Sunday, December 2, 2012

What Makes March Madness Great


Millions of fans around the country tuned in Monday to watch Butler-UConn play what ESPN’s Jay Bilas called: “the worst championship game of my life-time.” There’s no other way to describe the lowest-scoring NCAA title game in over 60 years, a game in which the winning team shot 34.5%.

No defense should be able to hold a Final Four team to 18% shooting from the field, a number so putrid it’s hard to even get your head around.

The rise of teams like Butler is an end-result of the talent exodus from NCAA basketball. Less than a third of the players in the 2007 and 2008 McDonald’s All-American Games, the guys who should be the back-bone of the junior and senior classes, are still playing D1 ball.

Yet despite the NBA’s near monopoly on the game’s best young talent, Butler/UConn still managed a 13.3 TV rating, out-drawing the 10.6 average of last year’s Lakers/Celtics NBA Finals.

And while there are a lot of complex sociological reasons for the popularity differences between the NBA and college hoops, I think the most important is purely narrative: the stakes just feel higher in college ball.

NBA players are widely mocked for crying after a tough loss, while college players are celebrated for showing so much emotion. Going into this year’s NBA playoffs, three teams — the Lakers, the Celtics and the Spurs — have already won rings. Their legacies are secure. The other veteran title-contender, the Mavericks, have had nearly a dozen shots at a championship; it’s hard to feel too bad for them. LeBron is 26, Dwight Howard 25, Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant 22. There’s going to be plenty of next years for all of them.


While most coverage of the Butler/Pittsburgh game centered around the now-familiar narrative of “Big East power” vs “little mid-major that could”, the teams were actually near mirror images of each other. Both relied on tough man-to-man defensive principles to out-execute bigger and more athletic teams, and both put the ball in hands of an undersized shooting guard — Brad Wanamaker for Pittsburgh and Shelvin Mack for Butler — to close out games.

Butler had a six-point edge at half-time, the biggest either team would get the rest of the way. The lead switched back and forth several times, and as the clock began winding down to the final minutes, everyone in the building, and everyone watching on TV, sensed that it would be one of those games. Neither team was going to give the game away. Someone was going to have to take it.

The drama really begins with 7 seconds left, when Butler, down 68-69, brings the ball into the front-court and calls time-out. Mack throws it in to Shawn Vanzant, Butler’s third guard in the starting line-up, a senior who has been overshadowed by the late-game heroics of Mack, Nored, Hayward and Howard over the last two years. But he’s also the Bulldogs fastest guard, the guy most capable of getting the ball to the front of the rim in a short amount of time.

Drawing the defensive assignment for Pittsburgh is Gilbert Brown, their designated perimeter stopper with an NBA-caliber body at 6’6 215. Brown gives Vanzant a crease to the basket and he takes it, hurtling toward the rim with Brown in quick pursuit. Under the rim, Gary McGhee, Pittsburgh’s brawny 6’11 265 mountain of a center, waits. With the clock rapidly ticking down he has no idea how much time has left. He sees Vanzant and moves to cut off his opening, not wanting to give him a clean look at the basket.

But there’s still 3 seconds left and Vanzant slips the ball to Butler’s center, Andrew Smith, who flashes into the middle of the lane as his man leaves. As he gets the ball, the defensive rotation comes, but it’s only the 6’2 Ashton Gibbs, and he watches helplessly as Smith positions his body between the two and gently lays the ball in the basket.

The game should be over; a time-out can’t advance the ball past mid-court in college, and the Panthers have only 2.2 seconds to set up a desperate heave at the basket. Yet Pittsburgh is a veteran team, they know what can happen in just a few seconds. As underclassmen two years ago, they watched helplessly as Scotty Reynolds received a pitch-perfect inbounds play and got the ball up the court in less than four seconds to send Villanova to the Final Four.

Gibbs takes a breath to collect himself before inbounding the ball; there’s only going to be one chance at this. He lofts the ball in front of Gilbert Brown as Brown races up-court, knowing that the clock won’t start until one of the Panthers touches it. Butler wouldn’t be Butler if they were going to allow the ball to move up the court unmolested, and Shelvin Mack, the team’s best player, is right in the middle of things.

But in the midst of a career night, he tries to do a little too much. Almost as soon as he starts his motion, he realizes he won’t be able to prevent Brown from getting the ball. He tries to stop his momentum, holding his arms out wide in a defensive stance as if to emphasize that he’s not fouling Brown, but he careens into him anyway, with Brown accentuating the contact and throwing the ball at the rim.

