March Madness Elite 8: 4 Winners, 4 Losers
(I know, on the list of lame, cliched, bloggy catchphrases "And then there was (however many are left)" is right behind "Houston, we have a problem." but I'm still a little rattled from falling for the Dream Shake's April Fool's Day prank. I'm running simple plays here, nothing exotic today.)
The Final Four takes place in Atlanta this weekend. With a total sum of 18 on the Cinderella Scale (arrived at by adding the seeds of the four teams), this particular permutation of teams falls firmly in the "totally unexpected" category -- the tournament favorite (Louisville), two very live four seeds who spent most of the season in the top 5-10 (Michigan, Syracuse), and one nine seed who is, frankly, better than your normal nine seed.
On the way to Atlanta this past weekend, there were winners and losers. Let's take a belated look at who they are, shall we?
4. The metaphorical testicles of Louisville
Three years ago, in the Final Four, Duke was playing West Virginia in a national semifinal game. With about ten minutes remaining in the game, and with Duke leading comfortably 63-48, West Virginia senior DaSean Butler drove to the hoop. His left knee gruesomely buckled, tearing ligaments, and ending his career:
The scene of West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins consoling Butler as he lay there waiting to be helped off the court endures to this day, a reminder of the "father figure" image that so many coaches claim to embody. In that moment, Huggins embodied just that. I didn't think that we'd ever see a more poignant moment between an injured player, helpless teammates, and a head coach again.
And then, Sunday, Kevin Ware happened.
That broken leg suffered by Ware was so nasty, so cartoonishly grotesque that I can't even embed it here. I'll link it above and let you decide to relive it or not.
I've been watching sports for the better part of four decades, and amidst the tragedy that there was a 20-year-old kid whose shin was split into a horrific shape of the letter "L" was some of the most compelling drama and inspiring leadership that I've ever seen in a sporting event. As players and coaches wept, Louisville center Gorgui Dieng (who might have been the most valuable player on Sunday for the combination of his play and his leadership) gathered his teammates and kept them focused.
Hell, Ware himself was imploring his teammates to win the game while EMT's were placing his tibia and fibula back inside his epidermis! I mean. Wow.
At the time Ware was stretchered off the court, Louisville led 21-20. When play resumed, the Cardinals scored a quick bucket, and then Duke quickly scored six straight. Somehow, some way, Louisville managed to take a 35-32 lead into the half.
Everyone -- announcers, fans, Twitter -- wondered how Louisville would react once the reality of their fallen teammate had set in, perhaps during halftime. Who could blame them if something this terrible, this unfair derailed them that afternoon?
I'm reminded of an exchange in the movie Apollo 13, when one of the NASA suits laments that the aborted mission to the moon could be the space program's darkest hour. Flight director Gene Kranz (played phenomenally by Ed Harris) says, "Sir with all due respect, I think this will be our finest hour."
Teetering on the brink of a totally excusable emotional meltdown, the second half of Sunday's game was Louisville's and Rick Pitino's finest hour.
Final score: Louisville 85, Duke 63.
3. Gregg Marshall's resume
Gregg Marshall came to Wichita State from Winthrop because he hoped that life getting into the NCAA tournament would be a little less stressful. At Winthrop, he was stuck in a league where eleven months of hard work could get flushed down the tubes with a bad weekend in the conference tournament.