From almost the moment Kentucky closed the books on their season in their loss to West Virginia last Saturday night, the questions began; "Who are you for?" now that UK is out of the tournament. Now, I don't begrudge anyone asking me that particular question, but it is a difficult one to answer. The questions I have to ask myself are: Do I pull for the team that ousted the 'Cats, hoping the 'Neers pull out victory, thus making UK's premature loss taste a bit more palatable. Or do I pull for the team which has a local product in the starting lineup (Butler guard Shelvin Mack - Bryan Station HS), and a head coach who looks like he skipped 11th grade chemistry in order to coach his team to the ultimate height college basketball has to offer. Is Michigan State and head coach Tom Izzo worthy of rooting for, especially considering Sparty lost their best player in point guard Kalin Lucas to injury in the tournament's second round game. And what about Duke? Do I dare root for the sworn enemy, and master credit card peddler, Mike Krzyzewski?
A difficult decision, indeed, but one that has to be made. So, follow me after the jump, and together we'll determine who deserves the support of the Big Blue faithful on the most important weekend in amateur basketball.
Reader beware -- The following is my personal stream of consciousness perceptions of each team:
Let's begin with some facts and figures concerning the Cinderella impersonator, the ...
- The fifth seeded Bulldogs (32-4), out of the Horizon League, have become something of a mainstay in the NCAA Tournament over the last 11 years, having participated in the Big Dance three straight years, and six times since 2000. In addition to this year's Final Four appearance, Butler has survived and advanced to two Sweet Sixteens in the last seven years ('03, '07). Additionally, the Bulldogs have won at least 26 games for four straight years.
- Led for three years by 33-year old head coach Brad Stevens, Butler has posted an 88-14 mark over the youthful coach's tenure. Stevens, who became a volunteer assistant for the Bulldogs in 2000 under then-coach Thad Matta, left his (paying) job at Eli Lilly to pursue his dream of coaching college basketball. And folks, I love stories like that.
- Unlike many so-called "mid-major" schools who perform well in March, this Butler team is not a junior/senior led group. Instead, the Bulldogs boast two sophomores as their leading scorers, in the form of Gordon Hayward and Kentucky's own Shelvin Mack (14.1 ppg). Butler's point guard, Ronald Nored (love the last name, No-red ... get it?) is also a second year player.
- The Bulldogs call Hinkle Fieldhouse home (cap. 11,043). Hinkle, known until 1966 as Butler Fieldhouse, is where Bobby Plump and Milan High School slayed Muncie Central in the 1954 Indiana State High School Championship game. Of course, Milan's entire season was (loosely) chronicled like no other in the ultimate sports movie, "Hoosiers." The arena, named after Butler head coach Tony Hinkle, who coached the Bulldogs for 41 years, is the sixth oldest college basketball arena still in use.
For me, it's easy to like Butler: Small school (enrollment 4,400), mid-major done good, likable coach, Kentucky-bred star, and a point guard that doesn't like anything red. I mean, admit it, it would be cool if Butler won the freakin' national championship. It'd be like a cub reporter winning the Pulitzer. So consider me down with the 'Dogs.
And now for Butler's less charismatic Saturday night opponent , the ...
Michigan State Spartans
- Tom Izzo is on the brink of earning the distinction of "best game coach in college basketball." In his sixth Final Four in 12 years (UK's fans place tongue back in mouth), Izzo repeatedly outdoes himself in an effort to demonstrate his ability beat teams who possess more talent. Although in this year's NCAA Tournament, the Spartans (a five seed) have been the recipient of a fragment of good fortune -- Top-seeded Kansas lost, as did third-seeded Georgetown, helping pave a smooth-riding path to the Final Four. Overall, Izzo is 35-11 (.761) in the NCAA Tournament, the second best winning percentage among active coaches. And get this; Every Michigan State player who stayed four years has been to a Final Four.
- Michigan State (28-8), though, is the source of much melancholy for many UK fans. Not once, but twice in the last 12 seasons, the Spartans have bested the 'Cats in the Elite Eight -- 73-66 in the 1999 region finals, and again in 2005, by the count of 94-88 in overtime. Both games stick in my craw, but for different reasons; The '99 loss to MSU, because UK had early control of the game, and looked to have the better team, but the 'Cats stopped shooting the ball effectively. The '05 debacle ... uh, game, is home to the infamous Patrick Sparks three-pointer as time ran out, tying the game, and sending it into overtime. Of course, the fact that Sparks was fouled as he shot the game-tying trey was of no consequence to the game officials. No, I'm not bitter ...
