Tag Archives: Final Four

New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS | It was my first time in New Orleans. Maybe I should start with that. I had arrived on a Wednesday, a full five days of work awaiting.

I had the most superficial understanding of New Orleans. Café Du Monde. Drew Brees. The Superdome. Katrina… and the scenes from the aftermath. Bourbon Street. That Simpson episode where Marge plays Blanche DuBois in a musical adaptation of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” And so on.

This was my New Orleans.

And then came Tuesday afternoon. My last day. For five days, I had covered basketball, tracking a Kansas team that wouldn’t wilt, and a Kentucky team that couldn’t. For five days, I had walked the streets of the French Quarter, all of its tackiness and beauty and charm blending together in some strange concoction of Bourbon-infused wonder.

They call this place Le Vieux Carré … the Old Square. Or at least they did.

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Believe in Butler

The Butler will do it. Yes, I said. It. Tonight, the Butler will do it. The Bulldogs have to do it, right? That’s how this story is supposed to end, right? This is why we love college basketball. Heck, this is why we watch sports. Right? Right!?

Tonight, the Butler Bulldog will play the Duke Blue Devils.

I’ve heard a lot of things about the Butler Bulldogs. I’ve heard that they are the ultimate Cinderella. I’ve heard that they are NOT a Cinderella. I’ve heard that their story is better than Cinderella’s… better than a miracle… better than any story ever… (OK. That was this blog).

But here’s the thing about Butler.

This team is not a Cinderella. This team doesn’t need miracles to win. This team is, well, good. This team may even be great. They’ve won 25 in a row.

They have Gordon Hayward, who could be a first-round pick in this year’s NBA Draft. They have Shelvin Mack, a sophomore who will play for money at some point in his career. And they have Matt Howard, a junior who was the Horizon League player of the year last season, before Hayward took over.

Veteran scribe Joe Posnanski made a similar point yesterday, but he went further. He wrote:

“…This is not really some crazy Hoosiers-type saga, you know, with Gene Hackman teaching kids how to dribble around chairs and Jimmy Chitwood joining the team to save the coach’s job and Ollie making underhand free throws to win a game at the end…”

Of course, if you’re going to make the argument that Butler is not some Hoosiers-type, Cinderella tale, I think you also have to argue that Jimmy Chitwood’s Hickory Huskers weren’t even Cinderellas.

OK, it was a miracle that Hickory High, with 75 boys in the whole school, and a tragic figure at head coach, and a drunk as an assistant coach, did beat the big boys and win the Indiana state championship.

But it wasn’t necessarily a miracle that that team beat everybody. I mean, did you see that team? They could freaking stroke it. And Jimmy Chitwood must’ve been the best player in the state of Indiana. Yes, they didn’t have much height, but they could pass and cut and play defense — and again… they could fill it up from the outside.

This Butler team kind of feels the same way.

Sure, some people probably feel like they’re slighting them by calling them a Cinderella. After all, we’ve seen over and over that this Butler team is one of the best in the country.

But that’s not the miraculous part. The miraculous part is that Butler, a school of 4,200 students, a team that plays in the Horizon League, is even here in the first place.

The miracle is that ex-coaches Barry Collier and Thad Matta built the program into a viable mid-major… and that Todd Lickliter kept on bringing in talented players before bolting for Iowa … and that Brad Stevens, a 30-something with no head coaching experience, took over and molded this talented roster into one of the best teams in the country.

Yes, it is a miracle that Butler is here. And it would be a miracle if they win a national championship.

But for this team, the miracle part is over. They can beat Duke. Yes, they can. And what a story it would be if they did.

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Finally Four…

So here it is, Saturday night of the Final Four. Four teams. Two games. Two spots in the national title game on Monday night.

There are those who love the Super Bowl. There are those who worship Sunday at the Masters. There are those who would pick the Kentucky Derby or the World Series or the NBA Finals.

But for me, this is the best sports day of the year.

What other day gives you TWO games in the same venue. Four legions of fans, all in the same building. Close to five hours of college basketball at the highest level.

I love everything about the Final Four. I love the storylines and the cheesy music and Jim Nantz on the microphone.

And I love all the stories that come out of the ultimate hoops festival.

Love the fact that you might step into an elevator with David Robinson. Love the fact that you might see legendary Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan strolling around a hotel lobby at 8:30 in the morning, looking like an old man trying to get an early start on his day of sightseeing.

Love the fact that you might randomly walk past a restaurant patio as former UCLA star Ed O’Bannon takes his seat (and a group of UCLA fans begins an impromptu chant of “EDDIE-O, EDDIE-O, EDDIE-O”).

Love the fact that you might randomly see former Wisconsin center Brian Butch walking down the street by himself and think — hey, it’s Brian Butch.

Love the college three-point and dunk contests that take place during Final Four weekend.*

*The following exchange took place during the college dunk contest at this year’s Final Four in Indianapolis.

