NCAA Tournament Coverage: Thoughts On Duke, The Big Ten & The Culture Of March Madness

The whirlwind of March Madness is over and the hard business of determining a national collegiate basketball champion has begun. The romance of the NCAA Tournament is about what took place this past weekend, when a four-day rush pared the field from 64 teams to 16 and no-name underdogs had their day in the sun.

On Thursday, I was at a house party, where everyone watched basketball and shot darts. The host of the party, dominant on the dart board, noted that he hadn’t been able to watch any basketball, since as the winner, he kept having to take the next challengers as we all took futile turns at beating him. Upon hearing the lament, his darts’ partner said “Today isn’t about the basketball.”

I recount the story not to tell you what I did on Thursday, but because I think it illustrates a real truth about this event. If you break down the first few days of the tournament—especially the first round—very few are games that would attract you if there wasn’t an office pool or a social gathering. Even a good 8-9 game—really, how many of you would bother to watch Pitt-Colorado if you were home by yourself on a Saturday afternoon?

The first four days are more of a cultural drama, most of which is outside the court. What comes up next is about nuts-and-bolts basketball. Maybe we could put it this way—March Madness is over, but the NCAA Tournament is just starting.

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Regional action will take place in New York, Memphis, Indianapolis and Anaheim from Thursday through Sunday to settle the berths at the Final Four in Dallas. TheSportsNotebook will have separate previews for each of the four regions starting tomorrow. But before we move forward, I want to close out the whirlwind of March Madness with three notable points from this past weekend…

*Let’s start with Duke. This is the second time in three years the Dookies have fallen in the first round, including their loss as a 2-seed to Lehigh in 2012. Now I’m not a Duke-hater—if anything, my basic view of the program is positive. I’m certainly not out for any reason to dump on Mike Krzyzewski—I think he’s the greatest basketball coach of all time, including John Wooden. But it’s time to ask this hard question—how much culpability does Coach K have for these March shortcomings?

I first want to give a shout-out to my old colleague Jeff Fogle, who runs the blog Stat Intelligence, and has been pointing out Duke’s failure to meet expectations for several years now, save their 2010 run to the NCAA title. I’ve never disagreed with Jeff’s analysis, but I’ve also never found fault with Coach K or Duke. My fault was with the media that I felt heaped expectations that are essentially impossible for any program in the age of parity to meet.

Furthermore, I genuinely didn’t think Duke’s talent was national championship-caliber, certainly not when you compared it to what North Carolina put on the floor in 2008-09, when they made two Final Fours and won the ’09 national title as an absolutely dominant champion. I felt Coach K made the most of what he had, but that the talent shortcomings—particularly on the interior—were exposed in March.

I still feel that same way, but now I’m wondering what the problem is. Why isn’t Duke recruiting better players on the inside? This is a team fundamentally reliant on shooting three-point shots and when they have a day when the shots don’t fall, they’re vulnerable. The interior defense is soft.

This is the profile you expect of a mid-major school. It’s not what you expect of what is still the most successful program of the last 25 years. Furthermore, North Carolina has not put great teams on the floor since their 2009 run, which further makes me wonder why Duke can’t get the players. I know academic standards are high, but we’re talking about finding an average of one kid per year whose say, 6’7”, 240 lbs, and more focused on throwing people around in the paint and hitting the glass then on shooting from behind the arc. You can’t tell me Duke can’t find one guy like that a year—even one every two years would significantly toughen them up.

We can’t separate Coach K from these decisions, since…well, since he’s the CEO and the one making them. If this were an NBA team, I’d say we keep Krzyzewski on the sidelines coaching, but strip him of personnel responsibilities and hire a GM to put the roster together. Since that can’t happen in college, we just need Coach K to hit the recruiting trail and repeat to himself the words of San Antonio Spurs coach Greg Popovich in the huddle—“I want some nasty!”

*The Big Ten has gotten a lot of love as the nation’s best conference, including in this space. But while the grade is still incomplete, early returns were not positive. Ohio State lost in the first round as a 6-seed. Iowa lost in the First Four to Tennessee—is the Big Ten now going to start losing to the SEC in basketball too? And while Nebraska’s loss to Baylor as an 11-seed was justified, the fact the Cornhuskers looked hideous in the process really wasn’t. Depth is supposed to be what defines the best conferences and the Big Ten showed none of it.

Furthermore, none of the Big Three still playing—Wisconsin, Michigan and Michigan State—really dominated. Wisconsin needed a home crowd advantage to survive Oregon. Michigan State wasn’t dominant against Delaware or Harvard. Michigan looked good against Texas, but the Wolverines did not play well against Wofford.

All three of these teams have their ultimate tests in front of him. If the conference puts three teams in the regional finals and two in the Final Four then all will be forgotten by the media. Even one Final Four spot will save face. But to me, the Big Ten has already been exposed as top-heavy league rather than a truly deep one, and just how heavy that top is still remains to be seen.

*We close out with a tribute to CBS for making the best lineup change of the tournament. I’ve usually been annoyed with the work of Greg Anthony in the studio—where he was with the incomparable Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley the last couple years—and Clark Kellogg in play-by-play with Jim Nantz, where I got tired of Clark’s “spurtability line.” If you notice, the teams Clark says have spurtability are ones like Louisville, Michigan and Kentucky—meaning it’s just a fancy way of saying these teams are good.

But this year, Kellogg is in the studio with Kenny and Charles and Anthony is with Nantz. I don’t know why, but I’ve loved both of them in their new roles. Anthony’s seriousness plays better in the game analyst role than it did as a wet blanket to Smith and Barkley’s routine. Kellogg just seems very relaxed in the studio, confident in his opinions without being obnoxious, and skillfully setting the table for Kenny and Charles. A big thumbs-up to both Kellogg and Anthony, and even more so to whomever made the decision to flip them.

NCAA Tournament coverage comes back tomorrow with previews of the South Regional and West Regional, which each begin play on Thursday night.