Before we can discuss the Michigan Miracle, we must address the Middle Tennessee State issue. I must admit that when I saw that our Gophers would be taking on MTSU in the first round of the NCAA tournament, I was tempted to ask: “Who are the Blue Raiders?”
But unlike the properly embarrassed Libertarian would-be president who thought Aleppo was an acronym, I do not smoke prodigious amounts of the medicinally-blessed weed, and so I thought for a moment and then recalled (vaguely) that MTSU had shocked another Big Ten team in last year’s tournament. The Blue Raiders may not be the Blue Devils, but as a 12-seed they defeated fifth-seeded Michigan State 90-81.
This is getting eerie and, as a proud Gopher alumnus, I am getting very nervous, because our Gophers are (for reasons I cannot fathom) a five-seed and that makes MTSU, once again, a 12-seed. By now, you probably know the rest of the story — how the Gophers flamed out after Akeem Springs went down and how Michigan went berserk with adrenaline after a mishap on the ground that can be described only as a Harrison Ford moment.
What you don’t know is that I confidently used this space to observe that the Gophers, as one of four teams that got a double-bye into the Big Ten tournament, had a 25 percent chance of winning the whole thing. My logic (sic) being that it’s impossible for any team seeded lower than fourth to win the tournament because, since its inception in 1998, only one team, Iowa (a six seed) had accomplished that feat.
I guess the great Jackson Browne said it best in The Road and the Sky:
Now can you see those dark clouds gathering up ahead?/
They’re going to wash this planet clean like the Bible said/
Now you can hold on steady and try to be ready/
But everybody’s going to get wet
Don’t think it won’t happen just because it hasn’t happened yet
I can’t say that I’m entirely shocked — in retrospect — that an eight-seed won the tournament. The Big Ten was like an out-of-control carousel of horrors all year. Every time a highly regarded passenger fell off, someone else jumped on.
The Wolverines were the hot guys in the end; in fact, they were already surging when their plane, bound for the nation’s capital, slid off a runway as they were trying to take off in near-tornado conditions. After that, winning four games in four days was the easy part. Would you worry about the Gophers when the smell of smoking tires and burning jet fuel still invaded your nostrils?
Better yet: would you worry about the Gophers?
Our rodents are a mess — and, as always, I blame Little Richard Pitino. But why beat a lame Pitino? Let’s just say that the Gophers, with no depth, were never more than a twisted ankle away from disaster.
But there’s always hope, right? No, not really
But there’s always hope, right? No, not really. Oh, the Gophers can defeat MTSU, which is why the Vegas pros made the game a pick. My perspective, as a hardcore gambler who (not to brag) has come close to breaking even this year, is that the pace will not favor our rodents. MTSU has more depth (who doesn’t?) and will tire our short-handed men with 48 minutes of fast breaks. At their best, the Gophers intimidate their opponents with a constant inside bludgeoning by the tag team of Murphy and Lynch. But that tends to get the Gophers’ big guys into foul trouble, especially without the home-cooked officiating they enjoy on campus. On a neutral site, they’ll need officials who let them get away with Man Three, if not murder.
But even if the officials take the day off, the Gophers will face a team that isn’t going to get pushed around. Senior JaCorey Williams, a transfer from Arkansas, is 6-8 and 220 pounds and averages 17 points per game. Reggie Upshaw goes 6-8 and weighs in at 230; Brandon Walters, at 6-10 and 265 pounds (at least), is raw but will get in the way of Minnesota rebounders. The most dynamic player of all is guard Giddy Potts, who averages 16 points per game. Best of all, his name is Giddy Potts.
So I like the Blue Raiders a bit, but I bet the game over 135 1/2.
None of which gets us any closer to nailing your brackets. Your guess is probably as good as mine, but that won’t stop me from trying. Cheap advice: you can just make the obvious picks to get to the Final Four, and, if there aren’t many people in your pool, you might wind up finishing second. On the other hand, you don’t have to make anything astonishing happen to win the whole thing. What you will have to do is pick one or two non-favorites to at least get to the Final Four.
First, there’s the matter of Gonzaga. The Bulldogs are going to the tournament for their 20th consecutive year. And, while they haven’t made the Final Four yet, this is one of their better teams — and perhaps their softest region yet. So go ahead and pick them to make it to Phoenix. To put it another way: I’ll hold the ball, Charlie Brown, and you kick it. On paper, Gonzaga pretty much breezes into the West regional final, whereupon they lose to Arizona. But this might be a region that’s worth taking a flyer on. Florida State is big and fast and I always like to pick an ACC team that’s not North Carolina or Duke to go far. In this case, however, I can’t, because the Seminoles are hitting under 70 percent of their free throws. So what? Well, free-throw percentage is the most underrated stat of all, especially in tournament play. So…Arizona.
The only knock on Kansas is that they just about get a bye all the way through the regular season every year
The East features the one-two gut punch of defending champs Villanova and surging Duke. It’s hard to go against the Wildcats: they’ve got just about everyone back from last year’s team and, because we’re on the subject, they’re the second-best free-throw shooters in the country, just behind Notre Dame. The Blue Devils are taking a ton of money in the futures pool now, so much so that they’re taking almost as much action as North Carolina. Maybe the Blue Devils are a bit too popular for my taste, so I’ll stick with the Wildcats.
As for the Midwest, the only knock on Kansas is that they just about get a bye all the way through the regular season every year. So I say go for it. Maybe you think the Michigan Miracle will never end. It’s a reach, but if you take the Wolverines to win it all, you win it all. So I’ll take Oregon. Why not? They split with UCLA and Arizona, and their two losses to those rivals were by three points apiece.
Which leaves the South and North Carolina. There is no logical explanation for the fact that The Tar Heels, the obvious choice to wear the crown, have to get past Kentucky and UCLA (among others) to go all the way. It is, in fact, simply absurd. The weakest region (West) also features the weakest #1 (Gonzaga). It’s not supposed to work that way, so we’re faced with a dilemma. The Tar Heels have it all, but so does the region. I don’t know what kind of bong the selection dudes were passing around, but I do know I just made a clever reference that ties the beginning of this screed to the merciful end.
So I’m going to join two pools. In one, I’m taking the Tar Heels. In the other, I’m taking the other Wildcats, Kentucky. The Wildcats have momentum (11 straight victories), size, speed and an unscrupulous coach. You’ve got three typical Kentucky one-and-doners, Edrice (Bam) Adebayo, 7 feet tall, 260, with the agility of a gymnast; De’Aaron Fox, an assist machine who averages 16 points per game; and Malik Monk, a shooting guard who averages more than 20 per game. Monk and Fox both project as lottery picks, with Adebayo not far behind.
Or maybe I’ll join a third pool and take UCLA to win it all. No, that would almost make me compulsive.