Of the issues in college athletics, specifically basketball (and there are many), there are at least a semblance of nuance and agreeing to disagree. It’s entirely plausible to hold the opinion that players shouldn’t be getting paid and that scholarships are enough compensation for the player’s contribution to their school, but can also hold the opinion that amateurism is a joke and alternatives should be sought. It’s also not uncommon to believe that the college games — from rivalries to continuity of rosters — suffers from the one-and-done era, but to also understand that if a player is talented enough to earn a professional paycheck that they have every right to pursue it. There’s this implicit understanding that there are parts of the sport that are cracked, leaking, and corrosive, and there might not be enough teflon tape or cosmetic solutions to mask those problems.
That said, there’s one March Madness constant for whom there is no middle ground: John Calipari. You either love him, “or he’s the devil on the sidelines,” said Marty Dobrow, author of the book Going Bigtime: The Spectacular Rise of UMass Basketball, which partly chronicles Calipari’s tenure at the University of Massachusetts in the 1990’s.
Having grown up in Massachusetts (I was in middle school around the time Calipari was the man in charge at Amherst), it was easy to fall under the spell of the charismatic Calipari. The teams were not only competitive, but highly likeable. They hustled. They played fearlessly. Their motto of “any team, any time, any place” was the kind of bravado that college basketball was beginning to showcase.The UMass experiment was best exemplified by one of the most made-for-television moments in sports broadcast history: His epic press room altercation with then-Temple coach John Chaney. It was easy to love.
Calipari left for a doomed professional gigs in New Jersey and Philadelphia, then reentered the college ranks at Memphis then Kentucky. I still felt compelled to get behind the guy. He was the first coach to embrace the one-and-done culture of college basketball. There’s an underlying assumption from anyone outside of Kentucky that he’s dirty, that he’s everything that’s wrong with collegiate basketball. I’ve never felt that way. He’s always seemed like a coach who genuinely gets it. He seems to understand that the NCAA is a corrupt organization making millions of dollars off of free labor. Calipari grasps that he’s getting paid more than any other public employee in most states in the country. Why shouldn’t his players come fulfill their ludicrous one-year-minimum sentence in a place that can best prepare them for life in the National Basketball Association. Why make money for someone else? For a trophy?
And so we’re in another year when the Kentucky Wildcats, despite their lackluster season (there was a generous portion of the season where it wasn’t guaranteed that they’d make the tournament), are dancing into the Sweet 16. In the South Region, no less, where seeds one through four have all headed back to campus under this falsely-constructed narrative that they’ll be “studying.” Kentucky will have to get through ninth-seeded Kansas State and either seventh-seeded Nevada or 10th-seeded darling Loyola-Chicago in order to get to the Final Four in San Antonio.
Onto the games.
I must admit that my bracket is finished. The South being upended by upsets ruined a ton of brackets, so my loss of Arizona (my Final Four pick from that region) on night one hurt but didn’t kill my chances. Michigan State, my national champion pick, losing to Syracuse did. Ah, well.
Loyola-Chicago v. Nevada (-1.5): Yes, just as everyone suspected. It’s Loyola and Nevada for a berth to the Elite Eight. Both seem content with winning games the hard way, too.
Two times last weekend, the Wolfpack went into the dog house and came away with the bone. First against Texas and then again against Cincinnati, where they erased a 22-point second half deficit. Loyola needed end-of-game heroics twice. Both of these teams are among the most offensively efficient in the country. This could be fun.
Texas A&M v. Michigan (-3): This game could be the best one of the weekend because of the matchups. Both teams are excellent on the defensive glass, so second chance opportunities are going to be at a premium. Forunately, both teams have scorers inside and outside. The Wolverines have won 16 straight games and the Aggies are playing like the top-five team they were at the beginning of the year.
Kansas State v. Kentucky (-6): Kentucky’s favorable draw has been largely in part due to UMBC’s wild upset over Virginia. Now, they look like the favorites coming out of the South. Kansas State might be the least scary of the remaining 16-team field, but they can play defense. Unfortunately for them, Kentucky has been averaging 81 points per game in their last ten contests. Either Calipari’s crew returns to their inconsistent mid-season form or the Manhattan, Kansas-based Wildcats are in for a long evening.
Florida State v. Gonzaga (-5.5): Gonzaga, the lone remaining team from last year’s Final Four, gets the Seminoles and Michigan/A&M winner for a return trip. Florida State is big, long, and athletic, per usual, but undisciplined and inconsistent, per usual. The Zags should be able to confound the Seminoles with solid outside shooting and mistake-free basketball. They just have to stay out of foul trouble, unlike the #1 seeded Xavier team from a week ago.
Clemson v. Kansas (-4.5): Clemson has been able to hold their opponents to 32% from the field during the NCAA Tournament thus far. They’ll need to be competitive defensively if they want to be able to contain the Jayhawks. Even with Devont’e Graham’s shooting struggles, Kansas has rolled to a couple wins. If the Jayhawks aren’t shooting well — which would likely be because of the Tigers defense — this game could be close.
West Virginia v. Villanova (-5.5): The most interesting game of the Sweet 16, in my opinion. Villanova will have to be lights on from the three-point line. West Virginia can be a nightmare defensively for anybody, never mind if a team is having an off-night shooting. This is a fascinating contrast in styles. If Jevon Carter is on (and his 20+ ppg and 11 steals in the first two rounds suggest he might be), this game will be a close one; If the Wildcats are on fire from outside, though, no one in the country can hang with them.
Syracuse v. Duke (-11): This matchup tends to favor Duke. The Orangemen should struggle against the Duke zone because they have no real outside shooting threat and they have no real playmakers on the interior. The Blue Devils should be able to create enough of a threat on the perimeter so that Marvin Bagley can do his work inside. The only way I see Duke losing here is if they go ice cold from the field and Syracuse’s defense just shuts down the inside. (Yes, I’m trying to jinx Duke).
Texas Tech v. Purdue (-1.5): This will come down to Isaac Haas (man, there are a lot of A’s in that name). If he can play — and play reasonably well — the Boilermakers are one of the most talented squads in the tourney. Teammates have picked up the scoring slack in Haas’s absence and they’ll need to continue that. The Red Raiders rank third in defensive efficiency (behind Virginia and Cincinnati). They also have a fully-healthy Keenan Evans, who is scoring 16.5 ppg in the second half.
I’ll be on the road the next few days. Follow up on social media (@matthewmosgood on Twitter; @mattosgood on IG) for tourney thoughts/updates.