And just like that, Pittsburgh’s season, their best chance to make the Final Four and join college basketball’s elite, has been given a second chance. While the referees try to figure out exactly how many tenths of a second to leave on the clock, there’s a break in the action as the players mull about. Mack is standing in the middle of the free-throw line preventing Brown from setting up, as if by mere will he can undo the last two seconds.

Brown, a 78% free-throw shooter, calmly nails the first shot. The game is tied. There are no time-outs for Butler; no more chances for Brad Stevens to pull a rabbit out of his hat on an inbounds play. With one more free-throw, one of the greatest two-year runs in Tournament history will come to an ignominious end.

But the ball grazes the rim and bounces left and Matt Howard, whose grabbed so many big rebounds in his career, gets one more. Pittsburgh wouldn’t be Pittsburgh if they let people grab uncontested boards, and Nasir Robinson, an undersized 6’5 forward, grabs Howard by the arm as the ball comes down.

Howard, recognizing the gift he’s just been given, immediately throws the ball at the rim, 90 feet the other direction, with Robinson still grabbing his arm.

The Pittsburgh bench knows instantly. Brown tears off his headband and stares incredulously. Across the court, Wanamaker catches the ball as it lands softly near mid-court, and in one moment of frustration pounds the ground with it.


It's over.


Every year, CBS closes out the NCAA Tournament with a montage set to “One Shining Moment”, and for the players, the lyrics can hit a little too close to home.
And all the years, no one knows / Just how hard you worked, but now it shows / That in “One Shining Moment” it’s all on the line / “One Shining Moment” frozen in time / But time is short and the road is long / in the blinking of an eye; that moment’s gone. 
Pittsburgh never wore the role of “Goliath” comfortably. The heart of their team — the senior trio of Wanamaker, McGhee and Brown — weren’t McDonald’s All-Americans. They were 3 and 4 star recruits, the #66, #94 and #150 ranked players in their high school class respectively.

The star of their recruiting class was DeJuan Blair, a powerful but undersized power forward who became an All-American by his sophomore year. And while their friend soon slipped into a starting role for the San Antonio Spurs, they were putting in countless hours in the gym and the weight room. Wanamaker and McGhee added 10 pounds of muscle, Brown 25.

But the NBA, which had been so quick to grab Blair, was not as kind to his teammates. Wanamaker, at only 6’4, didn’t have the size to be a shooting guard or the athleticism to be a point guard. Brown and McGhee had NBA bodies, but not NBA skill-sets.

They were in the top 1% of their chosen field, but it wasn’t good enough. All three have gotten second-round talk now that their college careers are over, but their ability to stick in the NBA will depend as much on luck, getting the right opportunity in the right system, as anything else.

Everything they had done since they hitting puberty, since they had grown big enough that NBA dreams weren’t unrealistic, was pointing towards their last college season. They had worn the cloaks of “star basketball player” for most of their young lives; an identity that would be gone forever the second they took off those Pittsburgh jerseys.

The one moment from this Tournament that sticks in my mind isn’t a shot or a steal or even a basketball play at all. It’s Wanamaker softly pounding the ball on the court, knowing there’s just nothing more he can do. 

There’s not going to be a next year for this Pittsburgh team.

The late teens and early twenties are a transition period, the time between leaving the family that raised you and starting a family of your own. At that point in your life, your friends become your family, which is why the friendships formed in those years often end up lasting a life-time. On the next level, the business of the game prevents the same type of bond from growing between teammates; many have families of their own to look out for, and in an instant, anyone can be traded or released.
“It’s hard because I’ve been with these five seniors for three years,” said Nored, a junior. “And you know, we spend a lot of time together on and off the court.” He gets choked up. “They’re done here,” he said, sniffling. “They are five of my brothers … those guys, what they’ve done for this program — I don’t think words can do it justice.” — Time Magazine. 
It’s those bonds that make college basketball so enduringly popular. Without story-lines and narratives to follow, a game of basketball is just ten guys in tank-tops and shorts running around a hard-wood floor trying to throw a ball through a raised cylinder.

While the pro game features bigger and faster players, players who can generate and convert much better-looking shots at the cylinder, the uniquely short and capricious nature of the college game makes us care about those players running around that hard-wood.

And if people care, they will watch, no matter how many shots those players miss.

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