By Matt Straub
If I were a coach who had the same winning percentage on the sideline as I do with my bracket this year, I wouldn’t be a coach for very long. Last year was a good year for me, but this one has been a nightmare.
There is one thing, however, about this year’s NCAA Tournament I had pegged perfectly. North Carolina is the best team in the country. There are better collections of talent, most notably in Kentucky, which gave the Tar Heels everything they could handle in the second classic game of the year between the two teams. There isn’t a better team, however, in America than the Tar Heels. This is a group which is full of good players, if not spectacular ones. You probably won’t see any Tar Heels in upper portion of the upcoming NBA Draft. You will see the Tar Heels in the Elite Eight more often than not, and this year you’ll likely see them cut the nets down a week from now in Arizona.
I’m rooting for the Tar Heels because I want to be able to say I got something right this March, but also for a bigger reason. I love what the Tar Heels represent. While other schools have totally sold out to the one-and-done era (even Duke), North Carolina has players who have been together for more than six months.
Yes, North Carolina has its own warts as a program, which could prove to be significant ones, but at least they are demonstrating you don’t need next year’s NBA lottery on your team to win in college, even in 2017.
We’ve learned a few other important things during the second week of the NCAA Tournament. Let’s look at some more lessons from a busted bracket.
We have new coaching stars: Frank Martin has been a good coach for a long time. He made a winner out of Kansas State. He is a coach who teaches discipline. He also understands coaches are just coaches, not deities who should be treated like anything but just another teacher. He’s also incredibly personable, and is young enough to make a difference for years to come. Hopefully he’s the name we remember this year, not LaVar Ball. Chris Mack at Xavier is an excellent coach who rescued his team’s season with a cool motivational tactic and his ability to keep his kids together. Both men will get the chance to coach at even bigger schools in the years to come if they want such a shot. Mike White at Florida looks pretty promising, too. With the old guard getting ready to move aside in the next few seasons, it’s good to know there’s some fresh blood ready to take over.
The draft board might have changed this weekend: NBA teams put too much stock into a few games in March, but getting to watch top players face pressure, not to mention each other, is something to consider. De’Aaron Fox of Kentucky might have played himself into the top three, especially by outplaying Lonzo Ball, who had been in everyone’s top two. His teammate, Malik Monk, showed he can make pressure shots against the nation’s best team, which must be making Knicks and Celtics fans salivate. Ball of UCLA and Josh Jackson of Kansas might have played themselves down a few slots based on sub-par showings on the game’s biggest stage. I care more about a whole body of work, but it’s worth keeping an eye on how March changes some players’ reputations.
The kids care: For as much as I hate the one-and-done rule and the way players use the schools as a pit stop on the way to the pros, you can’t say they don’t care about the tournament while they’re there. The video of Fox after Kentucky’s loss is heartbreaking. I’ve grown more and more impressed by him all week, and his emotional response to the end of the regional final sold me on him as a teammate. I always worry about the attitudes of kids who want to go to Kentucky, but Fox looks like the total package. And if he reacted in such an emotional way after just a few months, imagine what the seniors on some of these teams went through this week. It’s another reason the NCAA Tournament is the best event in all of sports.
The Final Four should be interesting: We won’t get the dream matchups we were in line for, but next weekend will still be good. South Carolina’s defense against Gonzaga, which has many of the same characteristics of North Carolina’s program without the postseason success, will be a good watch for fans of strategy, while the North Carolina-Oregon game will be an up-and-down battle.