NCAA BK

Forget its flaws, I love the tourney

Image (from left to right): Miami's Julian Gamble & Trey McKinney Jones (© Jim Cowsert/USA TODAY Sports)
Whitlock: My money's on 100-to-1 long shot Miami.
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Jason Whitlock

Jason Whitlock writes about the sports world from every angle, including those other writers can't imagine or muster courage to address. His columns are humorous, thought-provoking, agenda-free, honest and unpredictable. E-mail him, follow his Twitter or become a fan of Jason Whitlock on Facebook.

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LAS VEGAS

Damn straight I’m an NCAA tournament/March Madness hypocrite.

Yes, it’s possible to think the tourney has lost some of its luster while still enthusiastically making the trek to the Big Dance mecca to party like it’s 1999.

That’s right. I posted up all weekend at the MGM Grand casino, the Promised Land for all bracketeers, gambling degenerates and men with weekend passes.

One reason, beyond the advent of big-screen, HD TVs and man caves, the tournament arenas have empty seats is because hardcore sports fans figured out a weekend in Vegas taking in all the games is far superior to a weekend in Kansas City watching a mediocre Villanova squad battle a mediocre North Carolina squad for the privilege of getting curb-stomped by Kansas inside Phog Allen East (Sprint Center).

There’s also pretty much no chance of a foot of snow falling in Vegas during the last week of March. While it was snowing in Kansas City, the MGM opened its remodeled Wet Republic pool on Friday. Advantage: Vegas.

Just because the tournament and college basketball can be improved doesn’t mean they’re broken. I love the tournament. And, in all candor, I love this year’s tournament the most. I took bracketeering to its highest level this season.

On Jan. 23, I just happened to be sitting inside the MGM sports book when Miami blasted then-No. 1 Duke by 27 points. I watched the game from start to finish, listened to the ESPN broadcasters describe Miami’s senior-laden roster and began wondering about the Hurricanes’ odds to win the whole tournament. The 'Canes were 14-3 with losses to Florida Gulf Coast, Arizona and Indiana State at the time.

The next morning, I asked Greg, one of the sports book managers, for an updated sheet with tournament odds.

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The team that just beat Duke by four touchdowns, the team with a bunch of seniors and Shane Larkin, the team with the Cinderella-experienced coach, Jim Larranaga, was a 100 to 1!

Are you kidding me? I could drop a C-note and have a chance to win $10,000 if a team that whipped Duke could win six games in March in a single-elimination tournament among equals.

I dropped a Ben Franklin. I felt so good about the bet that I bought the cashiers at the sports book a $20 ticket.

You might hear me whine about the lack of great teams and great players in college basketball and you might hear me bitch that the tournament isn’t as good as it used to be, but you won’t hear me say the tournament isn’t a gambler’s paradise. This is heaven or the closest thing to it.

And let’s take a moment to praise the fine, upstanding referees — Doug Shows, Antinio Petty and Gary Maxwell — who called the Illinois-Miami contest on Sunday. These gentlemen did an outstanding job. Outstanding!

On a serious note, too much is being made of the “controversial” scramble for the ball that appeared to go out of bounds off the hand of Miami’s Kenny Kadji in the final 30 seconds. The 'Canes were up two points at the time. The call was crucial, giving the ball back to Miami and forcing Illinois to foul. Miami won by four points.

If there is no HDTV, slow-motion replay, this call isn’t nearly as controversial. We want referees to be perfect. They can’t be. It was a bang-bang play, a 60-40 call the baseline ref apparently missed.

“You saw the same replay I did,” Illinois coach John Groce quietly complained.

The baseline ref did not see an HDTV, slow-motion replay. And if he had, I don’t think there was enough evidence to overturn the call. The replay was somewhat inconclusive. That’s not my $10,000 Miami ticket talking. That’s objectivity.

HDTV and Twitter have changed the way we watch sports. The perfect TV picture makes us want perfect officiating. And Twitter encourages our outrage when we don’t get perfection from imperfect human beings.

The last-minute block/charge call — that was ruled a charge — in the Iowa State-Ohio State game is another example of Twitter outrage fueling national outrage. That was a classic 50-50 call that went to Ohio State. Rather than marvel at Aaron Craft’s clutch 3-pointer to win the game, most of the postgame conversation centered on Craft’s right heel being above the restricted line on the block-charge call.

I’m sorry. I’m getting lost in the details. The point of this column is to admit my hypocrisy on the NCAA tournament. I bashed it last week and then hit Las Vegas to bask in the tournament’s glory.

The tournament is like a longtime girlfriend or boyfriend. You still love it, but you’re now well aware of its flaws.

I fell in love with the tournament in 1990 while a student at Ball State University. Rick Majerus $muggled two kids from Detroit — Paris McCurdy and Curtis Kidd — and a Michigan transfer (Billy Butts) to Muncie, Ind., and turned the Cardinals into a two-year powerhouse. Unfortunately, Majerus left for Utah before their senior season. Dick Hunsaker coached the 1990 team.

A team that should have lost one or two regular-season games — Ball State finished 29-3 in Majerus’ final season — lost six, received a 12 seed and wound up in the same region as the all-time great UNLV squad. Ball State locked up player of the year Gary Payton (11 points) and beat Oregon State in the first round. The Cardinals advanced to the Sweet Sixteen by upsetting No. 4 seed Louisville.

 

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Twenty-three years ago, Ball State was Florida Gulf Coast. I’ll never forget the feelings of elation and pride when we made the Sweet Sixteen. I’ll never forget the beer we consumed that day and night and the spontaneous, drunken riot that took place in the Ball State “village.”

It is, without a doubt, my greatest sports memory. I think about it more often than captaining a football state championship in high school. I think about it more fondly than any football game I played in in college. It’s a slightly better memory than any of Reggie Miller’s playoff performances against the Knicks.

The NCAA tournament is the gold standard. It’s weird. Being a fan of a college basketball team that makes a tournament run is more memorable than the stuff I did myself. Three or four times a year, I get in a deep conversation with somebody about the 1990 Ball State basketball team and how we should have beaten UNLV and advanced to the Elite Eight.

This weekend in Las Vegas, I had dinner with Scott Nichols, the point guard of that Ball State squad. His backup, Mike Spicer, turned down a would-be game-winning 3-pointer in the final seconds against UNLV. We lost by two points. Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony won their other five tournament games by a combined 110 points, an average margin of 22 points.

Man, I want a new No. 1 NCAA tournament moment to remember.

Please let it be Miami winning it all in 2013 and me cashing a $10,000 ticket.

Tagged: Ohio State, Illinois, Duke, Ball State, Kansas, UNLV

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