It was a spectacular weekend of basketball, sullied only by Tiger Woods deciding to pull an A-Rod by showing up un-announced and un-invited in the middle of the NCAA basketball tournament to give his first two, ‘interviews,’ since the morning of November 27th.
Let’s dispense with Tiger first because it won’t take long. He said absolutely nothing new. This was nothing more than another staged step in the ‘Tiger Over America Image-Rehab Tour.’ Although Golf Channel reported Sunday night that Ari Fleischer was leaving ‘Team Tiger,’ (maybe because people are catching on to his act) this had his fingerprints all over it.
Hand-pick two interviewers: in this case Golf Channel’s Kelly Tilghman and ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi and tell them they have exactly SIX minutes on camera. That makes follow-up virtually impossible, allowing Woods to duck and weave whenever specific questions were asked. He’s always been good at talking in generalities and now he’s added, “that’s private,” to his arsenal.
So, he essentially said nothing. He repeated that his behavior was ‘disgusting,’; said it all happened because he quit meditating and got away from Buddhism (seriously) and said he loved his wife very much.
Specifics? Forget it. What are you in rehab for?—a legitimate question since he brings it up every 30 seconds—that’s private. What happened on the morning of November 27th?—legit again because he insists that Elin never did anything to him and those who said she did are lying—it’s all in the police report. No, not exactly. What’s your schedule like the rest of the year after Augusta?—don’t know. Of course he knows, he knows EXACTLY what he’s going to be doing on July 18th at 10:48 a.m. That’s who he is.
You know what—it’s fine. At this point I think 99 percent of us simply don’t care anymore. Just tee it up and go play Tiger. Except one thing: don’t tell us you’ve changed. You’re still an absolute control freak; you still got yourself logo’ed up for your 12 minutes on camera; you still are the king of dodge-ball on almost any subject and you’re still dictating terms to anyone and everyone who is willing to let you dictate.
Yes, you are still Tiger Woods. Go win The Masters and a bunch more majors; go sell yourself to a public that no doubt will be willing to be sold. But don’t tell us you’ve changed. Maybe—MAYBE—you can change your on-course behavior. That would be a step in the right direction. Maybe you can sign more than 12 autographs a year. That would be progress.
Okay, now for the important stuff that happened this weekend. Let’s start with the three teams I’d most like to see at The Final Four: Cornell, Northern Iowa and St. Mary’s. Each is a great story in a different way.
The Northern Iowa-Kansas game was one of the wildest and most entertaining games—not to mention stunning—I’ve seen in years. The Panthers were rock solid for about 36 minutes and then, when they had the upset in their sights, they woke up and realized where they were. Suddenly, they couldn’t get the ball inbounds. I actually found myself thinking, ‘this is going to be the game Kansas looks back on as the key moment of the year when it cuts down the nets in Indy.’
Wrong again. Ali Farokhmanesh hit one of the all-time gutsy shots with the lead down to 63-62 and Northern Iowa held on. As my friend Tom Brennnan, the former Vermont coach said later, “there are going to be an amazing number of kids named Ali in Iowa in the next couple of years.”
I had the chance to talk to Northern Iowa Coach Ben Jacobsen on the weekly radio show I’m doing during the tournament and I asked him what went through his mind when Farokemanesh launched the shot. His answer, I thought, was interesting: “I figured we had a better chance with Ali taking the shot than trying to dribble the clock for 20 seconds and probably getting trapped again.”
You have to feel for Bill Self and his players. They had a spectacular season but their year will be defined by the loss on Saturday. That’s the way college basketball works. For all the paeans being sung to Maryland’s Greivis Vasquez and his gutty teammates here in the DC area today, the bottom line is they didn’t make the Sweet 16. And, even though the Vasquezites are saying he’s one of the best five players in Maryland history the stat the matters most is this: wins. In four years, Vasquez played on Maryland teams that won three NCAA Tournament games and never got to the second weekend.
Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter—comparable because they played in the same era as Vasquez, unlike guys like John Lucas, Len Elmore, Tom McMillen, Albert King, Buck Williams, Len Bias and Walt Williams to name a few—won 13 tournament games, played in two Final Fours and won a national title.
Don’t get me wrong. Vasquez had a fabulous year. He deserved ACC player-of-the-year and he hit a bunch of big shots, including the one that gave Maryland the lead on Sunday with six seconds left. And you can’t criticize him for shooting too soon because when you’re down one you need to get a shot up and hope for a rebound if you miss.
But let’s not overstate all this. The Terrapins got into a habit of falling too far behind and figuring their press would bail them out. Often, it did. In postseason—Georgia Tech and Michigan State—it almost did. But almost doesn’t count. On the other hand, they got a lot closer to the Sweet 16 than Georgetown did.
Back to the Cinderellas. If you think Cornell is a fluke, look again. If the Big Red did nothing else this weekend they proved without any doubt that the committee must have been watching another team when it evaluated them and thought they were a No. 12 seed. Their two wins over Temple and Wisconsin, both solid, very well-coached teams, were dominating. In 80 minutes of basketball they trailed for, I think, about one minute. Their margins were 13 and 18 and in both cases they backed off at the finish because the deed was done.
Look, I’m not insane enough to say they’ll beat Kentucky. But I do think it will be a great basketball game. Maybe Kentucky will be too athletic for Cornell over 40 minutes. But one thing I’m pretty sure of is this: Cornell won’t be intimidated. This is a team that’s already played at Kansas and at Syracuse—where this game will be played with a lot of the crowd pulling for the underdog. I just wish it wasn’t tipping off at some time after 10 o’clock—God sometimes I hate CBS—because it means I’ll be up way past my bedtime—but I can’t wait to see it.
Finally: A few words on different conferences. The Pac-10 proved me completely wrong this past weekend and I attribute it to me being silly enough to write the league off because it was lousy in pre-conference play. Teams DO get better—all credit to Washington for what it did and to Cal, which couldn’t handle Duke’s defense, but dominated Louisville.
As for The Big East and the ACC, well, as Ricky Ricardo used to say to Lucy: they’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do. The Big East advanced two of eight teams to the second week. That said, I think both Syracuse and West Virginia are capable of making Indy and if they do all will be well as far as the folks in Providence are concerned.
As for the ACC? ONE team still playing, meaning it matched the Ivy League, The Missouri Valley and the WCC—among others. In fact, here’s a stat worth considering: In the last five seasons, the Missouri Valley has placed four different schools in the sweet sixteen: Bradley, Wichita State, Southern Illinois and now Northern Iowa. During those same five years the ACC—with a LOT more bids—has played THREE of its schools in the sweet sixteen: North Carolina, Duke and Boston College.
Think about that for a minute. Then call the ACC offices in Greensboro, ask to speak to John Swofford and say this: So how’s that football expansion working out for you John?