It’s time to call on the ghost of Bill Bowerman and his epicurean analogies.
Rooting against North Carolina is a bit like hating on your friend who’s got the perfect home with the granite slab counters and the double vanity and the real wood, not laminate floors, the Photoshopped spouse, the overperforming children, the on-time Christmas card, the great job where they don’t really have to work—just make phone calls and once in awhile and travel for presentations–the stocked-floor-to-ceiling-with-$23-bottles-of-Costco-pinot wine cellar, the Tesla plugged in in the garage, the confidence to wear a fucking Apple Watch and the Nā Pali timeshare chaser.
You don’t as much dislike them as you
want to be hate them.
And when someone says, “Well, maybe you’re just jealous” you prove them right by launching into a rant about how you could have all that, you just, you know, like to switch jobs every 16 months and pay rent and drive around with the check engine light on with the credit score that’s more in the realm of a really, really good batting average, because choices.
But then, there’s something else just beneath that. You know they’re not perfect. They know they’re not perfect. They know you know they’re not perfect. And on and on. But there’s this kind of role we all play when we’re out at sushi we can’t afford across from that couple.
Like, yeah, we’re here and you’re here and you’re thinking about ordering another round of the Amberjack and whether it’s going to be London or Rome or Medellín and you’re doing the math in your head—was this the roll that would have gotten the furnace repaired, was this the nigiri to pay for the the property taxes? Suddenly, between the personal finance addition, the creeping concern that you may not have enough gas to get home, much less any cash to pay the sitter, and the realization between sips of flat Asahi that you shouldn’t be there in the first place, it dawns on you: You’ve got nothing to be mad at them for. They work hard. They’re blessed. They’re fine.
It’s you who’s the problem.
You’re a burger guy hanging with sushi people.
You’re the imposter.
Oregon, deep down, is the imposter in this Final Four.
Before I go on that tangent, I want to clarify: what they say about this Oregon Ducks basketball team is all true. They needed a near perfect game on Saturday against Kansas—still, in my eyes, the best-coached, most-talent-rife team in this year’s tournament—and they got it. The first half was flawless and should be put in a time capsule. The passing: crisp, the shooting: timely, the defense in the paint: otherworldly.
The half was punctuated by Oregon’s zeal in the final two possessions. With 38 seconds left, they pulled up for a quick jumper, a three, back into their zone defense before Kansas could inbound, got the ball back and with the clock expiring, Tyler Dorsey pulled up and banked in a three from the top of the key to send the Ducks skipping from sheer joy into the visitors’ locker room. Jordan Bell checked in with 4 points and 8 rebounds and 3 blocks that half including a finishing dunk on one side of the court and a block on the very next possession at the other end.
It was that kind of start for the Ducks, they were everywhere.
The second half is when the basketball gods and the spirits of the Tall Firs started to intervene. Oregon, with 11 minutes remaining and a 16-point lead, suddenly nearly dropped the transmission going from fifth to first on the freeway. They played a kind of clock-burning prevent offense usually reserved for a double-digit cushion with under two minutes to go. The plan backfired. It’s easy to forget that with about eight minutes left, Kansas shrunk the lead to six and was about two centimeters from pushing it to half of that. A three-point game with that much time to go in front of a home crowd all but guarantees a Kansas victory and Oregon’s first half living but only in memory.
But the ball caromed off the rim and into Ducks’ hands again and again, no more notably than when Kansas’ last desperation three-point attempt to keep the Jayhawks within single digits at the four-minute mark glanced off a pair fingertips in Rock Chalk white jerseys and landed in the hands of, who else? Oregon’s everywhere man Bell.
Oregon closed out and benefactor emeritus Phil Knight scaled the ladder to cut down the nets for his alma mater for the first time in his 79 rotations around the sun.
Basketball on the collegiate level is not merely a fickle sport, it’s the girl you’ve just started dating PMS’ing after she just got in on a fight with her boss in her home sweats looking at you like you just asked her to go fetch you a case of Milwaukee’s Best Light at the corner store because nine of your friends are coming over to her apartment for the Tarantino marathon you planned without mentioning. The fates, in other words, can change this weekend in Phoenix more rapidly than the direction of the dreamcatcher feathers blowing in the desert wind on the side of the 24.
