I go through this every March, spending entirely too many hours reading NCAA tournament previews, Googling “What is a Gael?” and wondering whether it’s worth this much effort to win a $25 Subway gift card.
What I haven’t ever done before (other than consume so much caffeine that my heart is visible through my skin) is openly pull for a North Carolina team that somehow feels like an underdog, despite having a tiny No. 1 printed beside their name, a starting lineup with Elite 8 experience and a shiny new ACC Player of the Year.
When I fill out my bracket’s already smudged, impossibly cramped lines, I tend to start with the Final Four and work backwards, which probably explains why I’ll have to pay for my own Egg White Flatbreads until forever.
My apologies to the Orange, the Fightin’ Izzos and both sets of Gaels (GOOGLE IT YOURSELF), but I fully expect the national championship game to be Dec. 3: The Sequel, a rematch of the Kentucky-Carolina game that ended when John Henson’s last-second shot was blocked by Anthony Davis’ fully extended eyebrow. Wildcats 73, Tar Heels 72.
As the overall No. 1 seed, the pressure is on Kentucky and on coach John Calipari, who in three seasons with the Wildcats has a 96-14 record and a Final Four appearance but the same number of titles as does the lightly padded folding chair he’ll pace in front of Thursday afternoon.
Is Kentucky the most talented team in the tournament? Absolutely. They have Davis — a legit National Player of the Year candidate — and three other potential NBA draft picks and an equal number of reasons for Calipari to give thanks to the 2005 NBA collective bargaining agreement, the one that requires players to turn 19 before they stand onstage towering over David Stern on draft night.
According to ESPN the Magazine, since that rule went into effect, there have been 39 one-and-done NCAA players from 21 different schools who traded their sophomore years to become NBA freshmen. Eight of them have played for Calipari, either at Memphis (Shawne Williams, Derrick Rose) or Kentucky (pretty much his entire 2009-10 team) and Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will most likely U-Haul their belongings out of Lexington after Kentucky’s tournament run ends.
East Region No. 2 seed Ohio State has seen five freshmen skip to the NBA, including Greg Oden and two of his 'Thad Five' teammates but, for whatever reason, Thad Matta's program doesn't have the reputation that Kentucky's does. Is it because he went into Columbus and cleaned up the Calipari-esque mess that Jim O'Brien made? Maybe.
Contrast that with Carolina, who only have a single one-and-doner (Brandon Wright) since the age limit was established in 2006.
But back to the other blue and white. What Calipari does is entirely legal (um, at least when it comes to recruiting and yes, I might be the first person to write 'Calipari' and 'entirely legal' in the same sentence) and, if a Blue Chip wing is ever added to the College Basketball Hall of Fame, he’ll be the first one to get a bronze statue.
But his overstuffed display case of Single-Season Players is also why I can’t get excited about his Kentucky team, if ‘team’ is what you call a collection of guys who spend less time on a college campus than the average Domino’s delivery driver. Can I appreciate their talent? Of course. And in a bizarre way, I can appreciate Calipari’s too.
I just wonder (out loud, which makes people avoid me on public transportation) whether that’s the reason his squads weren't the ones who took turns cutting down the nets in Houston or Indianapolis (or in San Antonio in 2008, but we’re supposed to pretend that Memphis’ 38-win season didn’t exist).
The Tar Heels will most likely send four players (Zeller, Henson, Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall) onto next season’s NBA rosters, but those are the same guys who were willing to trade a trip to last year's draft for a shot at this year’s national title.
They remind me of another Tyler'ed UNC team, the 2009 Hansbrough-led Heels who had four starters that either withdrew from the draft (or, in Hansbrough’s case, never declared). They began the season as the No. 1 team in the country (a lot like this year's model) and finished it with a championship win over Michigan State.
Whatever Roy Williams is selling — and PLEASE don’t let it be sportscoats — his players buy it; in nine years, they’ve brought him a pair of national titles, hanging two silk banners from the Dean E. Smith Center rafters and tying Smith's own Championship mark.
It might be the seven cups of coffee typing, but I’m taking Zeller’s leadership, Barnes’ vision and the team's combined experience over another Calipari-assembled collection of one year Wildcats.
Carolina wins. I’m writing that in the center of my bracket and I wouldn’t erase it, even if I could.
Jelisa Castrodale has learned a lot about life by making a mess of her own. Read more at jelisacastrodale.com , follow her on twitter at twitter.com/gordonshumway, or contact her at
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