While I do like Izzo, I think he's a class act, I still find it hard to pull for the Spartans, especially since they'll be playing Butler. Now, if they were playing Duke, I'd look like my front lawn, dressed in green to the gills, but in this game, pulling for Butler is an easy call.
- Five things:
- The Shot -- No need to rehash, except to say, no, I'll never forget.
- The Stomp -- No need to rehash, except to say, no, I'll never forget.
- Cory Maggette -- No need to rehash, except to say (chronologically) -- Maggette took cash from an unscrupulous "street agent" while still in high, rendering him ineligible to play Division I athletics. Maggette was offered a scholarship to Duke, he accepted. Maggette plays at Duke, Maggette becomes an early-entry, Maggette tells everyone who will listen about taking money from an agent while in high school. But, in all its finite wisdom, the NCAA, instead of treating Duke like WKU, UMass, and Memphis (all ultra-successful teams who unknowingly played with ineligible players), and stripping the wins away, they do nothing. Nada. Zilch.
- The Flop -- Many people dislike Duke and Mike Krzyzewski because the latter teaches his tribe to feign hard contact in an effort to draw a foul. Although devious by design, I have no real problem with taking advantage of the officials swallowing their collective whistles. Kind of a, "if they ain't callin' it, keep doin' it," stance. But the fact that Duke, the great white hope with the sparkling image, finds it necessary to perpetuate such deceptive behavior ... well, it seems a bit contradictory to me.
- The credit cards -- The fact that Krzyzewski has been allowed to peddle credit cards, on national television, saying, "I'm not just a coach, I'm a teacher ..." makes me want to puke. The NCAA, and their joke of an enforcement committee, punish coaches and players alike for something as simple as a gratuitous t-shirt, or meal, yet, coach K, live and in color on the televisions of every basketball player in the United States, talking about he's "Not just a coach, he's a teacher ... " in Cameron Indoor Stadium ... yes, the commercial is actually filmed on Duke's home court ... it's unbelievable. But hey, can't blame the guy for doing it. If the NCAA ok'ed coach Cal to film a similar commercial, I'd say go for it ... but who honestly thinks that's going to happen?
- Recent quote from coach K: "If you hate us because we're going to go to school and we're going to try and win, then you have the problem." Uh, read above Mike.
Hey, I liked Duke up until '92. And even then, I didn't hate Duke. It wasn't until the last 10 years or so, for the reasons stated above, that I began to really despise the Blue Devils. But, K is a great coach, and he's had a lot of great players come through Durham. Undebatable is the fact that he's the architect of one of the greatest programs in the sport's history.
But, I don't care if the Pope is playin' point, no way I can root for Duke. But, I can easily find myself rooting for the ...
- For me, it isn't about Bob Huggins (but more on him later), or the terrific Da'Sean Butler, or the timely Joe Mazzulla, no, for me it's about the state of West Virginia. I've been a fan of the Mountaineers for some time. I've always felt a kinship to people from West Virginia, although I've not spent much time in the state. But I do know I like the people, those that I've met anyway. And the people love Mountaineer basketball. They vigorously support their team in full-throated throttle. And they've waited a long time for this ... since 1959 when "The Logo," Jerry West, led the 'Neers to the Final Four.
- And now for Huggins. I know, many UK fans don't like Hugs, but I do. Always have. I think the reason I like him are two-fold: Firstly, I love old school coaches, and he's old school. His passion, the way he massages the officials, the way his teams play all-out, all the time ... all of those things draw me to Huggins. Secondly, Huggins, while at Cincinnati, regularly blasted our flightless friends down I-64. For that, Hugs, I will forever be grateful.
- Plus, I think WVU winning the championship would be a great story -- Huggins returns to his West Virginia home, and redeems himself on the biggest stage in college sports. After being run out of Cincinnati, a very public DUI, and a heart attack in a Pittsburgh airport, Huggins goes home to find his greatest success. Hey guys, I'll write the script ... I'm just sayin'.
So, there you have it. My likes and dislikes of the teams vying for the NCAA Men's College Basketball Championship. Choosing a school to pull for, for me, is pretty simple: Butler, WVU, MSU, and Duke, in that order. So enjoy the games and dream of the day when the 'Cats will once again invade the Final Four, bringing with them a sea of blue clad supporters cheering the 'Cats on to their long-awaited eighth national title.
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!