GELFAND: Set Your Eyes to Zion

Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

March Madness is finally upon us, and, like spring, it somehow seems to be late this year. Perhaps this is because of February Madness, otherwise known as the White Plague. Maybe I’m overreaching. The actual Black Plague killed as many as 200 million people — or about the same as the number of Duke fans who routinely camp out night after night outside of Cameron Arena in hopes of scoring tickets.

That image should not inspire us. Although the Final Four will be played in our midst, there is no need to leave home. U. S. Bank Stadium for basketball? There’s not a good seat in the house.

The last thing we need these days is another Big Event that will cost taxpayers millions. Of course, we will get it all back in the form of Magic Money, otherwise known as the fantasy of economic impact. It’s kind of a trickle-down thing. Wink. Nod.

The tournament itself is another thing. That we gotta have.

In my cozy neighborhood, I am still traumatized by the image of Minnesota Man pushing his shovel down sidewalks of doom. These are seasoned professionals. They’ve mastered the look and have those ergonomic shovels with the S-curve on the handle. I’m never quite sure whether it’s an evolutionary phenomenon or simply a bad case of sciatica, but with or without a shovel, they walk and clear snow in the hunch position.

Anthropologists tell us that during the real plague, folks either barricaded themselves inside their hovels or simply were resigned to their fate and partied like it was 1399.

But 700 years later, medical advances have allowed us to survive most epidemics, even if we don’t actually believe in science. Finally, we can watch the NCAA tournament — all 67 games — from the comfort of our heavily mortgaged homes. Not that we can relax, because a busted bracket can chase you to the alternative reality of your choice faster than you can say “Lehigh.”

Remember 2012, when the Blue Devils lost to the Mountain Hawks in the first round? I do, because I had the Blue Devils to go all the way. And I spent the rest of the tournament binge-watching Breaking Bad. Which I hated.

If you’re watching the tournament just because you love the sport so much, I have nothing to offer. I like college basketball, but watching just to watch strikes me as weird, dysfunctional and probably unpatriotic.

So let’s talk first about the future book odds. If you have an off-shore account, you can get a bit more than 2-1 on Duke to win it all. Those are not good odds, but maybe Duke is that much better than everyone else. If so, I’d rather just take them against the spread in each game.

The problem here is that even with a roster full of McDonald’s All-Americans, Duke is heavily dependent on Zion Williamson. Yeah, some problem, right. I’ve watched him all year and I’ve done so many double-takes that I had to have my neck MRI’d. Damn, those things are loud. It’s like listening to Dick Vitale for 25 minutes.

You might recall that Williamson was injured in February (thanks to a shredded Nike) and missed six games. And that Duke was 3-3 in those games. Then he returned and, against a pretty good Syracuse team — the Orange are an eight-seed — all he did was make all 13 shots, grab 14 rebounds and record five steals. Twenty-nine points in all.

Full disclosure: that 3-3 Zion-less stretch included two losses to North Carolina, which would probably be a big favorite if not for Duke. But how do we know whether Williamson can withstand the grind of six games, two or three of which could be a challenge? For example, the second seed in their region (East) is Michigan State, which won the Big Ten tournament. What if he fouls out of any game past the second round? Plus, he could have a bad game, couldn’t he? Couldn’t he? (OK, maybe not.)

The fact is, we haven’t seen a player so dominant since the 1979 championship game, which featured two freaks of nature: Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. That was the most watched college game of all time. And that record might not survive this year’s tournament.

If Duke winds up playing, say, Gonzaga in the Final Four or North Carolina in the championship game, I would give up betting on the horses for, say, an entire week rather than miss those games. Gonzaga, despite getting crushed by a just barely ordinary St. Mary’s team in the West Coast Conference championship game, has the most interesting mix of talent this side of the Atlantic Coast Conference. And while a Duke-North Carolina game would be the fourth time this season those two have clashed, I wouldn’t care. Because they’re still the two best teams in the country and a 1-2 college hoops punch that could be the best ever.

North Carolina has something you rarely see in a Top Two team: three senior starters. They won’t be awed by the big stage after winning the championship two years ago.  If you hurry, you might get 10-1 on the Tar Heels to win it all. I’m not saying that’s a bargain, but I will admit to having made that wager. (I also bet a buck on Villanova at 50-1. Pretty good odds for a team that won the title twice in the past three years.)

Or you could get 500-1 odds on our Gophers to win the crown. Ironically, the Gophers finished below .500 in the Big Ten, but a buck is a small price to pay for demonstrating your loyalty.

Me, I’d save the buck. I doubt Minnesota will survive the first round. Minnesota opened as a five-point dog vs. Louisville.

That said, the selection committee displayed a cruel sense of humor by pitting the Gophers against the team that fired the father of Minnesota coach Richard Pitino. You might recall that came after a recruiting scandal that resulted in Rick Pitino losing his gig and Louisville’s 2013 championship being wiped off the records. Young Pitino had been an assistant coach at Louisville before the scandal, which only heightens the Shakespearean drama. Here we have filial loyalty, betrayal, revenge, and, because this is the modern version, Rick Pitino’s $40 million breach of contract lawsuit.

One bet I definitely would make is that father and son are, in one form or another, in an intense strategy session as we speak. The old man, now in exile, is said to be coaching in Greece, which happens to be the setting for The Bard’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That was a comedy. This drama is dead serious, kind of like Richard III except in this case it’s Richard II.

Mar 16, 2019; Charlotte, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils forward RJ Barrett (5) hugs forward Zion Williamson (1) after defeating the Florida State Seminoles in the ACC conference tournament at Spectrum Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

So our lads might have the benefit of a world-class coach’s expertise. Sadly, they will also have the disadvantage of that coach’s son on the bench.

What bothers me more is that getting into the tournament might be a curse in disguise. If history is any guide, young Pitino will gouge the U for millions more and yet another contract extension.

Pitino isn’t the new kid in town anymore. He’s now the mediocre coach of a mediocre team. Six years in, his boys have finished below .500 in the conference five times. But he’s already positioning for yet another contract extension and undoubtedly more money. He said this after learning that his team would be a 10-seed:

Per startribune.com: “Excited to be a part of the NCAA tournament again. Two out of the last three years is something that we’re really proud of. To be able to bounce back from all of those injuries, all the expectations of last year with five new players and injuries and adversity of our own this year … it showed great grit and toughness from our guys. Excited to be a part of it. This is what you dream of as a coach. I know these guys dream of it as players.”

Does this sound like the opening salvo in his never-ending contract negotiations? Is he congratulating his players or himself?

And it’s just as certain that the U will throw good money after bad money after bad money. Minnesota Mediocrity Syndrome never ends. Making the NCAA tournament is college basketball’s equivalent of those participation ribbons that six-year-olds get for playing t-ball. Where else can a coach be lavishly rewarded for guiding his team to a losing conference record?

In fact, the NCAA’s NET rankings, which were unveiled this year and touted as the ultimate formula for rating all D-1 teams, show the Gophers as the 61st best team in the USA. Which means that, after you throw in the terrible teams that get bids because they were the champions of horrible conferences, Minnesota shouldn’t even be playing in the tournament, let alone honored with a 10-seed.

I don’t mean to depress anyone — although those of us with mood disorders can always use a little company — but a first-round exit, even in the less-than-perfect world of the Pitinos, seems like an absurd reward in exchange for chaining fans to Our Richard until, say, 2025.

So be patient. And let’s look forward to that day in another six years when young Richard gets yet another contract extension. On that fine day, we will probably enjoy the hagiographic praise of our coach in a column written by the 105-year-old Sid Hartman. Because things don’t seem to change much in these parts.


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