It's that time of year again. The NCAA men's basketball tournament has been whittled down to its semi-finals, leaving just four teams standing. So I'll ask something I'll ask probably 500 more times in my life: if you are a neutral observer, who should you root for of the four remaining teams?
As always, my list is based on petty biases and things I find funny, though if you disagree, it's very probable you are wrong.
We'll go from least favorite to most.
4) The Ohio State University (2-seed)
Remember to pronounce the "the" as "thee," because it's stupid, and tOSU expects that type idiocy out of its contingents. What a god damn joke.
Despite being a huge fan of all things Michigan, I really don't mind Ohio State basketball. Like, at all. Their squad with Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. was one of my favorite NCAA teams, ever. But this team? Bleh.
While I respect their talents -- particularly the moxie (their last regular season game against Michigan State was probably the second best CBB game I watched all year) -- I just can't root for Jared Sullinger's continued TV exposure (more on this in a second).
Rooting Points: 0 (KU over tOSU, UK over tOSU, Lawville over tOSU)
Something I'm Torn On?: One of the most unfair things a college sports fan can do is say "I don't like Player X, because he's gonna suck in the pros!" ... It's what we call the 'Ron Dayne Argument,' and boy, does it piss off Wisconsin fans. Still, we all do it all the time, even though I really try not to let that happen. This is a long way of saying Jared Sullinger very much falls into this category, even though he's projected as a first round NBA draft choice. But here's the thing: I don't just think he'll suck in the pros, I think he sucks now. Well, that's not true. His numbers and victories are undeniable, but his style of play makes me want to hit my pupils with little hammers. It's just so boring and ungraceful. Like watching a power RB pick up five or six yards a carry without using jukes, spins, or sweet cuts. It's like... what's the point?
Something Funny?: I'm about 40% through Mark Titus' new book about his time as a walk-on at Ohio State (plug), and here's a story about his first interaction with head coach Thad Matta.
...Coach Matta introduced himself.
"Hey, Mark, good to meet you. Let me ask you something. Do you know how I got into coaching?" I obviously didn't know, and I was completely thrown off guard that he would ask me that, but before I could think of a response, he started with his answer:
"Well, my first job out of college was a greeter at Wal-Mart. I think I might have been the only greeter in the history of the company who was younger than 95, but whatever. I made what I thought was decent money, and it was easy work. Until one day this fat, ugly bitch of a woman came into the store with her two kids. She was cussing at them, and I even saw her smack one of the kids in the face as they were walking in. Just the worst mother and one of the worst people I've ever seen in my life. So when she came in, I decided I'd put her in her place. I said hello, told her that her kids were adorable, and asked her if they were twins. She looked at me like I was crazy and said, 'Are you blind or just retarded? Of course they aren't twins. One is ten and the other is six. What the hell would make you think they were twins?' I said, 'I'm sorry, ma'am, but I just couldn't figure out why in the world someone would want to screw you twice.'"
As soon as he hit the punch line, Coach Matta busted into laughter and walked away, leaving me speechless.
Also, Chris Chase at Yahoo! sez:
Jim Nantz's most likely scripted line if they [win the title]: 'Columbus discovers a championship.'
Argument From A Fan Of The Team?: My friend Matto is one of the nicest people I know, and even though I'm quite sure he bleeds more for Ohio State football than Ohio State basketball, I still had to ask him for blood anyway.
I have been a Buckeyes fan my entire life with most of my attention going towards the football side of things. With all of the ups and downs that tOSU football program has dealt with, it is nice to have this basketball team to cheer for. I think there are a couple of reasons why any neutral basketball fan should root for this very likable team.
1. The Coach- Thad Matta is both a great coach and an all-around hilarious guy. He occasionally goes nuts and spits his gum everywhere, but can also manage a team in the closing seconds of a game. Add on to this some of the insanely funny anecdotes from Mark Titus' recent book "Don't Put Me In Coach" and you have a fun guy to watch on the sidelines. [ed- I told you!]
2. Jared Sullinger- We all know he is an awesome player and a beast in the paint, but he is on my list for another reason, actually being a cool guy. I read an article describing an interaction he had with a Minnesota fan who attempted to make fun of his Miley Cyrus karaoke routine by holding up a sign during a basketball game. Sullinger asked the fan if he could have the poster, and the fan instinctively said "no" thinking Sullinger might tear it up. A later Twitter conversation revealed Sullinger loved the sign and just wanted to give it to his mother. The fan ended up mailing it to the family. Oh, and he has been quoted as saying he'll never get any tattoos. So that's good. [ed- AMERICA]
3. Aaron Craft- Not much to say here. He hustles, works hard, plays insane defense and he can solve a rubik's cube puzzle. A favorite of white people everywhere.
4. Lastly I leave you with a story my cousin (@billybobrussell) told me about a lunch he had with two tOSU basketball players, Deshaun Thomas, and Jordan Sibert. The lunch took place after the team had shot 14-15 from 3 point range in a game against Wiscy. Deshaun said, "You know Sibert, if we didn't shoot, we wouldn't have made all those threes." To which Sibert responded, "You right, Deshaun, you right."
