Wednesday, April 17, 2013

"Basically, the mid-major universe imploded upon itself"...thoughts on Gonzaga and other college basketball non sequiturs

By now everyone's bracket has long been fucked and you're probably pissed off about losing your money in a tournament you knew would go your way because of your advanced college basketball insight. If you're a Washingtonian, you're especially screwed because our state's response to the sadly inconsistent Huskies and forever futile Cougars, the pure, white-hearted (and skinned, mostly) Gonzaga Bulldogs, wet the bed in the second round against Witchita State after promising a good shot at attending the last weekend. So with that in mind, instead of discussing basketball, let's sit down and think about exactly what the loss means, for Gonzaga, for the West Coast, for mid-majors, and for basketball in general.
When the Zags* lost, I panicked. And I'm still a little worried. The possible repercussions of this defeat stretch a lot farther than, I think, most basketball fans realize. The team was #1 in the nation, and Wichita, well, they were from Kansas. But man, the way all the non-Kelly Olynyks played the first half, Dorthy herself could have fucked around and gotten 10 points. Shit, even To-To could have snagged a couple of steals off the backcourt trapping of the tentative Stockton and Pangos. Honestly, for long stretches, Olynyk looked like the only guy who truly BELIEVED Gonzaga was the best team in the nation, and even then I wondered why he was letting Dwight Howard shoot his free throws. But I'm not here to trash the Zags on-court performance; we know now that Wichita State - possibly fueled by the Gonzaga win, possibly this good all along - has earned their Final Four ticket by wiping the floor with everyone. And Ohio State's score might have been closer, but the Gonzaga game was easily the closest, wire-to-wire, of the run. Gonzaga looked like winning for most of the second half. They played well all season and for long periods of the game. Plus, Olynyk (and Mike Hart rebounding wise) dominated! I'm more interested in the off-court effects.

*Even as a Washingtonian, I'm still confused as to whether or not I'm supposed to call them the Zags or the Bulldogs. I think both are appropriate, but which is the official mascot? It's definitely not Zogs, that's for sure.

First of all, how is Gonzaga going to respond? I hoped by getting Tim Donaghy to ref both of Wichita's next two games on their road to the championship, though that fell through. More likely, they'll be forced to rebuild somewhat. They will likely lose their entire frontcourt, with Olynyk likely to land a lottery spot in the NBA draft and Harris and Hart graduating. My Gonzaga friends promise me that a wonderful transfer small forward has just completed a redshirt season and will be grabbing an immediate rotation role. That will help. So will the added maturity of Pangos, Bell and that big Polish bastard. But it won't be the same.

Will high-level recruits still be drawn to Gonzaga? My feeling is yes, probably, though I'm not sure I'd be saying that without Wichita's continued dominance. The University of Washington captured a #1 seed in the 2005 tournament on the strength of Brandon Roy, Nate Robinson, Will Conroy and Tre Simmons, but slipped to Louisville in the Sweet 16. After Roy's departure, the program has been scrambling to recover. Whether that's a recruiting issue or simply indicative of the HUGE slide in quality West Coast college basketball has experienced the last few years I simply can't say. But I know the program hasn't been the same.

Gonzaga, though, is still top of the line in their particular field; mid-majors that really compete and get players exposure. The casual fan may overlook this, but any truly serious basketball player is constantly worried about how the program they choose will land them in the NBA. Obviously excellence is the easiest route, but dominant performances combined with frequent TV appearances, the head coach's NBA connections and, of course, a long tournament run. Now let's assume Kelly Olynyk gets selected in the lottery and succeeds as an inside-out big in the next couple of years. Now, prospects see that Coach Few can get not only get them into the NBA, they can play well there! Remember that Gonzaga's NBA potential was briefly destroyed by Adam Morrison's career.this could be their upswing. Guys will still see Gonzaga as a place to get noticed, although the possibility of them launching into the top bracket of programs is long gone. Had the team strolled into the Final Four, then we're suddenly discussing a potentially top ten basketball college in the country. Alas.

But even if Gonzaga weathers the storm, the West Coast Conference won't be so lucky.

16-0. That was Gonzaga's conference record. That was what got them the top spot, nationally.

16-0. While they were creaming (and creaming on) the San Franciscos of the world, Duke was struggling through the challenging ACC.

Six. Teen. And. Oh.

How bad does the WCC look now?

Really? Not a single win against Gonzaga. Not one! And now the conference appears to have slowed Gonzaga's progress. It looks as if the Zags couldn't knock out Wichita because their schedule softened them to the reality of competition. And I agree, to some degree it did. It was a weak year for the WCC, especially compared to last season, where three teams made the NCAA tournament and San Francisco and LMU both played in other postseason competitions.

But not this year!

How are the other schools supposed to recruit now? Based on the privilege of playing Gonzaga twice a year? Not going to cut it. What coaches will jump ship on their current programs to latch on to WCC teams? It's a tragedy, for a small, efficient conference full of beautiful schools to look so poor in front of the country. The biggest losers of this situation are the members of Gonzaga's conference, who stood out nationally for looking incompetent as the Bulldogs lost to Wichita. And fans want their school to branch out and find a more competitive conference, once that could keep them ready for the NCAA tournament. That, my friends, would be the biggest loss of all.

Maybe next year will bring a revolutionary season that erases all memories of the Zag dominance (an LMU Final Four appearance, perhaps?). But most likely, this is a devastating blow to the WCC.

