Yesterday, I posted the eight teams you should root for the most in this year’s Sweet 16. With games starting tonight, here’s the next eight. As a reminder, the top eight teams you should root for, in order, are Wichita State, Oklahoma, Arizona, Gonzaga, North Carolina State, Utah, Xavier, and Notre Dame.
Caution: hot takes.
9. North Carolina
“I have horrible taste in blazers blah blah blah”
I really don’t know what to say about this North Carolina team. I don’t like it, I don’t dislike it; I don’t think they’ve been particularly impressive, but on the other hand, they haven’t exactly been underwhelming either. As a team, they can’t shoot worth a lick, but the Heels feature a seemingly endless army of tall, variably athletic guys with overlapping skill sets. Recruiting guru approval only carried Carolina so far – there’s ridiculous Thad Matta-like consternation over the state of the program in recent years. Marcus Paige, the Heels’ go-to guy and only reliable shooter, hasn’t fulfilled All-American promise, and the rest of the team is still very young.
It’s perfectly fair to say that UNC acquitted themselves well this year despite failing to meet some of the loftiest annual expectations of any program in the country. Being among college basketball loyalty has its pluses and minuses: UNC has the facilities, financial resources, and recruiting cachet to remain forever stocked with talent – though this group seems starkly lacking in that there’s not a surefire NBA player in the whole bunch – but there’s the looming expectation that they have to remain extremely competitive in the ACC and must contend for Final Fours and National Championships.
Carolina finished 24-11 and fifth in the league, and although they managed a surprise run to the ACC Tournament final (where they lost to Notre Dame), they weren’t in the hunt for the regular season conference crown and were swept by their hated rival Duke, who has the future lottery picks and number one seed that Carolina envies. It’s tough.
Still, it’s not easy to feel bad for them. They’re still a four-seed and their front line of bouncy junior center Brice Johnson, burly sophomore power forward Kennedy Meeks (who is battling a knee injury), and lanky freshman swingman Justin Jackson will provide an interesting matchup against Wisconsin, though I think the Badgers have an advantage in each individual matchup. UNC isn’t a realistic Final Four contender – they’d need to beat Wisconsin and Arizona, a tall task for a teams that are far more well-rounded than UNC is.
Whatever. They’re nine.
The Monstars Kentucky
Karl-Anthony Towns is a national treasure and my goodness that young man can play some basketball.
[30 for 30 voice]
What if I told you, that in college basketball’s greatest bastion, in an era of increasing selfishness and commercialization, there was a group of young men who put aside their egos and banded together to play basketball The Right Way, with tenacious defense, egalitarian offense, and a desire to win, first and foremost, without any thought of personal gain.
That’s Kentucky. I’m not sure if they’re better than the Anthony Davis – Michael Kidd-Gilchrist Cats back in 2012 (who received the top overall seed and romped to a national title), but this iteration of Cal’s Wildcats are four games away from the first undefeated season in almost 40 years. They have future NBA stars – Karl-Anthony Towns, in addition to being a funny and kinda weird dude, should be the top overall pick in my opinion, and junior (junior!) center Willie Cauley-Stein projects to be a plus-plus defender and rim protector at the next level. On average, they play about 23 minutes per regulation game, because they’re backed up by more freakishly huge, athletic, and imposing big guys.
Because it’s Kentucky – home to college basketball’s answer to Alabama and Florida State’s football fanbases – and because the team is guided by John Calipari, a shameless self-promoter who inspires precious little confidence in he and his program’s ethical legitimacy, for reasons both fair and unfair, people don’t like Kentucky. That’s fine. That’s why I have them way down at #9.
BUT LOOK AT THE PLAYERS. The rotation is just stupidly deep and talented: UK’s two best guards (arguably, but in my opinion) are Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker, and they each come off the bench behind the Harrison twins, who were top ten prospects two years ago. Trey Lyles is 6’10 and slightly miscast as a small forward – he does play some power forward – but any offensive speed bumps are rendered inconsequential by Kentucky’s otherworldly defense. This team is insanely fun to watch and if these guys were coached by almost anyone else, they’d be celebrated.
It’s Kentucky and it’s Coach Cal though, so a legitimately fun and possibly historical outfit is side-eyed with suspicion. Instead of focusing on the negatives, let’s focus on the positives: these guys all came in with insane high school accolades and they eventually fit together as a team and fulfill whatever hokey platitudes about teamwork you’d like to throw out there. And they’re so damn good.