Chris Roberts, who was a senior at Bradley this past season, had just thrown down a sick dunk and ESPN reporter Holly Rowe was waiting on the sidelines to interview him.

Rowe: So, Chris, what do you have to do to win this thing?
Roberts: Just go out, and keep making dunks

Well, sure… makes sense.

And lastly, I love the fact that you might accidentally pick a fight with a player from one of the Final Four teams just hours before the games begin.*

*All these things happened to me while I was at the 2008 Final Four in San Antonio, but the last one was the best. I was walking around the Riverwalk with Mark Dent and Daily Kansan photographer Jon Goering, and we stopped outside in a small patio area.

Of course, the talk turned to KU’s game against North Carolina, which would take place later on that night. We were half-heartedly breaking down North Carolina’s team, and Mark and I came to the consensus that the Tar Heels’ Danny Green was ridiculously overrated.

Then, as Mark blurted aloud that he thought Green more or less sucked, we turned around and saw Green standing just 10 feet away from us with a kid who looked like his younger brother.

Two things crossed my mind:

1. I really hope Danny Green didn’t hear us.
2. What the hell is Green doing here? KU plays North Carolina in like five hours.

But there’s still one thing that gives the Final Four its soul. And it’s the players.

You probably know that Kansas’ Cole Aldrich is leaving school early to enter the NBA Draft.

He announced his decision earlier this week at a press conference in Lawrence.

Aldrich had a pretty remarkable career at Kansas. He had a triple-double against Dayton in the 2009 NCAA Tournament. He never lost a game at Allen Fieldhouse. And he was a third-team All-American as a junior.

Still, as Aldrich reflected on three years at Kansas during his “I’m going to the NBA” press conference, I wonder if he thought about the night he went from little-used freshman to Kansas legend. The night he stepped off the bench and outplayed North Carolina’s national player of the year, Tyler Hansbrough, in front of the entire nation.

I can still remember the look on Aldrich face after Kansas took down Hansbrough and Roy Williams and the rest of the Tar Heels.

…The look on his face as he was asked about ripping a rebound from the clutches of Hansbrough.

It was a mix of pride and satisfaction and joy.

And that’s the Final Four. I can’t wait.

(Editor’s Note – Here is what I wrote about Aldrich on the night oh his coming-out party against North Carolina)

*****

SAN ANTONIO | Once upon a time, Cole Aldrich was an afterthought, the fourth big man off the bench — just another big body at Kansas’ coach Bill Self’s disposal.

On Saturday night against North Carolina, Aldrich etched his name onto the list of greatest relief performances in Kansas basketball history.

Kansas’ freshman center scored eight points and grabbed seven rebounds off the bench in Kansas’ 84-66 victory against North Carolina, including one board which Aldrich snatched from the clutches of North Carolina All-American Tyler Hansbrough.

“I wasn’t gonna let go,” Aldrich said.

Aldrich’s supporting performance may go down in Kansas lore if the Jayhawks follow up their Saturday night victory with a victory and a national title on Monday.

And oddly enough, Self saw it coming.

Earlier this week Self corrected a reporter who had asked how important Darnell Jackson, Sasha Kaun and Darrell Arthur would be in Kansas’ attempt to contain North Carolina forward Tyler Hansbrough. Don’t forget about Cole, Self reminded.

Self’s prophecy came true.

“He may have won the game for us tonight as much as anybody,” Self said.

With seniors Sasha Kaun and Darnell Jackson both committing two early fouls, Bill Self faced a coaching calamity. Send Cole Aldrich, who averaged 8.1 minutes per game during the regular season, on to the floor to guard Hansbrough, the Tar Heels leading scorer and the AP National Player of the Year.

No sweat.

Aldrich responded with 13 first half minutes played, six points during Kansas’ fun-n-gun first half, and one rebound that Aldrich couldn’t help by smile about.

With 10 minutes left in the first half, and Kansas leading 31-10, Aldrich sprung from floor and ripped the ball away from a bewildered Hansbrough.

“Tyler usually outworks someone, but tonight, he got outworked,” Rush said.

Aldrich, along with help from Kaun, Jackson and Arthur held Hansbrough to 17 point and nine rebounds, a shade below his usual averages of 23.7 points and 11.5 rebounds per game.

“I don’t think he was quite used to four guys that can hold their own,” Aldrich said.

The Kansas frontcourt also controlled the glass, shouldering a 42-33 rebound advantage against their frontcourt foes from North Carolina.

“We knew we had to keep them off the glass to win the game,” Aldrich said.

Aldrich’s 6-foot-10 frame stood tall in Kansas’ victorious locker room, searching for words to describe his nation-wide coming-out party.

Aldrich finally settled on calling it,”…a blast.”

Kansas junior Matt Kleinnmann, sitting 35 feet to Aldrich’s left, had his own take on Aldrich’s first Final Four performance.

“He played like a man tonight,” Kleinnmann said.

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YouTube Sesh: Scheyer Edition

Well, it’s time for another YouTube Sesh at the Brewhouse.

