The Final Four field has finally been set, and now a nation's worth of second-rate sportswriters, well-shaved TV talking heads, and self-appointed experts will descend upon Indianapolis like a pack of neurologically challenged wolves who have been genetically engineered to only act on their base impulses up to the PG-13 level, and will drink large amounts of beer, eat massive piles of chicken and pig parts dripping in vague reddish/orange sauces, and keep the parking lots at all Hooters-style establishments clogged with econo-class rental sedans. And in between these personal parades of self-indulgences, they will have to justify their existence by mailing in commentaries and articles and special interest pieces about this year's Final Four basketball teams. So rather than prepare you for the tournament itself this early in the week, as you digest all this other nonsense, let me prepare you for the onslaught of uncreative bullshit you that will be forced upon you in the build-up to the actual games next Saturday evening out in Indianapolis.
Obviously, the Butler Bulldogs scratching their way across the bracket into the Final Four, which is being held about an hour's walk from their campus, is the big story. This is not a Big Ten or Big East major college program, so although it's been ranked consistently in the Top 25 all year long, has the longest winning streak of any Division I team going, and confidently picked up off both the #1 (Syracuse) and #2 (Kansas State) seeds in their region to earn the trip, they are being heralded as the Greatest Underdog to Ever Underdog a Tournament, and the first Cinderella of our epic times who might actually end up marrying the prince by winning the title. And great zarathustra, the comparisons to Hoosiers we will be bombarded with, and already have been even at this early stage! Everybody wants to make believe this is Hoosiers come to life, by the magic of March Madness, and this is a pack of small town farmboys who grew up shooting hand-me-down homemade basketballs wrapped in homemade leather through old tractor tires attached to the tobaccey barn with lead nails, and they could only do this in between their chores, which took precedence to book learning, which makes it even more amazing these kids all ended up together magically in a college environment, to achieve the impossible together.
Fact of the matter is, no collection of players at even the mid-major Division I level is a collection of undiscovered gems that the college coach found draining 3-pointers beside a barn along an untravelled backroad because he had to pull over to take a piss. These were all high school phenoms, just maybe not the nationally touring variety you get at major programs who can cherry pick the superstars into their superior facilities. The kids at Butler were all prominent players in their individual high school experiences, and though they've over-achieved to be sure, these kids know strip malls and cul-de-sacs, not rusty tractors and sloppin' the hogs. But we like to make believe we are still a rock solid, hard-working, agrarian country of God-fearing, honest-thinking, salt blocks of the Earth, even if it means forcing our favorite make believes all over the reality that, yeah, Butler is just a good college basketball team full of guys who go to college specifically to play basketball. They may have less tattoos and McDonald's All-Americans than the number one seeds that have already been dispatched from the tourney early, but these are still kids who were picked first or second in seventh grade gym class when teams were getting divvied up, and basketball has been their number one order of business for years. Not tending the chickens or oiling the wheat thresher or overcoming the oppression of an alcoholic snake-handling backwoods father through free throw shooting.
Butler plays Michigan State on semifinal Saturday, and both teams come in as #5 seeds from their respective regions. But whereas Butler is deemed the outsider who has come to crash the party, this has turned into the Tom Izzo - Greatest Coach of Our Era christening party in regards to Michigan State. Here are the numbers that you will (or might already have) read over and over and over and over this week - Final Four appearances in 6 out of the last 12 years, and a 6-1 record in regional finals. So somehow, last year when this Michigan State team made it all the way to the championship game where they lost to North Carolina's NBA practice squad, the OMG TOM IZZO! factor was lost in last year's tired meme of OMG MICHIGAN IS SCREWED MAYBE THE SPARTANS CAN WIN FOR ALL THE HARD-WORKING UNEMPLOYED HOPELESS LOSERS OF MICHIGAN! But it's been a whole year since that failed experiment in lifting public spirits, and the unemployed have degenerated into the unemployable, and the job market is as bad as ever but crack cocaine smoke has never tasted better, so that midwest rust belt revival through amateur athletics angle won't be dusted off. So we are getting the Tom Izzo = genius thing instead.
I don't have a problem with this so much, for as far as major program college coaches go, Tom Izzo seems like far more genuine a dude than a John Calipari or Coach K of Duke. Izzo has a little bit of personality, and has that same near-fatherly relationship with his young players that Bobby Knight used to roll with, just without all the bottled rage that might explode at any moment. I just find it odd that every other sports writer suddenly woke up and was like, "Damn, how did we not notice Tom Izzo is not a genius? Why doesn't the public not think of Tom Izzo when they think of great basketball coaches? It is our collective duty to inform them of this terrible transgression against the most decent of all men who get paid seven figures to coach college basketball!" People don't think it because you didn't tell them to think it, and now that you've all sobered up halfway and wiped the honey mustard sauce off your outlet store ties long enough to read the same statistics off the same Michigan State Athletic Department press release that everybody else got, props to you. I guess a constant barrage of Tom Izzo = Genius stories can help the contrarian nature of the average sports nerd pseudo-media guy feel better about one of last year's same old major program teams being back yet again this year.