That’s my case for bumping up UK from the cellar of these rankings. I’ll be completely honest, the fanbase is spoiled rotten and Cal rubs me the wrong way too (even if I think exploiting the one-and-done loophole is good business and admirable in its own way). If they go undefeated, we’ll have to revisit this, but they’re a buzzsaw and we don’t get to watch teams play at this level in college basketball very often.
This is the second result for “Bo Ryan incredulous” on Google image search.
“But Alex, they’re in the Big Ten too! Conference camaraderie, right?” “You said yourself that this wasn’t a typical Wisconsin team in that they’re actually fun to watch on offense!” “I’d rather these guys win than say, Michigan State.” “I actually don’t mind Wisconsin.”
You know what, straw men? You’re wrong. Despite everything, it’s still Wisconsin – the Trohl Center; Bo Ryan’s ceaseless badgering (hah) of the refs; defense that borders on dirty until one of their generic white dudes sticks his foot under yours on a jump shot and then, you know what, it’s just straight up dirty; it’s Josh Gasser’s bank shot in Crisler, it’s Ben Brust’s heave in Madison, it’s everything that’s regressive and problematic about college hoops! (I actually don’t believe that last part, but I was on a roll).
I’ve never been a huge participant in the Great Conference Wars of college athletics, to be quite honest. I think that the SEC hivemind that stumps for their hated rivals in out-of-conference football games is absurdly warped and stupid. I think that, you know what, even if there’s tangible benefits to a team winning, I just might not like that team. That’s it. Wisconsin’s current team isn’t all that bad – Bronson Koenig has been an awesome surprise, Frank Kaminsky is obviously the dude, and Nigel Hayes is talented and endearing. But this Wisconsin team carries the ghost of all of their predecessors and the less enjoyable things that come with them. More than anything though, I don’t like Wisconsin because they’re good. It’s not really that much more complicated than that.
* * *
I do find myself in a quandary however. After each Badger win, this CBS guy Jon Rothstein tweets, verbatim, “Death. Taxes. Bo Ryan.” While I do enjoy that Bo Ryan is juxtaposed with each of those horrible things, it’s tired and roundly mocked on Twitter after Wisconsin victories. If Rothstein’s right though, what happens if we topple the great undead tax collector? Death and taxes would be vanquished forever!
Now, that sounds good, but let’s pause for a minute. If the unholy triumvirate of death, taxes, and Bo Ryan were to be defeated, we’d have immortality, 100% of our earnings, and no more Wisconsin in the tournament. Immortality sounds great, but it really would probably be the shittiest thing ever; taxes are an unfortunate necessity and our civilization would collapse completely without them. So, yeah, we need Bo Ryan to keep winning. And if Wisconsin manages to hoist the first national championship trophy in a decade-and-a-half for the Big Ten, so help me, I’m gonna stick another needle in my Bucky Badger voodoo doll.
This riff probably didn’t make any sense, and I’m sorry for that. Go Heels.
12. West Virginia
♫ Country Roads, take me home ♫
Since WVU is probably going to play Kentucky’s game and, in the process, try to debase the beauty of the game of basketball as much as they possibly can, I’m not really a fan. Perhaps I’m too aestheticist, but for the love of all that’s good and pure about hoops, I can’t stand West Virginia’s brand of basketball. Play physical defense and dare the ref to give you five fouls; run offense that can most generously be described as “rudimentary” and just chase offensive rebounds; and, really, play the most extreme form of defense possible – the Mountaineers are first nationally in forcing turnovers and worst nationally in allowing free throws. Get a steal or hack the shit out of someone. It’s ugly. It’s not fun. It’s West Virginia hoops! Bob Huggins just told his team to run Beilein’s offense when he got there because he didn’t want to install his own. I’m not a fan of Huggins, but that’s not really here nor there.
And, really, since they’re almost definitely going to lose to Kentucky, it’s not worth our time to discuss them much further.
Life’s not fair.
Firstly, UCLA probably should not have made the tournament in the first place. They were rewarded for testing themselves with a murderer’s row of a schedule, but only tallied one truly great win – over Utah at home. Colorado State and Temple, for example, probably should have gotten in ahead of the Bruins, and that UCLA missed out on playing one of the First Four games in Dayton was a complete joke. Their wins in the tournament don’t validate their inclusion – the committee had to work with the data available at the time and made the incorrect choice.
Beyond that though, UCLA was the beneficiary of the biggest officiating controversy of the tournament thus far. They led SMU comfortably in the 6 / 11 game in the Round of 64 before falling apart in the second half and the Mustangs led the Bruins by seven points with a minute and a half there. In all fairness, SMU completely collapsed down the stretch, but the game winning “three” – screenshotted above – came as a result of an incredibly dubious goaltending call. SMU’s Yanick Moreira went up for the rebound on a ball that was clearly off the mark by about a foot. The Mustangs bungled the subsequent possession and wound up losing by one, 60-59.