If you need a primer on the history of the YouTube Sesh, you can check here…

But here’s the short of it. Sometimes YouTube videos just need to be shared.

But before we get to the goods, we must start with a story about Jon Scheyer.

Scheyer is, of course, a senior guard at Duke. This weekend, he’ll start in the Final Four for the Blue Devils. You probably know a little bit about Scheyer. For instance, you probably know he’s a great shooter. And you might know that he started running the point for the Devils this season — at least, more than he ever had before. And you probably know that he’s been pretty good at playing the role of Duke’s fair-skinned villain.*

*Of course, it does seem like Duke has entire team of fair-skinned villains these days. And it also seems like none of them — not Scheyer, not forward Kyle Singler, not the Plumlees — has been especially good at being hateable (not a word, I know, but still). I suspect that part of that is due to the fact that Duke hasn’t won much the last four or five years, and it can be hard to hate people that lose all the time. Of course, that could all change this weekend.

Anyway, I was thinking about Scheyer this weekend, because I think he kind of represents an interesting case in how the internet has changed the sports world nowadays.

I’ll explain shortly… but first, my Scheyer story.

I can’t remember when I first heard about Scheyer. I believe it was sometime in late 2005, during the middle of the college basketball season. It could have been earlier. I suspect I ran across his name while checking the basketball recruiting scene that year. Scheyer attended Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook, Illinois, a well-to-do suburb located a short drive north of downtown Chicago*.

*So I was just trying to figure out the exact distance from Northbrook to Chicago — and I ended up having a little fun with the google machine.

Anyway, somehow, I ended up checking out Coach Krzyzewski’s wikipedia page. And somehow, I totally forgot that Coach K went to seven Final Fours in nine years. Seven! Wow. Obviously, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has been getting a lot of love because he has somehow coaxed the Spartans to six Final Fours in the last 12 years. And that’s unbelievable. But seven in nine years?

Coach K went in 1986, 88, 89, 90, 91, 92 and 94. I could be wrong, but given the state of college basketball — one-and-dones, roster turnover, parity, — I don’t think we’ll ever see seven in nine years again. Duke, of course, had the core of Laettner and Hurley for four of those Final Fours — and Grant Hill caught the tail end of that era before leading the Devils to the Final Four again in 1994.

So I heard about this young kid named John Scheyer. He was a scoring machine in the state of Illinois, he’d led Glenbrook North to the state championship as a junior — and he’d committed to Duke.*

*Not to get off topic again. But if you want to pinpoint the day in which Illinois coach Bruce Weber lost his “elite college coach” reputation, look no further than the day that Scheyer committed to Duke. Not only was Scheyer going to high school in the state of Illinois, but his high school coach was Bruce Weber’s brother.

Really. His brother. Not a good sign when you can’t lock up your state best player… who also just happens to play for your brother.

So I knew a little bit about Jon Scheyer. But then, it happened. Scheyer went viral. The funny thing was, at the time, I’m pretty sure people didn’t even refer to anything as going viral — unless you were talking about E. Coli or the mumps or the measles.

This was 2005. The internet was huge, no doubt. But YouTube barely existed. Facebook was just a few years old — and Twitter was just a idea in the mind of some advanced-thinking techie. In short, there just weren’t many channels for something to go viral on.

Still, Scheyer managed the trick. During a high school game at the Proviso West Holiday tournament in December of 2005, Scheyer pulled off one of the most amazing feats in the history of high school basketball. With his future college coach Krzyzewski in the stands, and his team trailing 71-58 with 1:24 left, Scheyer scored 21 points in the final 74 seconds. His team would lose, but Scheyer would finish with 52 points. In the final 1:24, he hit five three-pointers and six free throws. Think about that: 21 points in 75 seconds. That’s one point ever 3.57 seconds.

So, of course, the buzz on Scheyer went national. Everybody wanted to know about this scoring machine from suburban Chicago. It helped that J.J. Redick was finishing up his prolific career at Duke the same season. The comparisons were inevitable. Both shooters, both about 6 foot 4, both, well, fair-skinned. It may have also helped that Coach K was in the stands. After all, Coach K is a Chicago native — though it’s safe to say that the neighborhood Krzyzewski grew up in looked nothing like Northbrook.

Here’s how my Scheyer story ends. I went to Chicago for spring break that year — and I just happened to be in downtown Chicago on a Thursday night. I walked into a random sandwich shop with a friend, and Duke was playing LSU in the Sweet 16. Duke was a one-seed that year. And Redick, along with Gonzaga’s Adam Morrison, were the darlings of college basketball.

You probably know that Duke lost that game. And Redick’s career ended in the Sweet 16. I remember being in the sandwich shop and watching the game on television.

CBS showed a shot of a dejected Redick walking off the court after the game. And in the background, a guy yelled out: “It’s OK, Duke. Y’all be alright. You guys got our Jon Scheyer coming in.”

For some reason, that story stayed with me — at least, enough to be able to remember it four years later.

