Tate: It's Wisconsin or bust
Did the Big Ten miss a golden opportunity?
Having placed three basketball teams in the NCAA’s final six, and none in the final two, you’d have to call it A Grand Moment Missed ... all three losses in the final seconds by the average margin of a three-point shot.
The soon-to-be 14-team conference has gone without an NCAA basketball title for 14 years since Michigan State in 2000 — unless you count Maryland in 2002 (joke) — and now looks to 2015 when, assuming mass departures at Michigan State and Michigan, only Wisconsin stands as a logical title contender.
Iowa, you say? The Hawkeyes have numbers returning but lost seven of their last eight games, and 10 of the last 15. Can they learn to play defense and, lacking Devyn Marble, score in the clutch?
Nebraska, you say? The Cornhuskers were 16-1 at the new Pinnacle Bank Arena but sagged late and haven’t reached the national consciousness.
Ohio State? Thad Matta is battling to hold it together after losing LaQuinton Ross, Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith from a disappointing team.
With Louisville joining Pitt, Notre Dame, Syracuse and all those Atlantic Coast Conference powers — Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, etc. — the days of Big Ten being ranked No. 1 are behind. Big Ten departures are likely to be too great, and replacement recruits simply aren’t there.
Seeing is believing
Opportunities can be fleeting. In the six tournaments since 2009, the Big Ten sent five squads into the Final Four: Michigan State twice, Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin. That makes 12 teams since 2000, including Illinois in 2005, to reach the Final Four with none prevailing since the Spartans.
The only positive news is that the perception of Wisconsin has changed. Whatever reputation Bo Ryan’s Badgers may have carried, they expunged it with impressive wins over Oregon, Baylor and No. 1 seed Arizona, and led Kentucky into the last four seconds Saturday before Aaron Harrison cashed the Wildcats’ only trey (from NBA distance) of the second half.
No, Wisconsin didn’t play “crawl ball” against Kentucky. The Badgers matched superior athletes basket for basket. The record shows Wisconsin lost 83-75 to Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament, and scored 75, 85, 69 and 64 (in OT vs. Arizona) before falling 74-73 to Kentucky. Only against Arizona was their production sub-par.
With Badger stars already indicating they will return, Wisconsin will bring back seven of the eight critical squadmen, and will be taken seriously when the rankings (as though they matter) come out next November.
It’s how the ball bounces
This NCAA tournament is such a crapshoot.
How do you explain last year’s runs by Florida Gulf Coast and LaSalle, or last month’s collapses by Syracuse and Duke? The tournament is the only logical way to determine a champion, but it leaves much to chance.
How do you explain Butler finishing second in 2010 and 2011? Like the Bulldogs, few advance without a last-minute scare or three. How many games are tossups into the final minute?
Like the current Kentucky squad. John Calipari’s young backboard marauders capitalized on their size-athletic advantages, and seldom chucked from three. It wasn’t their style, and they were smart not to. They made 3 of 11 from the arc in the SEC tourney loss to Florida, and 4 of 15 against Kansas State. They sank 4 of 14 vs. Louisville. But they drained 7 of 11 (63.6 percent) to thwart Michigan. And in three crisis situations when one was absolutely needed near the end, Harrison came through against Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan ... all from long range. Conversely, the Wildcats twice survived makeable buzzer beaters by Wichita State’s Fred VanVleet and Traevon Jackson.
It never hurts to have Lady Luck on your side.
College is cool
Final comments on Calipari’s one-and-done approach.
(1) The NCAA is virtually helpless because the NBA sets the rule, and no one can prevent a college student from leaving if he so chooses.
(2) Calipari was the first college coach I ever heard say that winning wasn’t his No. 1 goal, but rather making each of his athletes a millionaire. How is that for hitting the right button, and giving these five-star players what they want to hear? That’s the smartest recruiting pitch ever.
(3) Star athletes may frown on classroom work, but have no reasonable alternative to college. Why would they want to consider playing in front of empty stands in the NBA’s Development League when they can hone their skills in front of millions on TV and crowds like the 40,000 in Indianapolis and nearly 80,000 in Dallas? Take that college jersey off these 19-year-olds and the fans (and TV) disappear.
(4) Kentucky is abiding, insofar as we can tell, by the rules and making sure the early departures are in good academic standing. They’re doing exactly what dozens of other schools would do: Recruit the best players and replace them with blue-chippers when they leave.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org