Now comes the most difficult prediction: was this upset a win or loss for mid-major conferences? It's the ultimate paradox, if you think about it: Gonzaga, the darling of mid-majors, the Mecca of overachieving, on the doorstep of solidified greatness and the shedding of the mid-major label, falls to, ironically enough, a less-known, less-established mid-major (that's a lot of hyphens, damn). On the bright side - (whoops, another hyphen. My bad) Wichita State's win proves the long-term effect of the late-1990s Gonzaga teams, showing that mid-majors everyone can succeed and Dan Dickau deserves a statue outside every small school with big dreams (just kidding). The slipper still fits, although maybe it fits someone besides the Bulldogs now. On the darker end on things, the opportunity for ultimately credibility is gone. Retrospectively, Boise State's Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma still hasn't done enough to convince the general public that they deserve to compete with SEC teams for a national championship. So when Gonzaga got a number 1 seed, it was the first time in major collegiate sports that a smaller school was given the full benefit of the doubt with the chance to defend it. And they failed to. The knock-on is that pundits now have a fresh-in-mind example of why NOT to succumb to a mid-major's hype. Sure, they'll think, small schools spring occasional upsets (like Wichita), but there's no reason to think a little program can consistently overturn larger schools. Why should we put our faith in them? Basically, the mid-major universe imploded upon itself. But recruits who don't get the respect they think they warrant will still believe that mid-majors represent a good opportunity for themselves to get noticed. In fact, the mid-major institution, though missing the graduation of its star student (taking sports management classes at a small, Catholic school, of course), added a couple of promising new pupils this tournament, specifically Wichita State and Florida Gulf Coast, which stands the most to gain on a beach-ridden campus that's almost assuredly littered with gorgeous women. The mid-majors will be ok.

My opinion, when boiled down, is that Gonzaga's program will not suffer much from this. Its West Coast Conference opposition, however, probably will, and the Santa Claras and San Diegos of the world should anticipate a recruiting drag until Gonzaga, St. Mary's or BYU can manage another big run. The mid-major idea remains as healthy as even with Wichita's defeat of the most vaunted mid-major of all and subsequent Final Four run. And Kelly Olynyk will be a lottery pick (most likely). This was more of a missed opportunity than a step backwards. Maybe they'll move forward another year.

Other thoughts...
Broken Legs
I couldn't believe how long news about Kevin Ware's leg injury stayed relevant. It was a bad injury, sure. For many, it may have been the worst they've ever witnessed. But it's still just an injury, a freak one at that. Maybe that's where some of the appeal comes from; I was discussing this with my boy Quan, and we decided something must have been wrong with that leg already. People around the world, athletic or not, make that same play day after day on basketball courts everywhere. And yet this is the first example I've ever seen of a leg simply snapping like that. So, being the medical experts that we are, we concurred on Quan's suggestion that Ware must have been playing through a small fracture of some sort prior to the break. There's just no other way that play happens. But why are we talking about it? Why is he getting so much attention? I don't mean to be a dick about this at all, I'm just confused. Sounders fans will remember Steve Zakuani's leg break from a few seasons ago (the gruesome video is here, though your sports injury tolerance has probably risen since seeing Ware's break). That sparked a debate on player safety. But there's nothing else to talk about with Ware. Good luck recovering, if you come back as fast as Zakuani we'll see you around in about 18 months. But that's all.
You Cocksuckers! I'm going to send you to Puget Sound Community College!
Mike Rice's behavior towards his players made us all uncomfortable, some more than others. But think back to any figure of authority you've had with a quick temper, and tell me, honestly, that you didn't see shades of that in his "performance". I'm not here to condone homophobic language or the projectilation of basketballs; I'm just saying I'm not particularly surprised by it. I've heard some horror stories. The way these coaches talk to their student-athletes can be unbelievable. This was just a far more public example of it. I just read through Bill Simmons' article on Performance Enhancing Drugs, a culture everyone knows exists but refuses to really think about. Well, I'd argue that the Mike Rice video is simply a notice to most of the universe of sports fans that these things do happen, and they either need to be accepted or changed for the fulfillment of our cognitive dissonance (shout out Dr. Fingerhut). And now there are reports that Rutgers' director of basketball operations, the whistleblower, attempted to extort money from the school, blackmailing them with the video. If that's the case, then just about anyone with a cell phone who wanders into a college basketball gym during practice can learn the tricks of the trade of extortion. It's just something that happens. Maybe it isn't everywhere, but it happens. A lot.
2013 NBA Draft
So if I'm Orlando, probable holders of the top draft pick in this summer's ritual (especially considering the NBA will be on their side after they traded Dwight Howard and ended up with Vucevic, Afflalo, and a complimentary broken ligament from Kobe Bryant), I'm probably taking Ben McIlmore, the general consensus top pick, over Nerlens Noel, my personal favorite player in the draft, just because I've already got a couple of young bigs and McIlmore is pretty damn good. But let's say the Bobcats have the second pick, which they're mathematically assumed to obtain. Do you really want to pair Noel with Bismack Biyombo? What, exactly, could those two, sharing the court, do offensively? Sure they'll block a ton of shots, but they won't be able to score any, either. They don't make sense together, unless Charlotte has plans to deal one of them away. I can't imagine they'd skip over Noel's potential, especially after drafting the solid-but-not-spectacular Michael Kidd-Gilchrist last year. But there's no way they can play Biyombo with him. They'd pack the paint on offense as well as defense! They'd be the shitty version of the Grizzlies! Let's hope they figure something else out.

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