Anyway. I’ve followed Scheyer’s career for the last four years. And I use the term “follow” loosely. His first two years at Duke weren’t great. He was a little thin — and he didn’t quite have the career that Redick did.

But here’s the larger point about the sports world: There just aren’t any surprises anymore. There aren’t any prodigies that show up out of nowhere. Jon Scheyer, a player who’ll likely play minimally in the NBA — if at all — was on the national radar at age 18.

I understand this isn’t an earth-shattering realization. After all, it is 2010. And we’re inundated with tweets and videos and links all day long. If something crazy happens in the sports world, everybody talks about it for a couple hours, then we move on to the next crazy thing.

I also understand that basketball recruits have been provoking good feelings in college basketball fans for decades. Show me a top college recruit, and I’ll show you a little hope.

Still, it does feel different these days.

In order to find “the next big thing”, we put 16-year-old baseball players on the cover of Sports Illustrated. And we rank the nation’s top 100 high school freshman basketball players. And we hear about a 13-year-old soccer prodigy who turns out to be mediocre.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. But we’ve never seen it on this scale.

If somebody like Scheyer can go viral four years ago — before “going viral” even really existed, imagine the buzz his epic high school performance would stir today.

I’m not sure if that all makes much sense. But whatever.

Still… Scheyer’s performance is still pretty unbelievable. Enjoy.

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The Greatest Basketball Story Ever Told

“And David put his hand into his bag and took from it a stone and slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead.”

They say the story is here somewhere.

They say it could be epic, legendary — one of the greatest basketball tales of our lifetime.

Can you see it?

For some, it’s partially hidden, tucked away in a land where high school basketball gyms are more sacred than ancient cathedrals.

But for others — people that love the game and breathe the game and possess it in their veins — the story is everywhere.

These people see the story in the rusty basketball goals that hang from the roof of each garage. They hear it in the bouncing of the ball — the sound of worn leather hitting pavement at 11:15 p.m. on a Tuesday. The noise is a nuisance, a threat to their sleeping patterns. But it’s a necessary nuisance. The neighbor boy is working on his jumpshot — an endeavor that provokes feelings of admiration and respect.

These people know this story. They’ve heard it so many times.

And it always starts with a boy, a ball, and a basketball goal.

Next comes the coach. And he’s always a story unto himself. He shouldn’t be here. But he is, against all odds — and he preaches defense and toughness and teamwork.

Next comes the team — the heart of this story. The team isn’t supposed to be here. Isn’t supposed to win. But here it comes, winning games and changing minds and embodying the spirit of the underdog.

Next comes the miracle. The team from the little school in the little league beats the powerhouse from the big school in the big league.

This is story has it all. There’s the 6-foot-8 basketball prodigy who was raised to believe that this story can happen. There’s the 33-year-old coach who would get carded at any college bar in the nation. And then there’s the team — built and nurtured in the birthplace of the first miracle.

But… there’s a catch. There’s always a catch. This particular story is still being written. The miracle? Well, we’re working on that part.

But here it is…

Butler, a small university with an enrollment of 4,500, is in the Final Four.

Butler, a team from the Horizon League, is two wins from the National Championship.

And this Saturday, the Butler Bulldogs will play in their hometown of Indianapolis in front of upwards of 65,000 fans.

There are millions of people who believe the Bulldogs have no chance.

But here’s this story… and the narrative is so familiar… and the people want to believe again.

*****

OK. We will get to the story.

But first — before the prodigy and the coach and the miracle — we must answer this question.

Why do we love sports? There it is. I’ll just put it out there. It’s a question I think about a lot.

Of course, there are answers. But they always seem incomplete. They can’t explain the passion and emotion and adoration we feel. They just can’t.

Sure, we love sports for the drama and the theater and the unforgiving pressure.

Can this Phil make that 9-foot putt with the Masters on the line? Can Kurt Gibson limp up to home plate and go deep off Dennis Eckersley? Can Mario Chalmers sink that last-second three-pointer and send the NCAA championship game into overtime?

Of course, we love sports because of the unfiltered storylines.

There’s Texas Western’s all-black starting five defeating Kentucky’s all-white squad for the 1966 NCAA basketball title. There’s Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis winning the Super Bowl MVP one year after finding himself immersed in a murder investigation. And there’s Drew Brees leading the Saints to an upset win in the Super Bowl four years after New Orleans was decimated by a hurricane.

And, of course, we love sports because of the spectacle.

We take joy in tailgating with 50,000 other fans in frigid temperatures at 8 a.m. on a Sunday. And we’re awed that more than 1 billion people will watch the World Cup final this summer in South Africa.

But for me, the answer always comes down to this. We love sports for the moment.

The moment is when the theater and the drama and spectacle come together, when we’re transported to another place, when we experience a state of euphoria that only be explained by the people that witness it.

