands, but he's a demon on the defensive end without it. He's a genius, or at least near enough, but also comes off as a rube. He's a pre-med student who writes Bible verses on his shoes before games. Sports pundits fawn over his supposed modesty, but it's really hard to miss that shit-eating grin. He ostensibly "plays the right way," as if a lack of skill and agility and touch on offense were somehow a virtue. He's also such a perfect interview that he comes off as a practiced interview, because let's face it: No one—no one—is that fucking hokey.
There is a lot to love there, though. Go back and read Sports Illustrated's great profile of Craft last year (if you can find it; I couldn't). There is nothing modest or self-effacing about how he approaches defense. He wants to accomplish the same thing that someone trying to stuff some 7-footer through the hoop wants to accomplish: He wants to break the other guy's will. Craft is just doing it through different means. He's showboating, too, in his own way.
So I propose a third camp: The people who think Aaron Craft deserves better fans than the likes of Rick Reilly. This March Madness will be his last, and his career will almost certainly end here in college, in heartbreak. He deserves to be appreciated for what he is, not for what certain idiots want him to be.—Greg Howard
Aaron Gordon: He's the closest thing college basketball has to Blake Griffin, and I say this knowing full well that it risks accusations of superficial analogy. Watch Gordon rubbing off a backdoor screen, hurling himself toward the rim, reaching for a lobbed pass, then crashing the ball through the hoop, and tell me it's not Griffin who comes immediately to mind.
Where Gordon and Griffin diverge is the focus of their play. Both were raw prospects coming off their first year of college but even then, Griffin was doing his best work on the offensive end, while Gordon is, for now, a defensive presence more than anything else. There's the vertical leap, which is good for a highlight block on occasion, but he also does the little things that make a coach's toes curl. He positions himself impeccably, and he contests every shot, whether they're blockable or not.
Gordon says all the right things, too. He told Seth Davis that he joined this loaded Arizona team instead of some other school where he'd be more of an offensive focus because he wanted to win. "I learned two or three years ago playing with [his AAU team] that if you win, everybody on the team gets love," he said. "So, you gotta go to a team that wins."
Because this is college basketball, and because college basketball is still covered by the kind of declensionists who get off on Bobby Knight's kid shitting all over his players, you begin to worry a little that someone, somewhere, will appropriate that quote for the purposes of invidious comparison. Look at those "old-school" values. Look at that "team-first mentality." But then Aaron Gordon will slip backdoor and crash another one through the hoop, and it'll be flashy and prideful and old-school and team-first—everything at once, to all people. Let's not argue. Aaron Gordon is the place where we can simply agree.—Billy Haisley
That First Drink After Skipping Out Of Work On Thursday: Look at that. That's a nice big beer right there. And such a sweaty glass! Goddamn that looks tasty. Why don't you sneak out of work to drink at 2 p.m. more often? Why is this not a regular part of the American work experience? We should be more like Spain, where they work for a little bit and then eat a 64-course lunch and take a nap and then half-ass a few more hours of work after that before dancing the night away. Sure, Spain has 50 percent unemployment and is constantly on the verge of civil strife, but at least they LIVE, dammit!
Time to sip that beer OH MAN THAT IS GREAT. You thought you might head back to the office around 4 to show your face and maybe send one piddly-shit email. But now that you've sipped this beer, you know: You're never going back. No fucking way. You are here for the duration. You're like a new mother who knows she won't be coming back after maternity leave is over. You will find a way to make this work, goddammit. You're not leaving this barstool. Derek's getting off work in 20 minutes and then shit will REALLY start getting fun.
This is good beer.—Drew Magary
Ed Cooley: Providence head coach Ed Cooley is missing a few things: about 125 pounds, and his house. Casual fans might barely recognize Cooley if not for his signature hair patches (the result of a skin condition) because the previously hefty former Fairfield coach is down to a svelte 222 pounds from nearly 350 less than a year ago. Cooley's also, quite literally, homeless after a fire damaged most of his family's house.
It's probably safe to assume he'll be able to afford a new one after leading the Friars to their first Big East title in 20 years and their first NCAA tournament appearance in 10. (With a very possible win in their opening game against North Carolina, he'd give Providence their first win in the tourney since Pete Gillen brought the Friars to within overtime of the Final Four in a 1997 Elite Eight loss to Arizona.)
All this for a coach who never even managed to take his previous team, Fairfield, to the Big Dance. It's a wonder Cooley even scored the Providence job to begin with; previous coach Keno Davis came into Rhode Island with both coaching pedigree and having come off a 28-5 season with Drake. But it never worked for Davis at Providence, and an honest observer wouldn't fault the Big East squad for seeking something other than an accomplished mid-major head coach for their position.