UCLA then dispatched 14-seed UAB easily in the Round of 32, setting up a rematch of the infamous “Adam Morrison crying” game with Gonzaga in the Sweet Sixteen.
They’re the worst team left in the field, per Kenpom, and quite frankly, they shouldn’t be here because of multiple reasons. Sorry, UCLA, but we’re going to hold that against you. Hopefully the Bulldogs exact Morrison’s revenge.
NO. THIS IS WRONG. NO. NOOOOOOOOOOO.
I was on the floor of the Georgia Dome for Michigan’s tragic defeat in the National Championship two years ago so it should really go without saying that I absolutely, unequivocally hate Louisville for that. That block was clean, dammit. The happiness in the picture above inversely correlated with my misery that fateful April night and I probably won’t be able to stop wondering what could have been if a few more possessions had gone our way.
That said, there’s more to hate about Louisville! I mentioned West Virginia’s brutish style above and Louisville is much of the same, except they have the recruiting ability to aspire to be something greater than that. Right now, Louisville might actually surpass the Mountaineers as the ugliest team left in the tournament – their offense is a mess without any spacing and each game of theirs seems to devolve into a 1980’s Big East bar fight. Montrezl Harrell is an exciting player who can dunk about as well as anybody in college basketball, but even he falls in love with terrible mid-range or three-point shots. Chris Jones, the most baffling and frustrating player on the team was kicked off the squad about a month ago.
On top of that, Rick Pitino’s often a grating figure – consider this wholly unnecessary attack towards a college kid in a press conference in response to a wholly reasonable question -- Papa John’s pizza sucks, and Louisville is and forever will be the little brother to Kentucky. Between their style and the championship game two years ago, watching Louisville’s been excruciating on more than one level. The Cards were fortunate to receive a lifeboat from the ACC after the dissolution of the Big East (and a brief purgatorial stay in the American Conference) and, unfortunately, between Pitino and conference relevance, Louisville doesn’t appear to be going anywhere any time soon.
Between the loss two years ago, Louisville’s brand of bully-ball, and Rick Pitino, it’s easy not to like Louisville.
15. Michigan State
January February IZZO April May June July August September October November December
Chances are, as a Michigan fan, you probably don’t like Michigan State. It’s alright – I don’t either (although I should note that there are plenty of amazing MSU fans that I interact with on Twitter on a regular basis. I know some of y’all are reading this so just know that it’s nothing personal – strictly business). And, to be quite frank, Michigan State’s success is bad for business, as far as Michigan’s concerned.
Predictably, the national media focused on East Lansing and fawned over Tom Izzo like he was the reincarnation of Dr. James Naismith himself – and the worst part is, you can’t really argue. Michigan State has become one of the premier programs in college basketball because of the Spartans’ success in March. It’s hard to admit, but it’s true. And it makes it even easier to resent them and pull hard against them, no matter the opponent.
As for the whole “Big Ten solidarity” thing: again, IT’S BAD FOR MICHIGAN IF MICHIGAN STATE MAKES A FINAL FOUR OR WINS A NATIONAL TITLE. Beilein and Izzo will be locked in some head-to-head recruiting battles over the next few cycles; highly-touted prospects will come down to a choice between Michigan and Michigan State. It’s not good for Michigan if MSU continues their surprise run through this NCAA Tournament, not even close.
And, of course, a lot of things really go without saying, but hey, why not go through one of them anyways. Let’s consider Michigan State’s fabled “Little Sister” chant as, well, somewhat microcosmic, a clever commentary on what happens when the hegemonic gaze is refocused back at the one who gazes… hah no, it’s just a terribly uncreative, reactionary chant that reeks of misogyny and an inferiority complex. “It’s an isolated thing,” you say. Not when the whole student section chants it. Way to go, guys. Hearing that at Crisler after they punked us at our own place made my blood boil. State absolutely hates us and they’re under our skin, definitely, especially considering their recent run of football dominance.
Of course, there are plenty of great Spartan fans out there, and for them, I wish nothing but the best – save for a humbling loss at the hands of my Oklahoma Sooners. And for all the recent sports success in East Lansing, it’s only natural to become anxious – when will something go wrong? Not this year, as State exceeded every expectation and made the Sweet Sixteen… so let’s just hope they won’t go any further.
Duke’s last. It’s a principle thing.