The moment is Michael Phelps beating Milorad Cavic to the wall by a fingernail in a Beijing swimming pool. The moment is a 21-year-old Tiger Woods burying his face into his dad’s shoulder on the 18th hole at Augusta. The moment is Michael Jordan moving to his right, then crossing back to his left, leaving a helpless Bryon Russell in his wake, and burying a game-winner against the Utah Jazz in the NBA Finals.

These moments last just seconds, but they never truly end. They stay in the back of our consciousness, triggered into a memory when the time is right.

Of course, the NCAA Tournament is a breeding ground for moments. MJ against Georgetown. Keith Smart against Syracuse. Laettner against Kentucky. There are so many moments in March.

And on Friday, we had another moment.

*****

There’s an old cliché in sports. You’ve probably heard it. Something unbelievable will happen, and an announcer will inevitably say something like, “You know what, this story is so incredible, a Hollywood screenwriter wouldn’t even write this, because he wouldn’t believe it could actually happen.”

Maybe that’s why this story is a little different.

This basketball story has already been a movie. And that movie was, of course, based on a real story.

First, we must start with a history lesson. And our lesson begins with the legendary Bobby Plump.

In Indiana, the story of Plump is passed down from generation to generation, like an epic basketball poem.

In 1954, Plump led tiny Milan High, a school with an enrollment of 161, to the all-class Indiana state high school championship. The Milan High Indians beat perennial power Muncie Central in the state championship.

The story of Milan High would become legend. And it would be co-opted into a movie 32 years later. The movie would be titled, “Hoosiers” — and would star Gene Hackman as coach Norman Dale.

The character of Plump would morph into Jimmy Chitwood, a sweet-shooting guard with some off-the-court issues.

And Milan High would become the Hickory High Huskers.

But you have to remember. This is the greatest basketball story ever told. So the story couldn’t end with Chitwood and Dale and the Huskers.

The Milan High Indians would win the state championship at Hinkle Fieldhouse — the homecourt of the Butler Bulldogs.

And Plump, our protagonist, would go on to play college basketball at a little school in Indianapolis — you might have heard of it — named Butler.

*****

So by now, you probably know the framework of the Butler story.

The Bulldogs beat No. 1 seed Syracuse on Wednesday in Salt Lake City, and then followed that up with a 63-56 victory over No. 2 seed Kansas State in the West Regional final.

And you probably know the numbers: They Bulldogs are 30-4. They won 24 games in a row. They’ve beat Xavier and Ohio State and Siena. They’re 7-3 against NCAA Tournament teams.

But you probably don’t know these numbers. According to basketball statistician, Ken Pomeroy, the Bulldogs are sixth in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency.* And if you think the Bulldogs are relatively untested — given their membership in the Horizon League — consider this fact:

Butler played the second-toughest non-conference schedule in the nation. And they are 11-4 against teams in the top 100 of Pomeroy’s computer rankings.

*I admit, I’m not exactly sure what that means.

More than anything, Butler is the perfect team to embody this NCAA Tournament. Because when you strip away the artificial sponsors and the inane NCAA and the colossal stadiums, you are left with the game.

And to find the soul of the game, you have to peal away the acrobatic dunks and jaw-dropping blocks and blinding athleticism.

Yes, it’s there somewhere. The soul of the game. The essence of ball.

And when you finally do it, when you strip away everything, it comes down to this:

The game is really about passing and cutting and shooting.

Which team can pass? Which team can move without the ball? Which team can knock down shots?

Of course, these things should seem obvious. And yet, they are why basketball is the greatest game the world has ever seen. And why the NCAA Tournament is the greatest sporting event in the world.

Listen to Kansas coach Bill Self, and he’ll tell you the same thing. In March, it really comes down to this: Which team makes shots?

So, yes, you can strip it all away, and it really comes down to the romantic notion of basketball.

The kid. The ball. And the basket.

So let’s start there. The kid.

*****

Gordon Hayward knows this story.

He’s seen it before. He’s felt it before. And he’s lived it before.

Some say that the state of Indiana has a way of producing basketball heroes.

Larry Bird came from French Lick, and he was once the protagonist in this play. Oscar Robertson grew up in a housing project outside Indianapolis and led Crispus Attucks High to the Indiana state title in 1955. Decades before that, a young man by the name of John Wooden led Martinsville to the state championship in 1927.

And by a little twist of fate, Hayward has already been the hero once.

On a calm Indiana night in 2008, Hayward led Brownsburg High to the 4A Indiana state title. If the story ended there, well, it would be still be amazing.

But, no, the story does not end there. Because on that calm Indiana night, the Brownsburg Bulldogs trailed Marion 39-38 with 2.1 seconds left.

Brownsburg’s in-bounds passer would heave the ball 70 feet down the court. The ball would be tipped… and a mad scramble would ensue.

And somehow, the ball ended up in the hands of Hayward…

Moments later, the Brownsburg players were dancing on the court at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

Hayward’s short jumper had dropped through the net, and the Bulldogs were state champions.
*****

There’s an old cliché about Indiana high school basketball.

They say Indiana produces shooters. And, yes, Hayward can shoot.

