This season’s NCAA tournament was the best we’ve had in years. That’s not hyperbole from this Duke fan. That’s not prisoner of the moment exaggeration. It’s realistic, wow-what-a-tournament fact. And that’s not just because Duke won. The buzz among my coworkers – who, sadly, are largely UNC fans – has been maybe just short of electric; the energy, tangible. The tournament was that good. The talking heads will say that every year, but this time they actually mean it.
The beauty is that we got excitement in the form of high-level basketball execution and not just late game fouls and clock management “excitement.”
Think back to the first weekend. We got everything we always get: early round upsets and busted brackets. This year was no different, for better or worse. It was exciting, as always, but didn’t really set itself apart. The second weekend though, everything ramped up. The excitement capped by the UK-Notre Dame thriller in the Elite 8.
And we get an almost dream Final Four. Yes, the Duke-Michigan State game left a little to be desired, but the UK-Wisconsin game carried the torch for just how great this tournament can be. The tension was high, the stakes were higher, and the crowd in Lucas Oil Stadium was fantastic for the tourney’s penultimate game. I don’t think the setting nor the teams could have been better.
By the way, those shots of the entire stadium full of people are awesome, but there can’t be more than a few hundred good seats in that building. Makes for great TV though, and I’m sure that’s all the NCAA is worried about. $$$$$ Cha-ching!
Anyway, that great crowd from Saturday carried over into Monday night, when Duke and Wisconsin played a fantastic final game. By now, you probably know the storylines – we’ll get to a few of them as we go – but the short version is Duke’s freshmen played like not-freshmen. They rose to the challenge of beating the team that had just thwarted UK’s run at perfection. When the moments of the game got bigger, the freshmen seemed to get bigger. It was genuinely fun to watch, no matter your rooting interests.
(Sidebar: I even got this text from a UNC fan. I received similar messages from UK fans. The world is tearing itself apart. That’s the only explanation.)
In the midst of all that – the best tournament we’ve had in years, Coach K surpassing Adolph Rupp, UK almost making immortal history, etc. – Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan found a way to make at least some portion of the tournament’s buzz about something besides the great basketball Duke and Wisconsin both played.
He started with the whining after opening weekend, alleging that the NCAA must be out to get them because they had a late game Sunday night and their Sweet 16 opponent had played Saturday. News flash, dude: These events are hard enough to plan as it is. The NCAA has to schedule over twenty venues in multiple cities across the country. They have to fly 68 teams to those different arenas. They have to schedule and pay for their hotels. And they have to do that three weekends in a row for 68, 16, and 4 teams over a very short time period.
But you’re probably right. In all that planning, I’m sure they found time to make sure you were in an inconvenient time slot so your schedule would be harder. Definitely, 100% factually true. Yes.
Anyway, that was just the appetizer for the main course that finally came to light Monday night. In case you missed it, here he is outside the locker room after his team’s loss during a post-game interview:
Well, I told these guys how proud I was of them and it’s just a situation where you just have to be able to handle all the hands and the checking. I mean all the body contact, there was more body contact in this game than any game we played in all year. I just feel sorry for my guys that all of a sudden a game was like that. They’re struggling with that a little bit. We missed some opportunities. They hit some tough shots. It’s just a shame that it had to be played that way.
I won’t mince words here. He sounds like a bitter old man. Or like an 8-year-old’s dad at a youth league game. “I just can’t believe they let my boy get pushed around like that.” What? You thought they were just supposed to play off the ball and give you open shots? You thought Duke was just supposed to let you blow by without challenging you? You’re complaining that the game was too physical? What did you expect would happen in the biggest game of the year?
I’m truly perplexed by this.
Every sport gets more physical in the playoffs. This is why the NFL playoffs are so compelling. It’s why we don’t watch the NHL until the playoffs. It’s why we spend the first week of April jokingly saying, “Can’t wait for the NBA season to start in a few weeks!” Playoff stakes breed more physical play. It’s a simple, tried and true fact of sports. Did Bo Ryan really not know that?