Beyond their pedigree, North Carolina does have some tournament karma stored up from the shocking way in which the Tar Heels’ Marcus Paige hit an off-balance three-point jumper to knot the national championship game at 74 in the game’s waning moments one year ago. Then, just four seconds after the Heels sent the game into assured overtime, Villanova’s Kris Jenkins pulled up for a slo-mo-in-real-life answer three at the buzzer to put himself and his Wildcats up there with Christian Laettner and the 1992 Duke Blue Devils in the pantheon of the most obnoxiously heroic NCAA tournament finishes. Tar Heel super silhouette Michael Jordan, no stranger to miraculous comebacks and emotional endings, was visibly moved, not Crying Jordan moved, but close.
“Just to see your dream taken away right in front of you, that’s all the motivation you need,” 6-foot-9 senior forward/center Isaiah Hicks told reporters last week. “Of course nobody likes to lose, but that one, when you’re right there, all of us, we just need that second chance.”
Because of the way it went down last year, North Carolina had the same cast returning this year, but now they’re putting together buzzer-beating wins of their own including Sunday’s against Kentucky.
UNC is going to its sixth Final Four since 2000 and 20th overall. Roy Williams looked like he was walking into his semi-annual teeth cleaning during the net-cutting on Sunday. It’s great that reaching such heights is business-as-usual for the Tar Heels, but there seems to be no joy in Chapel Hill till that big, ugly mahogany bowling trophy is hoisted.
Much has been made about North Carolina’s size, and for good reason. Besides six-foot junior guard Joel Berry, everyone is Theo Pinson size (6-6) or or above including 6-8 junior Justin Jackson at small forward, 6-10 senior Kennedy Meeks at center and 6-9 Hicks backed up by 6-11 freshman Tony Bradley. One advantage the Ducks have had this entire tournament, all the way through Kansas, is they have yet to play a traditional tall and talented and boring-as-eff ACC team.
The Jayhawks played more West Coast uptempo and once they couldn’t find their purchase in the paint they were merely left with bad shot selection and foul trouble, and that sealed the fate of the tournament’s most prolific scoring team through the first three rounds.
The Ducks Saturday, for the first time in this tournament fortnight, come in as Little Mac to UNC’s Super Macho Man.
Though Oregon plays bigger, they come into the weekend leading the NCAA in blocks (241), Carolina’s size and length does matter, a lot…regardless of what she tells you. The night’s biggest mismatches will be between the All-Americans, Oregon’s Dillon Brooks vs. Jackson, who has Brooks by a good three inches (don’t care what the program says) which means the Ducks’ favorite Canuck may not be getting the looks he’s been used to unless he’s comfortable launching from Splash Brothers distance.
If Williams goes with a big lineup to intimidate the Ducks in the first half with Meeks and Hicks on the floor at the same time as Jackson, Oregon will be forced to go with Bell and Kavell Bigby-Williams. Remember, his conference’s leading shot blocker coming into the tournament, Chris Boucher, blew out his knee in the Pac-12 championship. Boucher’s absence hasn’t been a factor thus far because of smaller opponents and the meme- and hashtag worthy #ThingsJordanBellCouldBlock play of Bell (see: below). Bell is the first player since Hakeem Olajuwon to grab 12 or more rebounds in five consecutive NCAA tournament games and is purported to be Trump’s secret plan to stop Isis.
— ThingsBellCouldBlock (@BellCouldBlock) March 29, 2017
But Oregon will miss Boucher, mightily, Saturday. They’ll probably lose too. This deep into the tournament the better team usually wins, regardless of what they say about chemistry, alt-unis and hand-delivered Nikes from Kobe.
But there is one thing Oregon does have that North Carolina does not.
No. You ready?
They are burger people in a sushi world.
And I’m not talking about the VRC Red Robin kind or the in-dorm work-study restaurant-modeled-after-the-Peach-Pit Hammy’s kind (though those were a delicious alternative on non-chow mein/out of SoftServe nights in the Hamilton cafeteria), and not even the gross veggie burger CJ Peppers (RIP) kind.
No, I’m talking the good old-fashioned Grade-A Bill Bowerman Men of Oregon ground round.
“I still bother with runners I call hamburgers,” Bowerman once said. “They’re never going to run any record times. But they can fulfill their own potential.”
You can dissect that quote however you want. Maybe it was one of the legendary coach and Nike co-founder’s reverse psychology tricks, making you believe he thinks you’re less than you are in order to get you to rise to greater heights. Maybe he thought all athletes were hamburger, ground up and chucked out slabs of meat, disposable.
Or maybe he knew the secret of all Oregon athletes and alums, that they might not have the countertops or the vintages or the vacations or the ability to afford another round of inada; that hamburger may not be glamorous and may not look as good on paper, but it definitely works and it definitely gets the job done.
…And when prepared just right, nothing tastes better.