Credit, then, to the Friars for finding Cooley—a coach known for developing players but who has, unexpectedly, proven to be a top recruiter once provided the resources available at the high major level. That's enough reason to like a guy living out of a hotel, getting himself into shape, and leading a no-expectations team to the Big East title. But we mostly like Ed Cooley because he's a good dude. College basketball writers, fans, and former players insist upon telling you how gracious and patient he is. Is he the long-term answer to Providence's prayers? We hope they can hold onto him long enough to find out. — Tim Burke
Doug McDermott: The stats are sparkling: He's scored 27 points and grabbed seven rebounds per game while shooting 52 percent from the floor and 45 percent from three-point range, and he ran away with Ken Pomeroy's player of the year title. His offensive rating is a ridiculous 124.7, and he takes over 38 percent of his team's shots while he's on the floor, the second-highest rate in the country. McDermott is the biggest cog in college basketball's deadliest machine.
And he's actually as much fun to watch as his numbers would suggest. McDermott isn't some stiff who grinds out points on the block and at the free-throw line; he's a shooter with no conscience who will carpet-bomb teams from every spot on the floor; he's a quick-footed pick-and-roll partner who makes decisive moves in the paint punctuated by nifty finishes around the rim; he's the guy for whom you can design a last-second play that gets him a shot 25 feet away from the rim. He's got that Dirk-style, one-legged jumper, too.—Tom Ley
Andrew Wiggins: Duh.
It's hard not to view Wiggins's one season at Kansas as something of a letdown. There's not a damn thing wrong with averaging 17 and six on one of the best teams in the country, but once people started seeing him play every day, it was impossible for Wiggins to maintain the mixtape mystique he had built up before arriving in Kansas. Maple Jordan has been great, but a lot of fans were expecting an icon. It's hard to be an icon when you may not even be the best NBA prospect on your own team.
So Wiggins spent the year disappointing people, whatever that means, and then on March 8 he reminded us that he's the guy who can do this:
Look at poor Eron Harris in that GIF. He looks likes he ran into a damn force field.
And ever since that dunk, Wiggins has been on a rampage. He finished that game against West Virginia with 41 points, and five days later he led the Jayhawks to an overtime win over Oklahoma State with 30 points and eight rebounds. Watch the highlight reel from that game, and you'll see Wiggins completely taking over, terrorizing his opponents on defense while outmuscling and leaping over them on offense:
Wiggins is rounding into form at the best possible moment. Maybe Kansas gets Bucknelled out of the tournament this year, but maybe Wiggins keeps doing what he's been doing and turns the tournament into his own personal mixtape.—Tom Ley
The play-in games: Are you psyched for the NCAA tournament to start today? Trick question—the NCAA tournament started a couple nights ago. Under god and the flag and the Turner family of networks, the "First Four" actually counts as part of the tournament, and we are supposed to just accept it. As a right-thinking American who understands that the tourney doesn't start until you blow off work just after noon on Thursday, I say: No more.
I would not mind the existence of these four games if they didn't screw with nature's most perfect creation: the 64-team bracket. It has radial symmetry, the entire construction rotating about the nexus of the ultimate goal. It possesses, count 'em, four axes of reflection symmetry. The bracket itself is downright beautiful, and the play-in games are stubby little tumors marring the look and eating away at the integrity of the whole.
It would not be so bad if, come tipoff today, we could pretend the First Four never existed. But its toxic memory remains, tainting the tournament's nomenclature. You know the first round? The round that comes first? Thanks to the play-in games, the thing we all know to be the first round is actually the "second round," and the second is the "third." It throws history and context into disarray, and leads to an inescapable conclusion: The NCAA wants you to believe that the thing that happened on Tuesday and Wednesday was actually a round.
The real first round is a sensory blitz, 16 games in a day, and we should remain in awe of its power. Play-in games are the coward's way of easing in. You do not meekly dip a toe into the NCAA tournament; you cannonball into its icy fury.
There is a rhythm to the tournament, as predictable as the coming of spring. The sheer number of simultaneous games compensate for the fact that most aren't particularly well-played. But as the games decrease in frequency, they ratchet up in importance. We are hard-wired to understand that when a tournament game is the only game on TV, it matters. The play-in games play havoc with this ingrained math, and forget their place. We already have two days where only two games each are played—it's called the Elite Eight, and it's awesome, and the uppity First Four would do well to remember that.