But he can do more. At 6-9, Hayward can pass and rebound and create off the dribble.

He can hit step-back three-pointers and bang with the most physical of bigs.

And on Friday, with a little help from CBS’ Gus Johnson, he also gave us a moment.

The moment came in Butler’s game against K-State — and I can only assume this story will be told for decades in Indiana.

Johnson, of course, was broadcasting the game. And late in the second half, with Butler holding onto a small lead, Hayward skied for an offensive rebound, yanked the ball down, rose for the put-back and drew a foul.

In an instant, Johnson shouted these words:

“DON’T LET THE SMOOTH TASTE FOOL YA.*”

*If you didn’t know, “Don’t let the smooth taste fool ya” is an old marketing slogan for King Cobra malt liquor.

In retrospect, the moment was just as much Johnson’s as it was Hayward’s.

And, yet, in this moment, something else happened. Butler had already defeated No. 1 seed Syracuse. And here they were, hanging with K-State, who at the time, seemed to be destiny’s team.

But here was Butler. And for the first time, the ultimate basketball miracle seemed to be possible.

*****

Every one of these basketball miracle stories has to have a coach. That much is obvious.

But Butler coach Brad Stevens is no Norman Dale, the redemptive figure in “Hoosiers”.

But in some ways, Stevens’ story is more unlikely.

He graduated from DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana in 1999 after a four-year playing career. And he temporarily took a marketing job in Indianapolis while working as a voluntary high school coach.

Shortly after, he would take a gamble and dive headfirst into the coaching business. He joined the Butler staff under then-coach Thad Matta in before the 2000-01 season.

After one season, Matta would leave Butler for Xavier, assistant Todd Lickliter would take over, and Stevens would become a full-time assistant coach.

Nine years later, the 33-year-old Stevens has the Bulldogs in the Final Four in his third season at Butler. He’s 88-14 in three seasons — the most wins by any coach in his first three seasons.

And yet, Stevens’ trademark doesn’t seem to be his sterling record or his remarkable rise.

No, instead, Stevens is perhaps more famous for his boyish looks. It’s almost as if Ferris Bueller stumbled into Hinkle Fieldhouse and became one of the top young coaches in the country. He’s calm and he recruits and he is a wizard of mental preparation… now all he has to do is get up on a parade float and sing “Twist and Shout”.

*****

Lastly, there is the team.

There’s sophomore Shelvin Mack, a lead guard from Lexington, Kent., who was passed over by the hometown Wildcats. There’s sophomore Ronald Nored, a deep-thinking defensive specialist who devours books with messages of inspiration. There’s Matt Howard, a crafty, 6-foot-8 forward who was the player of the year in the Horizon League last season.

And there’s eight more players from Indiana — eight more players who know this story.

*****

Yes. The people want to believe again. In their dreams they can see Plump leading Milan High to the state title.

They remember Larry Bird rising from the poor streets of French Lick. And they remember one of their own, Oscar Robertson, slowly becoming the best basketball player in the world.

And when the close their eyes, they can hear it, the voice of Gene Hackman, bringing his team together before the state championship game in Hoosiers, moments before the dramatic denouement.

They can hear Hackman’s question: “Does anybody have anything else to say?”

And the answer is always this: “Let’s win it for all the small schools that never got a chance to get here.”

The can visualize the final scene: Jimmy Chitwood looking into his coach’s eyes and telling him calmly… “I’ll make it.”

They can remember it all. Because in Indiana, basketball miracle stories aren’t just possible — they also define the state’s heritage.

And so, on Saturday, thousands and thousands of Indianans will make the pilgrimage to Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis.

And Butler, a school of 4,500 from the Horizon League, will take on Michigan State, a school that has played in six of the last 12 Final Fours.

The story, of course, is still being written.

But here’s this story… and the narrative is so familiar… and the people want to believe again.

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Dancing in the dark

Editor’s note: It does feel like we’ve been pretty heavy on the college basketball lately. Then again, it’s March. So without further adu…

The story starts under the night sky. You leave work late on a Sunday, just as the day is about turn to Monday. You crawl into your car, and the voices emanating from the speakers start spewing advice.

Beware of the 12-5 upset. Look out for UTEP. There’s gonna be a champagne superNOVA in the South.

You rub your eyes. What are these people talking about?

You flip the dial. Another voice. Wait, an animal show? At this hour?

The voice is talking about Grizzlies and Mountain Hawks and Tigers. About Owls and Bears and Badgers and Huskies.

You take a deep breath and stare out in the deep, dark horizon. Is this a dream? Where am I? Who said that?

Better try another station.

Problem is, you stumble upon a show that’s even stranger.

A farming show? Could it be? Yes, a farming show. They’re talking about Cowboys and Aggies and Gauchos.

Click. Radio off.

Finally, you’re home. You stumble through the front door and collapse onto your couch. Perhaps you can reintroduce yourself to reality through television. It’s 12:15 a.m., so you hit the power button on the remote.

And then you realize. It’s worse than you think.