Now the West Virginia tired background story really bums me out, the one about how this is a team that hasn't been to the Final Four since 1959 when the great Jerry West was their star point guard and he went on to NBA fame like no one else from West Virginia ever has and this is the greatest thing for West Virginia's state pride since forever! I think back then a team full of 15 black guys actually only equalled 9 people due to 3/5ths laws. But look, I am a guy in 2010. I could care less about 1959 or clean cut white dudes who played in the black-and-white era in shiny, tiny shorts that seem highly questionable by today's conventions. Coach Bob Huggins came back to his alma mater and home state to bring pride to the program, and when he was a teenager hitch-hiking to basketball games, he caught a ride with a man in a beat-up pick-up truck (which plays to our national stereotypes about West Virginia), and there was no rear view mirror, and a young Huggins said, "Hey man, you don't have any rear view mirror," and the average West Virginia man in the average busted up West Virginia truck said without hesitation, "We ain't going backwards." This actual recycled story not only plays off our common "LOL at West Virginia" attitude, but tweaks it with the open-minded strange man who picked up a young hitch-hiker, and then showed a grasp of upward ambition not expected by what we previously thought was just hillbilly trash. Touché, coaching anecdote, touché. Whatever.
The real story about West Virginia is redemption. Coach Bob Huggins has had some questionable incidences in the past, and been run off from a place or two in his time, and let’s be honest, on the sidelines, he’s a big, goofy, loveable type of dude. But he’s also the type of guy who might get a DUI while not wearing pants all of a sudden. Which is also fine. I can understand the desire to not wear pants when drunk. Their leading scorer in their regional final against Kentucky was point guard Joe Mazzulla, who had been on the bench most of the year, playing behind Truck Bryant before Truck broke his foot last week in practice. Mazzulla had come in Huggins’ first year and been a star, but then got injured and shelved on the bench, beat up some wack asses around West Virginia, caught a few legal charges, but then got back on the court this past weekend and represented.
For me, that is the lesson of West Virginia, and I guess redemption is the wrong word, because even if they win it all, Bob Huggins might still get a pantsless DUI and Joe Mazzulla might elbow drop some bitch asses in tha club one night, but that’s what they are. That’s kind of what West Virginia is, and why it is so wild and wonderful. If you are a screwed up, twisted personality, that’s all good. You probably got some good things going on as well. You sniff gas all day long and threaten your wife with a 14-inch knife over the way she made your breakfast eggs? Well, sure that’s one side of you, but you can also tap dance better than any other man on Earth. West Virginia is a screwed up place, and this teams is as screwed up as any major Big East team could be, full of dudes getting things on the down-low almost assuredly. Yet there’s something about them as a collective you have to love, or at least can’t outright hate. It is appropriate they will be wearing the black jerseys of the outlaw in their semifinal game against Duke Saturday night.
And Duke, high and mighty Duke, what with its triumvirate of fresh-faced altar boys leading the way to perhaps another title run for the esteemed Mike Krzyzewski. They will be touted as the only #1 seed left, although they were panned as the most undeserving one when the brackets first came out. Coach K is regarded as one of the greats, and actually with this Final Four appearance has tied the all-time record for most by a coach that had been held by John Wooten alone beforehand. The stories will come out of the woodwork about how he’s done it the right way, with quality kids with good morals (and the underlying theme to that is, “See, they are white kids”).
The real deal behind Duke’s success is Coach K is a whiny bitch, cosntantly henpecking officials for calls. Even in the Baylor game, there were a few questionable calls that went Duke’s way during very key moments that pushed the momentum in their favor. This is something that happens often for the Duke Blue Devils, and it’s enabled this cloak of greatness to be wrapped around Coach K’s beady-faced little body. And when you look at this 2010 Duke team, it’s that same whiny, sheltered look. Jon Scheyer is regarded as a basketball superstar, but in reality, he’s a tiny little white dude. Yet he struts with the great swagger of a kid who grew up mouthing 50 Cent lyrics into a mirror and freestyle rapping on message boards. Kyle Singler, though taller, is even more fresh-faced, meaning he looks like he’s about thirteen and would die from a BB gun wound. But these two are the heart and soul of this tried and true team. Nolan Smith is the token black guy third part of their threesome, which I guess means Coach K recruited him off of craigslist. The most hilarious part of this team for me though is Brian Zoubek, the tall, goofy-looking dude with the scraggly wet dog beard playing center for them who has decided to be the Team Enforcer. You will see him yelling and emphatically pointing at things during their game this weekend, as he has done dramatically with good consistency throughout the tournament. Yet he’s about as intimidating as a lolcat. Duke, in their mind, is this downtrodden group of scrappy kids that everybody wants to beat up, but nobody can, because they are so tough. Yet in reality, they are basically that one guy in a pick-up game who calls a foul every time he misses a shot, and talks trash, but when you actually punch him in his molars while no one’s looking, he runs off crying and waiting until next year.
Ultimately, more than anything, that’s what this Final Four is all about, hoping that Duke won’t win. Yet they probably will. Because all the tired stories that get paraded during the five day build-up to the actual games are just meant to distract us from the reality of the lives we are immersed in. And the reality of the situation is that we, as a people, complain about everything, think we are tougher than we really are, and have for the most part have come from a relatively comfortable background. And even if things don’t go our way, those in charge of enforcing the rules equally will enforce them to our benefit, and we usually come out on top, and that helps us justify to ourselves all the bullshit propaganda we build ourselves up with. Ultimately, it’s awesome. Duke is America. And though we’d like to believe we are Butler or West Virginia, no, we are not. We’re palefaced, privileged, and pre-ordained, just like Duke.