So if you're interested in watching some players who recognize that in order to score, you have to shoot the ball, then this team is for you...
VERDICT -- It really wouldn't be that bad if they won the title. The Thad Five would be avenged, and so would Evan "The Villain" Turner (maybe).
But Sullinger, man.
3) Kansas (2-seed)
Feels weird having them this low because I actually like Kansas, though I've definitely turned into one of those jaded people who gets 'mad' at teams for busting his bracket time after time. Kansas is that team for me. And the one year they did win was the one year I didn't have them. I'd say my bitterness is unmatched, but to say that, we'd have to factor out the entire Kansas fanbase. And we just can't do that.
Rooting Points: 1 (KU over tOSU, UK over KU, Lawville over KU)
Something I'm Torn On?: I do like that Jason Sudeikis is a fan, and Olivia Wilde? Extraordinary. But I seriously know nothing about this team. That stub point guard Collins left, those twins left, no Cole, and every Illinois fan I know hates Bill Self.
Something Funny?: I still love Bill Self.
Argument From A Fan Of The Team?: My friend Tyler is one of the biggest Kansas fans I know, and here's his case.
Reason to root for the Jayhawks: Bill Self. While Kentucky has been putting on a clinic for the rest of college basketball this season, Kansas has been quietly building to their current status as, in my opinion, the second best team in the tourney. The Jayhawks were generously ranked No. 13 in the preseason polls; something that had the most loyal KU fans scratching their heads -- this was supposed to be a rebuilding year after losing four starters from the team that should have won it all but never got past Shaka in the Elite 8. Bill Self should be considered no less than a miracle worker. After a loss to Davidson before conference play, the Jayhawk nation braced itself for a down year, no Big 12 Championship, and an exit in the Sweet 16 if we were lucky. Now, KU has its eighth straight Big 12 regular season title, posted an impossible comeback against Purdue in the most physical game of the tourney, and just made Roy Williams and the Tarheels look like a joke. The Jayhawks shouldn't be in the Final Four, but they are, because of the coaching of Bill Self. Think of the story lines: Callipari vs. Self ('08 repeat), Anthony Davis vs. Thomas Robinson (Player of the Year candidates), and a halfway decent game for the final, as the Jayhawks are one of the only defensive teams that can hang with the Wildcats. Rock Chalk Jayhawk.
That had to end with Rock Chalk Jayhawk.
VERDICT --Though I want them to win more than Ohio State, out of all four teams, them taking it will give me the biggest feeling of indifference. Tyler's narrative is incredibly compelling, and it really makes me regret missing out on so much of this team's building process.
2) Louisville (4-seed)
One of the lamest reasons people stop rooting against dynasties (and, in conjunction, greatness itself) is because they get "sick" of seeing the same team win over and over again. I've always thought that was kind of iffy. However, I will be using that exact logic to roll with Louisville if they play a team like Kansas. I like both teams pretty much the same, but Kansas won more recently. I seriously disgust myself. It's some of the lamest logic sports fans use. "I don't wanna see Rodgers and the Packers do well, they're too fun and awesome and interesting and telegenic!" Shut up, Bears fans.
Rooting Points: 2 (UK over Lawville, Lawville over KU, Lawville over tOSU)
Something I'm Torn On?: We're about 232 years into Louisville's existence, and we still don't know how to pronounce it. Eh, not too big of a deal.
Something Funny?: Don't you dare think I've forgotten about Rick Pitino's sex lawsuit. Hit me with that testimony!
Pitino obliged her request to say happy birthday to her son on her cell phone. When she returned later, Pitino said, he bought her a drink. They lingered to talk after the restaurant had closed and the owner had gone home.
As he got up from the table, the married father of five said Sypher whispered something.
"Some unfortunate things happened," Pitino said in the courtroom packed with spectators from basketball-mad Kentucky. "She opened up my pants."
"Did you have sex that night?" Assistant U.S. Attorney Marisa Ford asked.
"Yes, very briefly," said Pitino, who wore a dark suit with a white shirt and red tie. The two have said they had sex at the table.
Bet we won't see this movie in his DVD collection. 'EYYYY-OH!
Argument From A Fan Of The Team?: I do not know any Louisville fans. My boss at work is from Louisville...and he's a Kentucky fan. Because of this, we'll defer to my buddy Iowa Ryan (Iowa fan), who is more than happy to fill in.
I'll admit, their ranking is slightly boosted because of this (my fiance is from East Lansing a huge Sparty [they hate being called "Sparty"]). And because they ended Steve Alford's season. Also, Rick Pitino usually wears pimping suits. However, they really play boring basketball.
I asked him for a little more, and he said...
They are the only team close to resembling an underdog, Gorgui Dieng blocks everything and shut down Dwight Howard long enough for a picture to be taken to prove it.
VERDICT -- Man, maybe Louisville is boring. Should Kansas be above them?
1) Kentucky (1-seed, Vegas Favorite)
Last year, I abandoned the Wildcats in the Final Four and threw my support behind Butler. At the time, I said something like "if I lose all my swagger points, so be it."
Well, I lost my swagger points, and it was awful. This year, I'm back to take what's mine. I'm rolling with the tournament favorites because they are awesome, and they do it the right way.
