March Madness Musings
As always, there are a lot of interesting story lines emanating from the NCAA Basketball Tournament.
Dawkins Destroys Duke Dreams (Almost!): Former Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins led his UCF team to the brink of one of the biggest upsets in college basketball annals yesterday. The game was one of the most exciting I’ve seen in a long while.
The ninth-seeded Knights had No. 1 overall seed Duke on the ropes with a three-point lead and 15 seconds to go. But the Blue Devils escaped when superstar Zion Williamson scored and was fouled, teammate RJ Barrett rebounded the missed free throw and made a put-back to put Duke up by one, and then a tip-in by Dawkins’ son, Aubrey (who was sensational with 32 points) somehow rolled out.
The game was very emotional one for Dawkins and Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Dawkins had been Coach K’s top assistant for 10 years before becoming head coach at the Farm. His Stanford teams made it to the Big Dance only once in eight years, leading to his firing in March of 2016. Dawkins was hired by UCF eight days after his dismissal and his son soon transferred in from Michigan.
Like most of America, I wanted that tip-in to fall.
Cheaters’ Bracket: The NCAA Midwest Region can rightfully be termed the “cheaters’ bracket.” All four coaches previously headed programs that were penalized by the NCAA for rules violations.
Auburn’s Bruce Pearl (Tennessee), Houston’s Kelvin Sampson (Oklahoma, Indiana), Kentucky’s John Calipari (Massachusetts, Memphis) and North Carolina’s Roy Williams (Kansas) have all been sanctioned.
I’m a big believer in second chances, but these guys are all repeat offenders. It’s particularly galling in the cases of Pearl and Sampson, who were guilty of major infractions and lied repeatedly during the course of the various investigations. Their offenses were so egregious that both received the NCAA’s dreaded “show cause” penalty, which means the penalties against them would be transferred to any school that hired them during the show cause period (five years in Sampson’s case, three in Pearl’s).
So Sampson coached in the NBA for five years before landing his job at Houston, and Pearl worked as a TV commentator before re-surfacing at Auburn. He quickly got in trouble again, with two of his assistants implicated in NCAA violations. These guys rarely change.
Pardon me if I have trouble finding a rooting interest in the Midwest.
Ducks Divine: Last week I chided the Pac-12 for another down year in basketball, resulting in only three invitations to the NCAA Tournament, one of them a play-in game.
But being a West Coast guy, and impressed by Oregon’s four straight wins in the Conference Championship, I went for the Ducks in a big way in my two tournament brackets. I had them going to the Sweet Sixteen in bracket 1, which they’ve now accomplished, and beating Virginia to advance to the Elite Eight in No. 2.
Guard Payton Pritchard is one of the guttiest, most exciting players in the game, Kenny Wooten is a shot-blocker extraordinaire, and Coach Dana Altman is one of the best in the country. A win over No. 1 seed Virginia this weekend would be sweet redemption for the Pac-12 and make a lot of people forget the regular season doldrums.
Money Pit: The Ducks’ success has also paid significant dividends for the Pac-12 coffers. The NCAA’s $1 billion TV contract pays out money to participating conferences on the basis of “units” equivalent to the number of tournament games played by that conference’s teams. Each unit from this year's tourney reportedly will be worth about $1.8 million, paid out over the next six years, or roughly $150,000 for each of the 12 schools in the Pac-12.
With Oregon’s third game guaranteed, plus the two each played by Washington and ASU (play-in games count), the Pac-12 now has accumulated seven units, worth a little over $1 million per school (paid out over time).
Change at Cal: With one player having announced his intention to transfer and several others apparently planning to exit, Cal Athletic Director Jim Knowlton had no choice but to fire head basketball coach Wyking Jones, who’d suffered through a pair of 20-loss seasons.
Two excellent choices would be UC Irvine coach Russell Turner, a former Stanford assistant, who led the Anteaters to a 31-6 record and the second round of this year’s NCAA tourney, and former Cal assistant Travis DeCuire, who has taken Montana to the Big Dance two years in a row.
Knowlton may be tempted to go after St. Mary’s coach Randy Bennett, who has turned the job down before and probably would do so again, or former Cal and NBA star Jason Kidd, who really is much more interested in a pro position, but for my money Turner or DeCuire would be a much better fit.