Your television has been hijacked by middle-aged men in luxury suits. Who are these guys?

They use words like “sleeper” and “upside” and “spurtability”. They ask questions about the abilities of Sam Houston and Robert Morris and Brigham Young.

What? You’re confused. Why are they comparing a former Governor of Texas with a major financier of the American Revolution? And what does Steve Young’s great-great-great-grandfather have to do with anything?

And then you realize. You’ve descended into madness.

*****

So yes, it all starts with the bracket. Sixty-four teams spaced evenly on that small white piece of office paper. Yes, there’s a random play-in game place somewhere off to the side. But that’s OK. It’s a small flaw overshadowed by perfection.

So yes, let’s start with the bracket.

And to do so, we must take a trip back in time. Before the internet. Before printable brackets ran up printing costs at offices around the country. Before ESPN had a network called ESPNU – and 87 straight hours of NCAA Tournament talk. Before the talking heads saturated our heads with cinderellas and upsets and chalk.

Yes, let’s go back to a simpler time. When it was just a kid and a bracket. Such a simpler time.

The tradition went like this: I would wake up on a Monday morning and search for the special NCAA Tournament preview section in the Kansas City Star. Inside, on page C6-7, would be the holy grail. The NCAA bracket. The first opportunity to see every matchup, laid out across the kitchen table. The Final Four logo was always in the middle, reminding us of the goal. Salvation didn’t lie within, it awaited your team in Indianapolis or San Antonio or St. Louis.

*****

Of course, the next part was the best.

You grabbed a pen and made your picks. Simple, right? Easy, right?

You studied the first-round games. You looked for any sort of hint. You analyzed coaches and matchups and the strength of each conference.

You probably made a few homer picks. You knew you had to pick a few upsets. You learned tricks along the way. Always pick at least one 12-5 upset. Nine-seeds actually beat eight-seeds more than 50 percent of the time. 16-seeds? Forget ‘em.

You found teams with great point guards. You searched for teams with experience and chemistry and intangibles.

And in the end. None of it seemed to matter. Your bracket would inevitably go bust. Sure, sometimes you would hit on a big upset. But nobody can be perfect. Nobody.

*****

So what’s the secret? Well, first, you must realize that there is no secret. Yes, you can use modern tools. You can look up offensive efficiency ratings. You can compare advanced RPI metrics. You can use it all. But there is no fail-safe.

Still, there is strategy.

For example:

1. Put all ones, twos and threes through to the second round.

2. Go through the other first-round games and go with your first instinct. If you have to think about it, skip that game and come back.

3. At least one No. 1 seed will make the Final Four.

4. There’s a reason why – since the inception of the 64-team tourney in 1985 — only two double-digit seeds (LSU in 1986, George Mason in 2006) have made the Final Four.

5. Pay attention to coaches. Sure, they might not make much of a difference during the actual games, but there’s a reason why only 15 coaches have won National Titles in the last 20 years.

Breakdown by coaches (* means there actually in the field)
1. *Mike Kryzewski (2)
2. Roy Williams (2)
3. *Billy Donovan (2)
4. Jim Calhoun (2)
5. *Bill Self (1)
6. *Jim Boeheim (1)
7. *Gary Williams (1)
8. *Tom Izzo (1)
9. *Tubby Smith (1)
10. Lute Olson (1)
11. *Rick Pitino (1)
12. Jim Harrick (1)
13. Nolan Richardson (1)
14. Dean Smith (1)
15. Jerry Tarkanian (1)

6. In the same vein, only 13 different schools have won titles in the last 20 years.

Last 20 champs by conference breakdowns (Now, not at the time of the title)

1. ACC (7)
2. SEC (5)
3. Big East (3)
4. Pac-10 (2)
5. Big 12 (1)
6. Big Ten (1)
7. Mountain West (1)

7. If you need a tiebreaker, go with the coach with Final Four experience

Other coaches with Final Four’s in the field (number in parentheses)

1. Kentucky’s John Calipari (2 *though both were vacated…ouch)
2. San Diego State’s Steve Fischer (2) *won a title at Michigan in 1989)
3. Georgia Tech’s Paul Hewitt (1)
4. Georgetown’s John Thompson III (1)
5. Texas’ Rick Barnes (1)
6. Ohio State’s Thad Matta (1)
7. Villanova’s Jay Wright (1)
8. West Virginia’s Bob Huggins (1 *at Cincy)
9. UNLV’s Lon Kruger (at Florida)

9. Lastly, work fast

*****

So let’s do it. Here it is… My 5-minute bracket. A little science… and a little speed.

