The Lede. Thankfully We Decide Our Champions on the Court. And we don’t use awful naming conventions when doing it. Imagine if the First Four was actually called the Toys “R” Us First Four, or the Final Four became the Batesville Casket Company Final Four? That’s essentially what we’re looking at with some of these absurd bowl names — our favorites: the Beef “O” Brady Bowl and the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Maybe the two bowls should morph together and then they’d have the whole eating thing figured out. On to more serious issues, though. For seemingly the fourteenth consecutive year, the BCS national title game featuring Auburn and Oregon is not without controversy, as there are three unbeaten teams left standing with only two spots available. Perhaps you’re of the opinion that a school like TCU (12-0), with its weak schedule and lack of gridiron pedigree, is not worthy of playing in that sports’ marquee event. To this we say: neither was Butler. Yet somehow the small college from the north side of Indianapolis that didn’t belong there found itself capable of beating two of basketball’s best coaches (Jim Boeheim and Tom Izzo) and come within a hair of beating its best (Mike Krzyzewski). It’s an absurd system that if used in basketball would guarantee that Duke would have won at least ten “mythical” national titles in the last twenty years, while robbing us of the magic of schools like George Mason and Butler along the way. Critics of the system correctly point out that FBS college football is the only NCAA sport that does not have a playoff system to determine its champion, but it’s also the only American sport that becomes less interesting as the season progresses. The single most exciting time is kickoff weekend, when anything seems possible. Enjoy your BBVA Compass Bowl featuring a 2-6 SEC team, folks — we’ll be over here watching games that actually build up to something.
- Over 4,000 Wins in Chapel Hill. But it was the embattled Tar Heels of North Carolina who added win #2009 on this day, as Tyler Zeller reminded us how good he can be when he asserts himself (27/11/5 blks). In a wrinkle we’ve never seen before, Zeller fouled out the entire Kentucky frontline with his play inside; his length (along with teammate John Henson’s) frustrated UK star forward Terrence Jones for the first time all season (3-17 FG for nine points). The Carolina guard play still left something to be desired, shooting 6-24 from the field and totaling 21 points, but this is a known commodity — Carolina’s rise and fall this season will generally rest on how well their big men play each night out. We came away from this game thinking that we were viewing two flawed teams — Kentucky on the inside, and UNC on the perimeter — but that Kentucky, despite losing the game, has the greater upside.
- National Title Rematch. Butler proved for more than a half that it wasn’t going to quietly skulk away into the night after its run to the national championship game and a shaky start to this season. As our correspondent Matt Patton wrote from the game: “First off, Butler can play: people have been down on the Bulldogs after they were blown out by Louisville and upset by Evansville, but they showed that they still have some star power and one of the smartest coaches in the game in Brad Stevens. I thought Stevens really kept Duke on their heels the first half, giving the Blue Devils fits with a triangle and two zone and expertly controlling the tempo during the first half. Butler also showcased some impressive depth, outscoring Duke’s talented bench 33-13 (a large amount of that credit goes to Shawn Vanzant, who had a spectacular second half). If the Bulldogs take care of the ball like they did today and keep their stars on the court (i.e. minimize fouls and injuries), they can still surprise some people come March.” We don’t disagree at all. Butler isn’t a top ten team, but they will always play legitimate defense, and once they get their sea legs under them, nobody will want to face the Bulldogs (again) next Spring.
- Battle of Seattle. We haven’t been as high as many others have been on Gonzaga this year, and any injury to Elias Harris notwithstanding, the reason was fully on display Saturday in the Battle of Seattle game against Illinois: the Zags don’t defend. Illinois has never traditionally been a high-octane offense under Bruce Weber, but against a Gonzaga defense that would rather reach than move, Illinois repeatedly picked Mark Few’s team apart for wide-open threes (12-23) and dunks. Giving up twelve treys is a problem against any team, and this is the second time this season that the Zags have done so in a loss (Kansas State was the other). This definitely appears to be Weber’s best Illini squad since the 2005 national runner-up, and it helps in that Illinois has six players capable of putting up double figures any given night. The maturation of Brandon Paul in particular from a gunner incapable of taking a good shot in the flow of the offense (33% last year) to a disciplined shooter (52% this year) has been a pleasure to watch. This Illinois team is capable of big things this year.
SoCal Upsets. The most surprising upsets of the weekend came at the very end of it, as the two biggest Los Angeles programs made news in one way or another. First, UCLA, coming off a loss against top-five Kansas on Thursday night that universally slammed the officials for bailing the Jayhawks out, must have still been feeling the effects. They allowed Montana (without Anthony Johnson, mind you) to come into Pauley Pavilion and shoot 52% in a 66-57 victory that must have UCLA fans scratching their heads perplexed. The two stars of the Kansas game, Tyler Honeycutt and Joshua Smith, combined for 4-20 shooting and 15 total points. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, USC, a team who had already racked up bad losses against Rider, Bradley, TCU and Nebraska, managed to completely flummox the young Texas Longhorns for an easy 73-56 victory. If you saw either one of these results coming, then you’re well beyond the scope of this site. Unbelievable.