Make no mistake. He’s a brilliant basketball mind, but what basketball rock does Bo Ryan live under? And what does he mean by “all of a sudden a game was like that”? Didn’t someone take a hand to the face in Wisconsin’s previous game? Remind me, Wisconsin fans, was there any foul called on that play? No? Right then. Carry on.
And I’m sorry, but I’m not buying that he feels sorry for his guys. I mean, I’m sure he does, but that whole bit of word vomit sure sounds like Bo feels sorry for Bo. This is probably best evidenced by the fact that none of his own players seemed to whine and groan about the physical style of play in their post-game conferences. No, poor, pitiful Coach Ryan stands alone here, feeling sorry for himself and blaming the refs.
Speaking of which, you weren’t blaming the refs when you won in an even more poorly officiated semifinal game with Kentucky. There was no, “I feel sorry for Calipari’s guys that all of a sudden there was a game like that.” I guess we only blame refs when it’s convenient. That makes sense. I won’t hold it against him. I wouldn’t do it, but assigning blame is what some people do when they’re dealing with grief. I get it. Can’t blame yourself. Can’t give credit to the “rent-a-players” (more on that shortly). So it has to be someone else’s fault. That’s reality. I get it. I really do.
It’s also reality that the refs screwed up two out of bounds plays late. Missing a Duke player’s foot on the baseline on one end and then blowing the call down on the other. I won’t pretend they didn’t screw that up. But if you believe that’s why Wisconsin lost, then please stop talking about basketball.
Go back and watch the final few minutes again and you’ll see two things: Freshmen playing like seniors and seniors playing like freshmen. You’ll see Wisconsin’s second best player – a 33% three-point shooter – airball his second three of the game (he finished 0-6 from beyond the arch). You’ll see just how gassed Wisconsin was by the end of their second straight emotional, physical slugfest. And you’ll see that Duke simply would not be denied on this night.
So, Coach Ryan, before you start blaming refs, maybe blame Sam Dekker for basically being a no-show Monday night. Maybe blame Frank the Tank for not asserting himself more with Duke’s best player on the bench for half the game (Minutes played Monday night: Kaminsky – 39, Okafor – 22). Maybe blame yourself for making your team pass on wide open shots because it’s too early in the shot clock.
Maybe blame your team for letting an unheralded, relatively unknown freshman bench player reel off eight straight points when you had a nine point lead. Maybe blame your team for losing every effort play of the night. Maybe blame Quinn Cook and Grayson Allen for flying all over the floor and diving for loose balls.
Maybe blame Duke for not folding when adversity came their way. Maybe blame your team for doing exactly that when the adversity was yours.
But it was two bad calls in a row! Life is full of bad calls. Recover and bounce back! Duke’s 19-year-olds did it. Why couldn’t your 20-somethings?
Just please don’t blame the refs for this one. You had two fouls the entire first half. Yes, the second half was different. And yes, Coach K worked the refs, but every coach works the refs. Or should work the refs. Phil Jackson used to work the refs in the press conference the day before the game. It’s part of the job. Players run plays and make shots; coaches call plays and work refs. If you feel that you’re above that, then it will always be the refs fault and you will lose more than you should.
If all that wasn’t enough, Bo Ryan wasn’t done just yet. Later, in the post-game press conference, he was puffing his chest and boasting about how he doesn’t use the “rent-a-player,” obviously referencing college basketball’s one-and-done trend. No one will make you recruit them, Coach Ryan, but it’s an evolve or die world out there. College basketball has changed, and it sounds like you’ve made your decision.
Which means that I have bad news.
You just fielded the best team you’ll probably ever have. You had one solid 16 points a night in the NBA guy, a decent NBA bench warmer, and some role players that played well together. With no “rent-a-player,” you’ll be lucky to ever do better than that. This was your ceiling. The height of your program, and you were beaten on the game’s biggest stage by the very type of players you refuse to recruit.
So congrats, coach, you’ve reached your ceiling, because if you won’t recruit the talent it takes to win, you won’t win. No matter how loud you scream that’s fine with you, I sincerely doubt that it is. In the meantime, Coach K has remade himself and has a ring for every right-handed finger now. So go ahead and recruit those four year guys, but understand that while you’re doing that, Coach K is getting his left hand fitted for ring number six.