It’s easy to forget that just five years ago, United States basketball was struggling, stung from its bronze finishes at the 2004 Olympics and 2006 FIBA World Championships and wondering if the world had finally caught up.
Mike Krzyzewski was the man tasked with returning the country to international basketball following the Olympic disappointment, and although he came up short in the 2006 FIBA worlds, he eventually returned the birth nation of the game back to its rightful place atop the tallest podium, with gold medals around his players’ necks. Duke’s head coach said he would be stepping down as Team USA coach this week following two golden finishes in 2008 and 2012 .
It’s easy (albeit disingenuous) to discount Coach K’s international accomplishments over the past few years.
Sure, point at the roster stocked with some of the greatest talent the world has ever seen and say, “Who couldn’t win with those guys?” Well, Larry Brown fell short in 2004 with a younger LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan and Carmelo Anthony. It can happen. It has before. If the most talented team won every single year at any level of basketball, there would be no need for a coach at all; they’d all be wastes of money.
Team USA president Jerry Colangelo says he still plans to talk with Krzyzewski about a possible return, and why not? Coach K got the “Redeem Team” and the “Really Good Team That Never Found A Rhyme-based Nickname” to buy in and it worked. He’s to be commended for that, not discounted.
It’s just another couple of notches on the belt of one of the five greatest basketball coaches to ever pace the sidelines.
KEEP AN EYE ON…
Trevor Mbakwe, Minnesota: Every now and then, Minnesota’s uber-athletic forward will come up big—and his team usually benefits. The Gophers are 5-1 all-time when Mbakwe scores 19 or more points. Against Indiana on Monday, he delivered a career performance: 21 points, 12 rebounds and this monster block on Cody Zeller. Last week, FCP noted that Minnesota, despite its struggles, is still a team to watch out for. With Mbakwe playing at an elite level, that sentiment is an understatement.
Erick Green, Virginia Tech: The nation’s leading scorer could have taken Wednesday night off against Miami, one of many his Hokies have been thoroughly pasted this season. But still, after a rough first half, he finished with 16 points (6-of-13 shooting) and four assists. Green has posted double-digit point totals in every game this season, despite receiving little-to-no help from his unimpressive team. It’s difficult to imagine a player on the ACC’s worst team capturing the Player of the Year award, but it’s even harder to think about where the Hokies would be without him.
THE FIFTH WATCH
Miami at Duke: In a game that has been circled on the Blue Devils’ calendar since Miami stole its lunch money on Jan. 23— a 90-63 pummeling—Coach K will surely have his team rearing to play. Of course, playing in Cameron Indoor never hurts. But after a rough stretch of playing down to opponents, the Hurricanes looked to get their swagger back against Virginia Tech, and its suffocating defense (6th nationally) could prove to be troublesome to a Duke team still without Ryan Kelly. Pick: Miami
Louisville at Syracuse: For the conclusion of a rough stretch of games versus ranked opponents, Syracuse gets a resurgent Cardinals squad—one that has won six straight regulation games (it fell in five OTs to Notre Dame). Orange point guard Michael Carter-Williams is still searching for his early season form and Rick Pitino’s defense is usually not the place to find it. Syracuse won at Louisville earlier in the Big East schedule. Look for the Cards to return the favor. Pick: Louisville
Wichita State at Creighton: The Fighting Doug McDermotts have surprisingly lost four of eight and do not look like much of an NCAA tourney threat. However, in a season finale that will decide the deceptively strong Missouri Valley Conference, Wichita State comes in with little momentum following Wednesday night’s loss to Evansville. Expect a slow-it-down pace in this one, with McDermott (22.4 points, 7.8 rebounds) finding some holes in the Wichita State D. Pick: Creighton
Michigan State at Michigan: Try to recall the last time this rivalry was so competitive—it’s tough. The Spartans whooped the Wolverines a couple weeks ago in East Lansing, and with the two top-10 teams meeting again, the viewing public should be in for a more competitive game. This begins the tail-end of a brutal stretch for Tom Izzo’s squad, which has lost two straight. Michigan point guard Trey Burke had zero help in the first meeting; that should change this time around—even after a disruptive loss to Penn State. Pick: Michigan
Florida State at North Carolina: A strange game to highlight, with neither team being ranked, but there is so much perimeter talent to watch here—and the game is important, too. A loss here for either program could be detrimental to an NCAA berth (especially for FSU). UNC hasrevitalized itself by entering P.J. Hairston into the starting rotation—the physical guard is scoring 17 points per game during the team’s current win streak—and should prove too much for the Seminoles’ underwhelming defense. Pick: UNC
THIS IS WHY…
Occasionally (and only occasionally!) it’s smart to agree with a Duke grad about basketball.
Jay Williams , an ESPN analyst and former Duke All-American, recently vented his frustration with the lack of importance placed on the regular season in conference play—instead, conference tournaments receive the automatic NCAA tournament bids and the majority of attention—and called for a change. It’s hard to argue with. Which team earns the automatic NCAA Tournament selection: the squad that rolls to a 15-1 conference record and falls in the tourney finals or the lowly 4-12 team ( Here’s looking at you, Georgia ) that gets hot at the perfect time and pulls off the miracle tournament win.
At the very least, the 15-1 team deserves the right to call itself the undisputed conference champion, right?
The problem, of course, comes down to dollars and cents. Championship Week is a key selling point and a highly effective lead-in into the drama and passion surrounding “March Madness”—the same basketball-centric month the NCAA essentially sold for $11 billion to CBS and Turner a few years ago. And without the pivotal ingredient—a potential NCAA bid on the line during every conference tournament game—the drama is put on layaway for another week.
All this is understood and appreciated.
But Williams still has a point, and it’s worth looking into, at the very least, for major conferences. It comes to a point where the intentional drama is watered down by the obvious. Perhaps there are ways to find a best-of-both-worlds scenario. Or, perhaps this is why we love March just the way it is, blatant flaws or not.
This is why, though, there is a definitive distinction between “Conference Champion” and “Conference Tournament Champion.” Keep that in mind when you’re hanging those banners, kids.