The NCAA tournament has a 30-year history of marketing the underdog, the Cinderella story. The Sycamore Sams vs. the Spartans. The Will D. Cats vs. the Hoyas. NC State’s Wolfpack against the Phi Slamma Jamma Cougars. Everyone against the Blue Devils in the ’90s.
In recent years, it’s been a little tougher to draw between upstart and establishment; favorite and the forlorn. As a reflection of pop culture, now it seems the anti-hero can draw out the sympathy. Who would’ve thought Roy Williams and his underachieving Tar Heels, who started the season 0-3 and spent the rest of it without star player PJ Hairston (NCAA violations), would’ve ever been a sentimental favorite, if not eight-point underdog to make it out of the round of 32?
Fear not, there are still a couple of coach creeps left and thank goodness we don’t have to suffer through their pedantic brand of NBA-light in the Final Four. Fortunately, it’s John Calipari and his ever revolving door of 6’8″ freshmen shooting guards who currently draw hoops nation’s most ire. In a lackluster Sweet 16 matchup Friday with co-kingmaker and Blue Chip manufacturer Rick Pitino, the question isn’t who will win, it’s why can’t both lose?
The in-state rivals feature LeBronnabes (the Harrison twins/James Young) destined to win the lottery as lottery picks and, because their basketball IQ is somewhere south of Gumpian (can you recall any of the half-dozen players either school has sent to the NBA since their Final Four matchup in 2012?), will be mired as the 11th man for underachieving organizations with Jerry West embroidered on their chest for three or four years before slumming it around Europe.
And that’s best-case.
The NCAA’s biggest programs let themselves become fecund ground for the D League almost a decade ago. So did disappear the clear lines between good teams, bad teams, bad teams that are good through age and experience, good teams that are bad through a pitiless and deft lack of concern over Xs and Os and decent teams that seem stellar when facing mediocre teams of great-but-developing athletes. On top of it all, there is the network babble and Twitter providing a 24-hour feed of third-person references which doesn’t help amateur sports’ cause but for the fact it makes it all look that much more …amateurish.
Even Nate Silver, in all his number-crunching numb smugness, seems to underscore the value of not knowing as his biggest commodity during tourney time. His bracket, which doesn’t give anyone a better than one in five chance of winning — and that’s with the field pared down to a quarter of those out the gate — is math’s noncommittal way of saying, “I dunno dude, take UCLA maybe.”
…Or, in layman’s terms, no heavily favored team to hiss and boo and no long-suffering squad with which to measure for a glass slipper fitting.
In this, we’re only left with a single option: the hope of finding a team we find likable.
Suffice to say, only one of the pair of remaining compelling team(s) is going to make it out of the Sweet 16, and it is either a Dayton Flyer or a Stanford Cardinal.
Both squads are coached by decidedly low-key presences. The Flyers’ Archie Miller at 32 is the youngest and soft-spoken to a degree that makes most media point to a youthful arrogance when maybe he’s simply, quiet.
Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins is the only one with an NBA and Coach K. pedigree and with that, like his giant upperclassmen on the floor, he coaches like he’s been there — even if he hasn’t.
Both are low-seeded (Dayton 11, Stanford 10) and have knocked out big chess pieces (Syracuse and Kansas respectively) to get to the West Regional in Anaheim Thursday. You can see why both teams and their smattering of underclassmen guards — led by wily if not battle-worn seniors in the middle — folded against lesser squads in the regular season but somehow could leave you and your crumpled bracket cheering they outlast either of the Michigans in the title game.
…Namely because likability is a product of character and coaching. And character and coaching count most on the court in March.
Personnel-wise, Dayton has a compelling story in Kendall Pollard and Kyle Davis. A pair of super-Freshmen from Chicago who, though they won’t be ping pong picks in June, were groomed from state-contending teams and now find themselves, for the first time since they played in as an at-large team, a favorite going into Thursday night’s matchup.
While Pollard has the prototype height (6’6″), Davis may have the best handles in the tournament and, more importantly, isn’t afraid to not turn the ball over.
Stanford simply plays as you assume Stanford would: smart. Whether it was the zone trap that stifled an already off Kansas team, chocking them in the paint with 6’11” center redshirt junior Stefan Nastic and 6’10” brainaic senior power forward Dwight Powell plus unsung senior 6’10” John Gage as the sixth man, you’ve got the tallest trees left in the tourney. For slippery Dayton, a clog in the middle could wipe away that two-point line quickly.
As if it weren’t enough to root for a bunch of upperclassmen whose applications to Google have already been pre-approved, there’s yet another chance to cure those tourney blues Thursday night with more Alex Chang cowbell.
Though we’re not supposed to feel any kind of allure for either team, even in their purported underdogness — the ESPNs and the Foxes like to focus on the Italian coaches in their Italian suits with their Italian …Italianness. So, it’s tough not to be moved by watching what those who are miked up define as “unselfish” basketball — which is really just actual basketball — especially when you’re watching an actual basketball tournament.
Dayton, a school in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1984, and Stanford, in their first tournament since 2008, are playing a game that somehow has been long lost like the $5 for your office pool buy-in. The pair of underdogs are simply achieving rather than overachieving and in the process have rediscovered brand of basketball that, like the teams themselves, is actually likable.
That rediscovery also happens to be this year’s Cindarella story.