Welcome back to Bracket Racket, your one-stop shopping for all things NCAA on tournament game days. Real writers drop by for a visit. The curtain raiser, though, comes from the theater of the absurd.
OTHER THAN THAT MRS. LINCOLN, HOW WAS THE PLAY?
Our friends at the Las Vegas Review-Journal buried the lead in the following story, too, but rest assured, the patient is fine. The capital letters in the second paragraph are mine.
"Asked by a nurse for his pick to win the NCAA Tournament, Jerry Tarkanian was quick to answer, 'Kentucky.'
"NOT LONG AFTER SUFFERING A MILD HEART ATTACK around 5 p.m., Tarkanian, 81, was alert and joking while recovering in intensive care at MountainView Hospital."
You remember "Tark the Shark" right? The sad-eyed guy in charge — loosely speaking — during UNLV's salad days two decades ago? The game isn't the same without him.
On the bench, Tark chewed through towels like his life was hanging in the balance, even when UNLV was up 30 and clowning opponents late in blowouts. He was one of the first coaches to mine junior colleges for "student-athletes," and always the last to find out they were up to no good.
Like the time three of his Runnin' Rebels sat still long enough for a front-page photo sharing a hot tub with convicted Vegas "fixer" Richard Perry. Or the time at Fresno State — Tark's last coaching stop — when two more of his players were arrested for brandishing a samurai sword during an alleged robbery. No coach before or since has made "a lack of institutional control" sound like so much fun.
Glad to hear he's on the mend. But his nurse better see a doctor about that strain of "March Madness" she's toting around.
Now that your school's mercenaries are back in class, you could do worse than adopt Tom Izzo and Michigan State. But don't take my word. Here are a few from two of the most accomplished writers of the last half-century.
"I did not fill out a bracket," author Thomas McGuane (B.A., Class of '62) wrote back in a homework assignment proctored by AP national writer Hillel Italie. "I have great faith in Tom Izzo."
Izzo grew up in a town of 15,000 hard by the iron mines of the Menominee Range, the great-grandson of a miner, grandson of a shoemaker and son of a handyman. Basketball was Izzo's ticket out of the Upper Peninsula and down to East Lansing. Despite plenty of offers from other top-shelf programs and the NBA since, he still crosses the state line only on road trips. And he still owns the kind of workingman's cred Bruce Springsteen would kill for.
The kind Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford (B.A., '66) was looking for when he left Mississippi in search of a school that resembled a factory floor.
"African-Americans, Hungarian refugees, Chinese students," Ford recalled all these years later, "It was a great melting pot and I was right in the middle of it."
True to that spirit, Izzo would recruit Klingons if he was convinced they could play. And work. He's sent more than a dozen players to the NBA, but not one talented enough to name off the top of your head. He puts them through grueling practices — in helmets and pads for rebounding drills — and their early season schedule is usually the most brutal stretch of games any team sees before the tournament. That's why no one wants a piece of the Spartans this time of year.
"If you lost a player to him in recruiting, you felt like you got outworked," said Gene Keady, a longtime rival before retiring from Purdue. "If you lost a game to him, you felt like you got outcoached."
Izzo won it all in 2000 and the Spartans' six Final Four appearances between 1999-2010 were the most in college basketball. They also lost the 2009 title to North Carolina at cavernous Ford Field in Detroit, overmatched and down to fumes by the end. Going in, Izzo knew his team's draw wouldn't amount to more than a few extra tickets sold. But he paraded them around town and out at suburban shopping malls in the days before the game, like some kind of talisman the locals could rally around.
I sat next to him at a dinner two weeks later, honoring the gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic basketball team from Beijing. The unending procession to his seat made me dizzy. Everyone wanted a picture or a handshake, as if some of that grit would rub off on them. Izzo only managed two bites, but drained three glasses of wine. He leaned over at one point, laughing. "It's fine. I'll catch up on the rest soon."
Sure. Just like when his mentor, Jud Heathcote, handed off the job and said he'd started his book.
"I didn't know you were writing one," a friend said.
"I'm not," Heathcote growled. "I'm hoping to read one."
This should do wonders for your confidence: AP college basketball writer Jim O'Connell says one of the best things about picking games in the Sweet 16 is "there are only four you can get wrong each of the next two days."
Syracuse-Wisconsin comes down to whether you prefer the top-seeded Orangemen's 2-3 zone defense or No. 4 Wisconsin's man-to-man, which led the nation this season by allowing only 52.9 points per game.
"First team to 60 wins," O'Connell said. He likes Syracuse.
If nothing else, the Ohio State-Cincinnati nightcap means one less school from the Buckeye State left. Two of their last three meetings were in NCAA championship games, and the Bearcats won both. Unfortunately, those were in 1961 and 1962. Like those days, that streak is about to become history.
STAT OF THE DAY
STATS LLC takes the defensive theme a step further, noting the Badgers are making their sixth Sweet 16 appearance in 13 years in large part because they're so stingy. Wisconsin has held 15 of 35 tourney opponents over that span — including both Montana and Vanderbilt this year — to fewer than 60 points and gone 12-3. That might not be good enough for Syracuse, though, which has proven it can play slowdown games, too. In their last nine, games, the Orange have been held below the 60-point mark five times — and won every one.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
"I wish that would've been a question on the SAT. I wouldn't have had to go to junior college." — Marquette coach Buzz Williams, asked to discuss the differences between him and the other three coaches at the West Regional, Izzo, Rick Pitino and Billy Donovan.
At TD Garden
Syracuse (33-2) vs. Wisconsin (26-9)
Ohio State (29-7) vs. Cincinnati (26-10)
Michigan State (29-7) vs. Louisville (28-9)
Marquette (27-7) vs. Florida (25-10)