In case you are not yet convinced that the First Four is an affront to theology and geometry, I have two, entirely non-rhetorical questions for you. Did your bracket require you to pick winners of the play-in games? And do you know, right now and by heart, the channel number for TruTV? If gambling and channel surfing habits indicate that the games don't matter to you, the First Four can not ethically be counted as part of the NCAA tournament.—Barry Petchesky
"One Shining Moment": It is 2014. Cars parallel park themselves. You can order food without ever speaking to a human being until the delivery guy shows up at your door. Your parents probably don't even say things like, "How do I log on to 'the web?'" And yet, for some reason, the most famous highlight reel in sports is set to a song that sounds like it could be the theme of Reading Rainbow.
The highlights are of course awesome. There are a handful of bonkers plays, and I'm still a sucker for the slow-mo "thrill of victory, agony of defeat" shots of the players, but good fucking lord, who wants to watch this while listening to Light FM piano and horns and the singer you slow-danced to in 1994? This song never should've gone further than the napkin it was first written on.
This was supposed to be the closing-montage soundtrack for Super Bowl XXI. Can you fucking even? No, you can't even. Luckily the broadcast went long and they had to scrap it, but just try to imagine the feverscape: a coked-out-of-his-mind Lawrence Taylor trying to lasso John Elway as some guy sings ♫...but time is short, and the road is long, in the blinking of an eye, ah that moment's gone ♫
As with most things in life, this is Armen Keteyian's fault. He was high school friends with David Barrett, the man who wrote the song, and passed along Barrett's work while he was at CBS in 1986. It's been a fixture ever since. More, from Wikipedia:
The first verse is about inspiration and hard work. The second verse deals with adversity, accompanied by highlights of injured players and missed shots. The bridge includes lines such as "Feel the beat of your heart", often shown with players thumping their chests, and "Feel the wind in your face", with video of drives towards the basket.
Look, it needs to be updated, there's just no way around it. We don't need to bring in Lorde or anything—"Seven Nation Army," despite its omnipresence, would be awesome for something like this—but let's leave the breezy, fat-free jazz-or-whatever-the-fuck in the mid-'80s along with coked-up LT, where they both belong.—Sean Newell
The Bracketologist: Bracket prediction used to be the domain of amateurs, leveraging stats to prognosticate NCAA tournament matchups in the hours before the selection committee released the results of its week-long conclave. Then Joe Lunardi turned it into a profession, projecting brackets for ESPN even before the season starts.
There are a lot of pointless exercises, and we engage in plenty here at Deadspin. But I cannot fathom something with less purpose than projecting what the NCAA tournament field might look like at any time before the conference tournaments—and, thus, auto-bids—have been decided. If you want to be in the business of handicapping individual games in an iterative fashion, fine—but bracketology as its own discipline makes zero sense if the prognosticator is constantly refining his or her predictions. The whole exercise serves no value, save for attempting to match the selection committee's own work on that Sunday afternoon. Even then, if you've succeeded, it's a neat parlor trick and nothing else.
And yet people keep linking to bracket sites like they mean something. "Oh, cool, Lunardi projects us as a four-seed, playing against New Mexico State!" That's great, Marquette fan—try not losing 14 games, though, in something that actually matters.—Tim Burke
Doug McDermott as the Symbol of Everything Good: Fuck what this guy is forced to stand for. He's a basketball player, OK? A really good one, sure, but not some gamboling unicorn who validates the moral framework that hacky sportswriters are forever trying to impose on the sport. Look, I know we bang this drum a lot (and we're doing it a lot even within this particular post), but here's the thing: People who should know better keep writing this shit.
Here's Andy Katz on why McDermott is his player of the year: "McDermott came back to college to play for his dad, Greg, the school and to deliver another NCAA tournament berth. He returned for all the right reasons and answered every challenge." So what are the wrong reasons for returning? And what do his reasons for coming back have anything to do with his player-of-the-year candidacy? His play alone made McDermott a no-brainer player of the year, but Katz continues apace: "He helped Creighton's transition to a new conference and followed up his prolific scoring in one conference (the Missouri Valley) by doing it in another (the new Big East). He rewarded his father, his teammates, his school and a city that supports him with a sensational season." Oh, I see: working for the economic benefit of the institutions facilitating your exploitation are noble causes, but trying to improve your own professional prospects isn't.
As we've noted before, Sports Illustrated has also blown that "Great White Hope" dog whistle. It's a story as old as the integration of American sports, and it's unfortunate that an apparently cool dude like McDermott has to symbolize so much nonsense to so many people. So while we should all root for him to succeed in the tournament, at least when Creighton ultimately loses it'll offer some kind of comeuppance for the idiots perpetually trying to drag us back to 1910.—Billy Haisley
The Guy Who Proudly Didn't Fill Out a Bracket: If you have had a conversation about this year's NCAA tournament in a group that included more than five people, you have met this guy. "You know what I decided to do last year, guys?" he said a little too loudly. "I decided not to fill out a bracket, and it made the tournament so much more enjoyable. It's so much more fun to watch the tournament and not feel stressed out about a silly bracket. You should think about not filling one out this year, it will make all the difference."
