For all the fun a basketball season provides, seeing it come to an end can be a bit of a relief, if only as an escape from watching the same TV commercials shown over and over again. And again. Over and over.
Nor do you have to hear ad nauseam how talented Kentucky is. At least for a few months.
During the NCAA tournament Kentucky maintained one key advantage that didn’t even require a deft recruiting pitch by coach John Calipari. Whenever the Wildcats are on TV, the cameras invariably find actress Ashley Judd, an avid UK fan. Wisconsin countered that visual with actress, Olivia Munn, accompanied by no less a sports personage than Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Duke got in the mix with a Pro Bowl quarterback among its rooters, Dallas’ Tony Romo. Unfortunately the Romo aesthetic was less compelling because he was paired with his Cowboys coach, Jason Garrett.
Who’s in the stands is just a sideshow, no more meaningful than the infelicitous remarks made in defeat by Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan.
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The coach made the mistake of letting his frustration show after losing to Duke in the title contest, lamenting, “There was more body contact in this game than any game we played all year.” Apparently it slipped Ryan’s mind that his team plays in the notoriously physical Big 10. He also forgot there were more fouls called on both squads when Duke beat the Badgers last December at Madison than in the national championship game (35 vs. 28).
Rough play long has been a knock on Mike Krzyzewski’s teams, especially on defense. Lately, though, the Duke coach has ascended to paragon’s status, so it’s tougher to make the charges stick.
A spectator who sat through 13 games in quick succession over five days at the ACC tournament noticed that collisions, usually initiated by the dribbler, repeatedly resulted in fouls on defenders. This reflected a national rules interpretation that encourages players to drive remorselessly to the basket, a tactic that Krzyzewski, ever the realist, encouraged with this year’s squad. It’s also a side-effect of the growing thirst to boost offensive production.
Like it or not, the game doesn’t always evolve in attractive ways. Just look at the uniforms adidas foisted on the teams it sponsors in apparent hope that resembling ungainly bumblebees will be the wave of the future. “I don’t necessarily like how they look,” Wisconsin star Frank Kaminsky, the AP player of the year, said of the uniforms, also worn by N.C State. The reluctant living mannequin added, “I don’t have a choice.”
At least contemporary players escaped the form-fitting unitards that Nike supplied to N.C. State at coach Jim Valvano’s behest in early 1989. “The unitards were absolutely horrendous,” said guard Rodney Monroe. Players wore shorts to cover the lower reaches of the revealing spandex, and the uniforms were quickly shelved.
Other changes in fashion can be more subtle. It’s doubtful an ACC game was played in 2014-15 that didn’t feature a musical rendering, however muddled, of Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off.”
Knees, eclipsed by cloth since the days of Michigan’s Fab Five in the early nineties, reappeared beneath many uniform shorts. This surely pleased North Carolina coach Roy Williams, who prefers his players wear less-voluminous shorts so they don’t lose the ball while attempting a between-the-legs dribble.
Hair made a comeback too. Middle-aged Michael Jordan’s tonsorial style clearly has become passé. Players now vie to have the most luxuriant hank of hair, with shaven skulls mostly relegated to older guys in the coaching ranks.
Few players went as far as UNC’s J.P. Tokoto, who adopted a combination Mohawk-arrowhead look.
Tokoto, a popular media choice for the ACC’s all-defensive team, wasn’t among the options the school offered on the ballot, hinting at disfavor within the program. That might help explain one of the last great upsets of the 2015 season: the erratic, offensively challenged Tokoto announced for the draft even before Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, the ACC player of the year, and Justise Winslow, among the best forwards the league has seen in recent memory.
The Blue Devils were part of another distinctive ’15 trend. No, not relying on freshmen to win a national title. Rather, they were among ACC players who delayed returning to the team huddle during pregame introductions in order to exchange fist bumps with game officials. Some squads extended this show of solidarity to those seated at the scorer’s table. At N.C. State, Pitt players even bumped fists with TV analyst Dan Bonner. They lost, anyway.
Meanwhile, officials became more prominent, if only because they so often delayed action to stand at the scorer’s table looking at video monitors. The commitment to get calls right is laudable, but frankly the decisions contemplated often aren’t worth the time expended. Just give officials a minute once they go to the video monitors. (Fans can have fun counting down the seconds aloud.) If conclusive evidence isn’t found in that time to overturn a call, stick with the original ruling and move on. Some of us have other things to do, like watch a basketball game.
Probably the most welcome change this season was more substantial – the solid showing by the ACC’s premier teams, which were consistently competitive with the best in the country.
Sure, the Big Ten won the annual early season challenge series 8-6, and a truly superior conference achieves top-to-bottom balance, which the ACC still lacks. But the league had five clubs ranked in the top 25 in the final Associated Press poll – in descending order Duke, Virginia, Notre Dame, North Carolina and Louisville. No league had more. N.C. State joined the others in the final USA Today/Coaches poll, ranked 24th.
Every ranked ACC team got an NCAA bid, the second straight year the 15-member conference had six in the tournament field. All but Virginia advanced to the regional semifinals. That was more Sweet 16 representatives than in any previous season in league history, as many as the ACC had in the last three years combined. Then again, if you keep adding accomplished basketball programs through expansion, your likelihood of placing more teams in the NCAAs can only increase.
Topping off the season, Duke won the national championship after becoming the first ACC member in five years to reach the Final Four. Since the Blue Devils won the 2010 NCAA title, as a matter of fact. That’s one more championship than Kentucky won over the same period with Calipari directing his much-discussed freshmen pass-through program. But who’s counting?