Rooting Points: 3 (UK over Lawville, UK over tOSU, UK over KU)
Something I'm Torn On?: I love when people defy petty social norms. I absolutely love it. Still, I just can't shake the natural feeling I get when I see Anthony Davis' unibrow. It just... takes so much out of me. My brain tells me to tell him to change it, but my heart says everything is just fine. Still, you can't control your natural reaction to something, you know? It's like seeing a lady with a beard. Ultimately, it's fine, but in the moment? It can kinda be unsettling.
Also, unrelated: if Kentucky wins, there is a minimum 40% chance we'll hear "ESS EE SEE" chants. Never good.
Something Funny?: Nothing's funny about a juggernaut. Unless it's the juggernaut. I'd like to use this section to give more love to one of my favorite people in sports, John Calipari. We'll let Chuck Klosterman get the ball rolling.
Calipari has professionalized college sports, which is great for him and good for his recruits. It's just discomforting for anyone who likes NCAA basketball, assuming they're drawn to the same game that lives within their memory. He's built awesome teams for seven consecutive seasons, usually by overhauling his entire roster with transitory superstars who are only attending college because there's no reasonable alternative. He's completely up-front about this strategy, and it's irrefutably effective.
Hell yeah it is. And he'll never fail!
In his three years at Kentucky, he's never lost a home game.
But here's the rub: Every season, something goes wrong at the end — and that validates his critics.
While coaching Memphis in the 2008 final, Calipari had the superior squad, but they couldn't make free throws and lost in OT. At Kentucky in 2010, he had an obscene collection of talent (four of his starters went in the first round of the draft), but they self-destructed in the clutch, just as everyone who hates Calipari always insisted they would. It's like there's this indefinable weakness to his system that everyone hopes will eventually emerge; somehow, we want to believe that the way Calipari conducts business is intangibly doomed (because that reinforces the traditional view of what team sports are supposed to represent).
Gah, so unfair. But what's so damn tantalizing is knowing a title could validate these flimsy arguments. Klosterman also describes UK's amazing defense as "prison-yard"...which just... so cool.
Argument From A Fan Of The Team?: My buddy Don, one of the two biggest UK fans I know, has yet to respond to request, so we'll excerpt a piece from Chuck Klosterman's Grantland article.
Kentucky might lose this weekend. Better teams than the Wildcats (UNLV in '91, Georgetown in '85, UCLA in '74) have lost in the season's last weekend, and college basketball is built for meaningful, memorable upsets. But if this happens, I will be shocked. I would be less surprised if they beat Louisville by 15 and Kansas by 20. Jayhawk Thomas Robinson is usually described as the best player in the country, but Anthony Davis is already better (and improving in real time, right in front of our eyes). He'll go no. 1 in the NBA draft. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist might be the second pick. Every guy Kentucky puts on the floor looks like some version of a pro: They're all highly skilled and weirdly unselfish. It's not unfair, but it feels that way. So I expect Kentucky to crush everyone. I expect them to win for entirely predictable reasons. But then I will sit in my dark living room on Monday night and wonder: What happens now?
What happens now? You tell me.
Now, I'm not suggesting that every single college will turn into a clone of Kentucky, because that's impossible. There aren't enough good players in America for that to happen. But Calipari's scheme will become standard at a handful of universities where losing at basketball is unacceptable: North Carolina, Syracuse, Kansas, UCLA, and maybe even Duke. These schools already recruit one-and-done freshmen, but they'll have to go further; they'll have to be as transparent about their motives as Calipari is (because transparency is the obsession of modernity). If they resist, they will fade. And the result will be a radical amplification of what the game has already become: There will be five schools sharing the 25 best players in the country, and all the lesser programs will kill each other for the right to lose to those five schools in the Sweet 16. It will skew the competitive balance of major conferences and split D-I basketball into two completely unequal tiers. Final Four games will look more and more like sloppy pro games, and national interest in college basketball will wane (even if the level of play technically increases).
VERDICT --While Anthony Davis is a joy to watch (defensively), my favorite remaining player in the tournament is Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. While my support for him is based mainly on his game, I read his Wikipedia page to feel bad about myself, and I'd love to do the same for you.
Gilchrist's father died August 11, 1996 from multiple gunshot wounds. He watches the movie The Lion King once a week because he watched it almost every day with his father until he was three years old. Gilchrist committed to Kentucky on April 14, 2010, which would have been his father's 44th birthday.
Oh... oh, God. More? More.
On July 7, 2011, Gilchrist announced via Twitter that he had legally changed his last name to Kidd-Gilchrist, in order to honor the other important man in his life, his uncle Darrin Kidd. Kidd passed away on the day Gilchrist was set to sign his letter of intent to play at the University of Kentucky.
So if you're not going to do it for Cal, you're not going to do it for awesome basketball, and you're not going to do it for me, do it for Kidd-Gilchrist. This time is his time.
Bobby Loesch is the assistant editor of Tremendous Upside Potential and a weekly contributor to SBN Chicago. He can be reached at bobbyloesch [at] gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @bobbystompy.