This guy sucks because this guy is a smug liar.
He is lying about the tournament being more fun to watch without a bracket. Your enjoyment of the first few days of the tournament is almost entirely dependent on you filling out a bracket. Sure, there will be an upset or a close game here and there, but the opening round is, for the most part, characterized by sloppy games and blowouts. You know what sucks to watch unless you have a vested interest their outcomes? Sloppy games and blowouts. Guy Who Proudly Didn't Fill Out a Bracket can spend Thursday afternoon teetering on an uncomfortable bar stool, sipping a lukewarm light beer, pretending like he's really getting a kick out of Cincinnati-Harvard game, but he'll be living a lie.
And he's smug because he's living that lie for no other reason than to feel superior to the those of us who have some skin in the game. He's the sort of person who makes his studiedly recherché consumer choices based on whether or not he'll be able to lord them over someone else. He owns but has never read Infinite Jest. He owns but never listens to Trout Mask Replica. He just can't wait to tell everyone how he didn't fill out a bracket this year, beaming like a toddler who just finished his first finger painting. Good for you, buddy. We're all very proud of you, but the adults are talking now.—Tom Ley
Doug Gottlieb: Grading on the radio-host curve, Doug Gottlieb is pretty good at what he does, but whenever he opens his mouth about college sports, he turns into the kind of sneering asshole you find in every freshman African Studies course, protesting about how hypocritical affirmative action is, man.
Doug Gottlieb is one of the NCAA's biggest stans, but his arguments against paying college athletes are somehow even more annoying than those put forth by the mottled old dudes of the coaching class. Gottlieb's worse than they are because he argues from the perspective of someone who knows what it's like to be a college athlete, who knows via first-hand experience what an athletics scholarship is really worth, who ended up "going pro" in something other than basketball.
But how representative is Gottlieb's experience? He is a coach's son from Orange County, and he entered college as a kid from a stable background who was going to be just fine whether he went pro or not. College degrees are useful to people like Gottlieb, people whose lives never lack for options, but not everyone values them in the same way. (Most everyone can agree that fruits and vegetables are good for you. How would Gottlieb feel about
ESPN paying him in apples and spinach instead of cash?)
And yet Gottlieb refuses to acknowledge the privilege of his vantage point, even when it's pointed out to him by people who are much smarter than he is. Instead, he just keeps sneering, wondering why everyone can't just shut up already and be as successful as he is.—Tom Ley
Mark Emmert: Here is a fun thing to remember while watching the NCAA tournament unfold over the next couple of weeks: You—who filled out the obligatory bracket, who investigated live-streaming options for the games that will take place during your workday, who will be lulled to sleep at least two or three times by the endless succession of 38-second possessions ending in ugly 19-foot bricks from guys who will be substitute middle-school civics teachers come autumn—are contributing at least as much to the success or failure of the NCAA's flagship basketball event (to its entertainment value, the quality of its basketball, the drama and excitement of it) as NCAA executive director Mark Emmert, who after all does not play basketball, or coach basketball, or assemble basketball teams, or build basketball arenas, or produce basketball telecasts, or design basketball uniforms, or schedule basketball games, or officiate basketball games, or play jaunty tunes on the organ at basketball games, or do any other goddamn thing that makes basketball and/or basketball tournaments fun and rewarding things to watch.
Not having much to contribute to the NCAA tournament is no crime. I don't have anything to contribute to the NCAA tournament beyond occasional interest in watching it on television, and neither do the overwhelming majority of people, and that's perfectly OK. The difference between us and Mark Emmert, though, is that, while neither he nor we will be contributing much of anything to the basketball showcase taking place over the next couple of weeks, Mark Emmert will make lots and lots and lots of money off of it.
This, you may have heard, is also a rather big difference between Mark Emmert and the basketball players. They play basketball; people pay money to watch them do it; television networks pay money to broadcast it; corporations pay money to advertise during it; that money goes, in great grotesque unearned chunks, to university presidents, to athletic directors, to window-dressing compliance departments, to coaches, to physics laboratories—and, to Mark Emmert, who is OK with this arrangement, insofar as he A) takes the money, and B) presides over the whole fucked-up thing, and C) oversees the vigorous resistance of all attempts to restructure it less fuckedupedly, which is to say that he is a thief and is in the jail of an alternate-universe society that gags at economic vampirism instead of celebrating it.—Albert Burneko