To all the prophets of doom who annually opine that college basketball needs to be fixed or saved from something, the Fast Break offers the perfect counterpoint:
The NCAA Tournament.
This is not to suggest the game is perfect. Far from it, in fact. In recent years we’ve seen cheating scandals, gambling, unscrupulous middlemen convincing players to turn professional when they aren’t ready, and other maladies afflict the game. But at its core, college basketball is good, and the NCAA Tournament proves it.
Those who believe the game is diminished because of the one and done rule need to remember what we’ve seen in March. Certainly we’ve watched several players who are bound for the NBA—Kentucky’s Brandon Knight
foremost among them. But this tournament hasn’t been all about future NBA stars. It’s been about Butler’s Matt Howard, VCU’s Joey Rodriguez or Kentucky’s Josh Harrellson
, guys who may never see the inside of an NBA arena unless they buy a ticket (but stay tuned on Harrellson, the Fast Break is hearing encouraging reports.)
The tournament has also been about teams—take VCU, for example. The Rams had been roundly criticized for even earning a berth in the field of 68, deemed unworthy by the talking heads and pundits. It’s been about Butler, which has returned to the Final Four for the second straight year, and without lottery pick Gordon Hayward. And it’s been about Kentucky, which was 2-6 on the road in the Southeastern Conference and struggled to close out games, but has suddenly become a team that sticks a knife in the backs of its opponents and breaks it off.
Consider the gauntlet the Wildcats have had to fight through to get to the Final Four. After a Feb. 23 overtime loss at Arkansas, the team was on the brink and could have gone either way, especially with the toughest closing stretch in the league—regular-season champion Florida, Vanderbilt and at Tennessee—awaiting. But Kentucky won all three of those games, then swept Ole Miss, Alabama and Florida to win the SEC Tournament.
Then came the NCAA Tournament. Granted it was Knight, Mr. Cool and a big shot taker—and maker—who won the Princeton and Ohio State games. But the country has marveled at the exploits of Harrellson and DeAndre Liggins
, players who had been afterthoughts in the wake of Kentucky’s bountiful recruiting harvest under coach John Calipari
and his staff.
Harrellson, who we have featured on this website
has been a revelation all season, but in the postseason, he’s been Kentucky’s second-leading scorer (12.9 ppg) while continuing to rebound (8.7 rpg) at a high level. Harrellson’s defense on Ohio State big man Jared Sullinger was critical. Because he was able to single-cover Sullinger, the Wildcats didn’t have to double down and leave one of the Buckeyes’ deadly three-point shooters open.
Then there’s Liggins, a player many thought had no way of lasting under Calipari’s watch because of the issues he had when Billy Gillespie was coach. But Liggins has become a defensive stopper, glue guy, and lo and behold, a jump shooter.
Calipari had to resort to mixed metaphors to praise Liggins after the Wildcats took out North Carolina to gain their spot in the Final Four.
“There are guys born on third base, and then there are guys born outside of the arena that have to try to get in the arena to get up to bat to get to first base to go to third base,” said Cal, who may be on to something [Arena baseball? Sounds nutty, but it just might work.]. “And DeAndre has overcome a lot. And you look at him now.
“He defends, he is unselfish, he makes plays, his skills are improved. You know, he and Josh, all these guys. But especially him. I'm really proud—and I am on him now. I am on him to do the right things and if he screws up, he knows he will be there. But he performs. He is not afraid. He is making plays.”
ANDERSON GOES HOME AGAIN:
Most SEC basketball coaches worked at mid-major schools before coming to the league, and some were assistants at their current schools before being elevated to the top spot. The exception is Mike Anderson
, successfully plundered last week by Arkansas from fellow power-conference school Missouri.
Some SEC coaching hires have been a leap of faith—who really knew whether a then-30-year-old Billy Donovan, hired in 1996, could attain the heights he has at Florida?—but Arkansas went with the sure thing.
Anderson had worked 17 years as an assistant at Arkansas, helping his boss and mentor Nolan Richardson win a national championship in 1994. Part of Richardson, fired by Arkansas in 2002, lives on in Anderson, who will bring back 40 Minutes of Hell to Fayetteville, much to the delight of long-suffering Hog fans.
“Just the call to come back home,” Anderson said of his decision to leave a good gig at Mizzou. “Not many guys get to come back home twice. … I never thought I’d be back here. But as fate has it, some things led me back here. I’m certainly excited about it.
“I look at it as being a tremendous opportunity, with all the tradition, and all the winning that has taken place here. It’s a program I was involved in building and taking to another level. I’d like to see it get back to that level, or even a higher level.”
New Tennessee coach Counzo Martin
knew a good opportunity when he saw one. And Tennessee administrators knew a good coach when they saw one.
The hiring of Martin away from Missouri State—which he built in three years into a team that won the school’s first Missouri Valley Conference regular-season championship—has been questioned by some armchair experts for the speed at which it took place.
On March 21, Tennessee announced it had fired Bruce Pearl
, who led the program to a record six consecutive NCAA Tournaments but got caught misleading the NCAA after a two-year-old recruiting violation was revealed. On March 28, Tennessee was trotting out Martin, whose giant image—complete with orange tie—had already replaced Pearl’s alongside women’s coach Pat Summitt on a mural inside Thompson-Boling Arena. (Somebody at Tennessee must be a Photoshop wiz.)
The threat of NCAA sanctions didn’t concern Martin, who came with glowing recommendations from his best friend—Purdue coach Matt Painter—and mentor—former Purdue coach Gene Keady called Martin the best leader he’s coached in a 50-year career.
“Obviously, there were some things swirling around about NCAA [violations],” Martin told the Fast Break in an exclusive interview that will run on this website in its entirety on Thursday. “But once I got some background—and obviously you don’t know what the NCAA is going to do as far as a decision right now—and even with the worst case scenario, I still felt like this was a great opportunity for me.
“It was a program that’s had some success. Even before Bruce Pearl got here, but Bruce did a great job here in six years. In some programs, you go and start from scratch, but this was a really good situation. There are some seniors leaving and a couple of guys thinking about going into the draft, but there is a core of talent coming back. That’s always a good sign.”
GREEN STAYING PUT:
Alabama (24-11) continues its impressive rebound from a poor start to the regular season tonight, when it plays Colorado (24-13) in the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden. Both teams had legitimate gripes about being left out of the NCAA Tournament field, and to their credit didn’t sulk in the NIT but continued playing good basketball.
There’s no doubt ‘Bama wouldn’t be in New York City tonight if JaMychal Green
hadn’t turned his season around. After the Crimson Tide’s horrendous showing in mid-November in the Paradise Jam, where it lost to Seton Hall, Iowa and St. Peter’s Green took out his frustrations in practice. That drew a three-game suspension that lasted nearly two weeks.
Green could have taken the easy way out and left the program, but he chose to come back from the suspension a changed man. The Tide was 4-5 when Green returned and has since gone 20-6. Green, who averages 15.4 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.1 blocks, was chosen first-team All-SEC.
Green recently made Grant a happy man when he announced he would return to Alabama for his senior season rather than test his NBA draft opportunities.