Midwest Regional

(1) Kansas over (16) Lehigh – Duh
(9) Northern Iowa over (8) UNLV – Panthers are tough and experienced
(5) Michigan State over (12) New Mexico State – See Izzo, Tom
(4) Maryland over (13) Houston – Cougars lucky to get in
(11) San Diego St. over (6) Tennessee – Old coach strikes again
(3) Georgetown over (14) Ohio – Duh
(7) Oklahoma State over (10) Georgia Tech – first instinct… who knows?
(2) Ohio State over (15) UC Santa Barbara – Duh

Second round

(1) Kansas over (9) Northern Iowa – Going with chalk
(5) Michigan State over (4) Maryland – Going with coach with more Final Four’s
(3) Georgetown over (11) SDSU – Going with talent over Fisher’s coaching experience
(2) Ohio State over (7) Oklahoma State – Talent and coaching advantage for Buckeyes

Sweet 16

(1) Kansas over (5) Michigan State – Revenge for Jayhawks
(3) Georgetown over (2) Ohio State – Interior play carries Hoyas

Elite Eight

(1) Kansas over (3) Georgetown – Easy: talent and coaching on KU’s side

West Region

(1) Syracuse over (16) Vermont – (Just nod and move along)
(8) Gonzaga over (9) Florida State – Instinct pick; Who really knows?
(5) Butler over (12) UTEP – Hoosiers was filmed at Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse
(4) Vanderbilt over (13) Murray State – Tough matchup for Murray St.
(6) Xavier over (11) Minnesota – Gophers are a fraud
(3) Pitt over (14) Oakland – Going by rules
(7) BYU over (10) Florida – Ignoring rules; love Jimmer Fredette
(2) K-State over (15) North Texas – (Nodding…)

Second Round

(1) Syracuse over (8) Gonzaga – Talent… check. Coaching…check.
(5) Butler over (4) Vanderbilt – Chitwoods pull it out.
(3) Pitt over (6) Xavier – Toughest call yet, but Panthers are battle-tested
(2) K-State over (7) BYU – Great defense over great offense

Sweet 16

(1) Syracuse over (5) Butler – Probably dumb, but going with Boeheim
(2) K-State over (3) Pitt – Teams are similar; Love Pullen and Clemente

Elite Eight

(1) Syracuse over (2) K-State – The ‘Cats ride ends in the regional final…

East Regional

(1) Kentucky over (16) East. Tenn. St. — (Breezing along)
(9) Wake Forest over (8) Texas – Longhorns are lesson in dysfunction
(12) Cornell over (5) Temple – Cornell almost beat Jayhawks, who destroyed Temple
(4) Wisconsin over (13) Wofford – Anybody know where Wofford is?
(6) Marquette over (11) Washington – Yea, I’ll sell on the Pac-10
(3) New Mexico over (14) Montana – Steve Alford primed to take Lobos deep
(10) Missouri over (7) Clemson – Dream draw for Mizzou
(2) West Virginia over (15) Morgan State — Love Bob Huggins’ sweatsuit

Second Round

(1) Kentucky over (9) Wake Forest – Wildcats chalk it up
(12) Cornell over (4) Wisconsin – Big Red will be tourney darlings
(3) New Mexico over (6) Marquette – Lobos have Big East-type talent
(2) West Virginia over (7) Missouri – Bob Huggins puts clownsuit on Mike Anderson

Sweet 16

(1) Kentucky over (12) Cornell – Sad to say… Wildcats have too much talent
(2) West Virginia over (3) New Mexico – Lobos lack muscle to stay with Mountaineers

Elite Eight

(1) Kentucky over (2) West Virginia – Wildcats have NBA talent and coaching — a potent combo

South Regional

(1) Duke over (16) Play-in winner – (nodding head)
(9) Louisville over (8) California – Honestly, just going with the nine-seed here
(5) Texas A&M over (12) Utah State – Aggies over Aggies… fun.
(13) Siena over (4) Purdue – Let’s hope Gus Johnson calls this upset
(11) Old Dominion over (6) Notre Dame – And the south region implodes
(3) Baylor over Sam Houston State – Bears’ Carter and Dunn play at home in N’awlins
(7) Richmond over (10) St. Mary’s – (nodding head)
(2) Villanova over (15) Robert Morris – (still nodding)

Second Round

(1) Duke over (9) Louisville – Coach K over Pitino — barely
(5) Texas A&M over (13) Siena – Saints not as good as 2009 version
(3) Baylor over (11) Old Dominion – Udoh makes difference for Bears
(2) Villanova over (7) Richmond – Once again, going with coaching

Sweet 16

(1) Duke over (5) Texas A&M – Blue Devils are efficient — Coach K’s OK, too.
(3) Baylor over (2) Villanova – Baylor wins playing “home” game in Houston

Elite Eight

(1) Duke over (3) Baylor – How’d Duke get this bracket again?

Final Four

(1) Kansas over (1) Syracuse

Payback for 2003. But really, it’s about Jayhawks being the more complete and efficient team.

(1) Kentucky over (1) Duke

Blue Devils are talented, but they just can’t run up and down with Wall, Patterson and Cousins.

Championship game

Kansas over Kentucky

This one feels like destiny. And it feels like 2008. Self versus Calipari. Kansas versus an uber-talented freshman guard. I believe the result would feel the same, too.

Kansas 75, Kentucky 68 – in regulation

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