Monday is the longest day at The Final Four.
It is really all about waiting since the championship game doesn’t start until 9:21—why the heck it can’t just be 9:20 I’m not sure—but regardless there is a lot of time to kill.
The USBWA has its awards brunch in the morning and then the Hall of Fame announces its inductees right after that. I refuse to go to the Hall of Fame press conference (although I’m glad that long-time St. Anthony’s Coach Bob Hurley is going in) because I object to the secretive nature of the Hall’s voting system and the fact that the NBA has completely taken over the process and the Hall of Fame itself.
This year not a single college coach is going in. No Lefty Driesell, no Guy Lewis, no Jim Phelan—among others. It’s a joke and you can’t complain to the 24 voters because their identities are a deep, dark secret. The Hall says it is so they won’t be lobbied—which is garbage. If you have the privilege of voting you should be able to withstand any lobbying if you think someone isn’t worthy. And, under any circumstances, you should have to publicly stand behind your vote.
So, I have no interest in the Hall of Fame or its press conference. On the other hand I guess I could go and ask them embarrassing questions but I’ve already done that once this week in a press conference and that’s enough for me.
We can also kill some time today watching The Tiger Woods press conference. The only reason I’ll be watching is because I have to on ‘Golf Channel,’ afterwards and talk about it. I expect another lecture on Buddhism and meditation and someone in a green jacket to jump in and say, ‘golf questions only please,’ if someone strays into a question deemed ‘personal,’ in any way. (Maybe someone can ask Tiger if he thinks the NCAA Tournament is really about the ‘student-athletes,’ or if he’s as sick of that tired song as the rest of us. Heck, we might even agree on something for a change).
When the title game does finally begin tonight, I expect a great game. If people haven’t figured out yet how good Butler is then they’re missing the boat entirely. Was the Bulldogs win on Saturday over Michigan State pretty to watch? No. But this isn’t about style points and Butler, even with point guard Shelvin Mack and center Matt Howard both missing most of the last few minutes, managed to hang on and win. I’m hoping both are okay to play tonight. The last thing you want in a championship game is either team missing a key player.
The Butler kids are having fun and they ARE fun. Saturday night, when guard Ronald Nored—who made two critical free throws with six seconds left—was asked about the team’s tradition of patting the REAL Bulldog mascot on the head after being introduced he said this: “It’s part of what we do. Sometimes he barks, sometimes he bites but you gotta play through it.”
How good a line is that?
When Gordon Hayward, who plays the role of Jimmy Chitwood in this version of ‘Hoosiers,’ was asked if he had gotten a piece of the ball on Draymond Green’s last shot that came with Butler leading 52-49, he smiled the perfect ‘aw-shucks,’ grin and said. “I might have gotten a piece of the ball. Or I might have gotten a piece of his arm.”
The Duke kids aren’t nearly as fun or as funny—at least not in public—as the Butler kids. Combine that with their reputations as college basketball’s bad guys (which in most ways other than the fact that they win a lot isn’t deserved) and it is easy to understand why everyone in the country who doesn’t have a Duke affiliation will be pulling for Butler.
It also explains why CBS is over-the-moon about this matchup. It’s ‘Hoosiers,’; it’s a Cinderella story; it’s the white hats vs. the black hats; it’s the team you have to love against the team people love to hate. Ratings gold.
Duke is playing very well right now. It has gotten better, much better, since the start of the season. The Blue Devils play airtight defense—so does Butler—and if they have a night like Saturday when all of their so-called Big Three are on, they are very tough to beat. Saturday, Kyle Singler, whose shot was MIA against Baylor (zero-for-10) was eight-of-16, had nine rebounds and played superb defense on West Virginia’s Da’Sean Butler until Butler went down with a knee injury with 8:59 to go. Duke was up 15 at the time and Butler’s injury basically ended any thought that West Virginia might come back.
I just hate to see a kid end his college career like that. Butler, who is an absolute class act, sat in the locker room and answered questions after the game was over. Let me tell you something, if you didn’t like this West Virginia team, you were missing something.
That’s the nice thing about this Final Four: these are four very likeable teams. Oh sure, the Duke-haters have to do their thing and that’s par for the course. There was a lot of hoo-ha about a silly cartoon that appeared for one edition in The Indianapolis Star on Friday that depicted Mike Krzyzewski as ‘the devil,’ but that really wasn’t close to the dumbest thing said or written. That came from some guy in The Miami Herald who wrote a column claiming (among other things) that Krzyzewski, ‘faked,’ his back injury in 1995. No doubt he has access to the medical records that prove Krzyzewski ‘faked,’ the surgery he had for the back. I also know for a fact that the only thing that got him to go to the hospital and stop coaching was his wife Mickie telling him she was ready to leave him because he was killing himself by not getting medical help.
You see, it’s fine to criticize Krzyzewski. I wrote a column in The Post Saturday kind of lampooning his one-time animus for Dean Smith and how that’s changed over the years. Everyone knows I’m not exactly tight with my alma mater—in fact the Duke basketball website sometimes makes fun of me for being critical of Duke.
But the sometimes-crazed hatred of Krzyzewski makes no sense. It comes 99.99 percent of the time from people who’ve never met him. As Mickie once eloquently said, “I know the life my husband’s led and he doesn’t deserve the hatred that’s been aimed at him.”
She’s right. Tonight though, Duke will be wearing a black hat in a way it has perhaps never worn it before. Butler would be America’s Sweethearts regardless of the opponent tonight. They deserve to be in that role but let’s remember one thing: They aren’t here because they’re nice kids or because their 33-year-old coach (Brad Stevens) doesn’t look old enough to shave. They’re here because they’re a damn good basketball team that has already beaten Syracuse, Kansas State and Michigan State.
If the Bulldogs win it will be the best story we’ve seen in this tournament since Texas Western won in 1966—although for entirely different reasons. Those who shrug off the notion that Butler is Cinderella simply because it has been good for many years and was a No. 5 seed miss the point entirely.
Duke, like Michigan State and West Virginia, has all the advantages that schools from the power conferences have: money to recruit; money for top-notch facilities; money from TV; exposure from TV; a highly-thought of conference to pitch to players and the ability to buy eight-to-10 wins a year playing guarantee games at home.
Butler has none of that. It has a great old gym with an amazing history but that’s about it. The Bulldogs play in The Horizon League. Quick, name four Horizon League teams. They ARE Cinderella and if they win tonight you can throw every melodramatic cliché you can think of in their direction and you will be right.
I expect a very dramatic night. And to say I can’t wait for it to get started is a massive understatement.