How’s your bracket looking this morning? Chances are by this point in the tourney you’ve either shredded it and are entirely indifferent to that question or you’re eagerly waiting to see if the UNC vs. UConn final you “knew was a sure thing all along” will become a reality.
I’ve been largely uninterested with this year’s tourney, watching snippets here and there but few games from start to finish. In part, the Illini’s early exit has felled my enthusiasm. But my main beef with this year’s tourney is the absence of small-school, lower-seeded underdogs. It’s such Cinderella stories that get us going come March (see: Stephen Curry and Bryce Drew, VCU and George Mason, Taylor Coppenrath and the Catamounts, Bucknell vs. Kansas). Both casual fans and college hoops nuts alike get a kick out of the lesser-knowns who sneak up on the giants in the opening rounds. Ironically, this year the team that took out the Illini and hence diminished my enthusiasm for the tournament, Western Kentucky, almost became one such story. If only they had defeated Gonzaga to advance to the field of 16.
Sure, some people may have taken great pleasure in penciling in No. 12 seed Arizona to go to the Sweet Sixteen this year, but those people all live in Arizona. It’s the NCAA Selection Committee’s fault for giving one of the last spots in the tourney to the Wildcats instead of San Diego St. or Saint Mary’s. This year, the committee allowed just four at-large bids to go to mid-major teams, a third of the number from just five years ago. Defenders of the committee will note that Arizona proved its worth by making it to the Sweet 16 before being demolished by Louisville, but they only had to beat a pair of vulnerable teams to do so. I'd rather the committee give me a kid I can root for, like the Gaels’ Patrick Mills, rather than a bunch of burger boys like Lute Olson’s recruits.
Niagara Coach Joe Mihalich told The New York Times earlier this month: “The beauty of this tournament is not Oklahoma State playing Clemson. It’s George Mason going to the Final Four. It’s Butler. It’s Davidson. It’s Siena or Niagara getting an at-large bid. That’s the charm of the tournament.”
His team was on the outside looking in after losing the Metro Athletic Conference tourney to Siena. Despite a 26–8 record, the Purple Eagles were NIT bound, where they lost a first-round game to Rhode Island. Granted, I can see why the committee left them out: The only somewhat menacing teams Niagara played this season were Villanova (lost on the road by 15), Illinois State (won at home by 14), Akron (lost by four at home), and Siena (won by 15 at home and lost by 17 on the road). Still, wouldn’t you enjoy rooting for the Purple Eagles to pull an upset over a power conference foe, as Siena did by defeating Ohio State, then almost toppling Louisville?
This is a sore subject for Illini fans after the team fell — rather convincingly (let’s not kid ourselves) — in the opening round to a mid-major foe, the Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky. Possibly, Illinois and its fans would have rather faced one of the two 12 seeds not from a mid-major conference — Wisconsin or Arizona — instead of a scrappy underdog with something to prove. In losing to the Badgers or the Wildcats, the Illini at least would have not lost face by dropping a game to a team whose mascot resembles a flaccid penis.
The Illini will now have several weeks to let the closing sharp note ring following a rather inspiring season. By June, the team will likely have a new student assistant coach in Chester Frazier, who has been offered a seat on the bench, and a promising quartet of freshman for Frazier to mold in his tough-guy image. I certainly hope that the influx of incoming athletic guards — count 'em one, two, three — coupled with the departure of Frazier, Calvin Brock, and Trent Meacham mean the Illini will employ a more aggressive perimeter attack next season. And by perimeter attack I don’t mean hoisting more three-pointers as the shot clock winds down. The aggressiveness I’m after involves driving and kicking, or, better yet, driving and scoring. Once our guards have run around myriad screens and failed to get an open look, I no longer want to see them attempt a contested three pointer. Instead, I want them to take it to the hole and draw contact.
Speaking of contact, I'm hopeful that sophomores Mike & Mike (Davis and Tisdale) will spend the summer welcoming it instead of avoiding it. As juniors, the rangy duo could stand to head to the charity stripe a hundred more times. They’ll need to bang a bit more to start getting the calls.
Finally, I wish that Bruce Weber would consider calling more set plays next season, especially coming out of time outs, to get the big guys touches in and around the paint. The lack of wrinkles in the offense was particularly frustrating this year given that the team’s best scoring threats — Mike and Mike — would go for long stretches without touching the ball on offense. When the team’s better scoring options are the bigs, they need to have a larger role on offense than screen setters.
Until June, I’m left with nothing better to do than root on the Big Ten and the Spartans in the Final Four in the hopes that Izzo can crush the possibility of an all-Big East championship game. Michigan State has already ended Rick Pitino’s season, which brings a big smile to my face. If he can add Jim Calhoun and Roy Williams to that list I'll gladly go green for a day or two.