The NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament is over, and I have mixed feelings.
FEELING #1: PRIDE
I may not be a huge basketball fan, but I'm not immune to patriotism, so as a Madisonian and a Wisconsinite, I was pretty pleased when the Wisconsin Badgers advanced to the national semifinal round of the tournament. (That several members of the men's basketball team are regular customers at the sandwich shop helped in that regard too, by giving me something of a personal connection to the team. Which sounds pretty ridiculous, I know, but nevertheless it was something I couldn't help reflecting on when I heard certain members of the team mentioned.) But I was proudest of an article about the team that appeared in the New York Times on March 29:
Celebrate? Sorry, We’re Studying
The basketball portion of their day was done, but the Badgers had more business to tend to. They put their heads down and resumed studying, ignoring the foot traffic outside, the chocolate chip cookies left over from the lunch buffet and the officials’ whistles coming from the television, tuned to a regional game featuring their Big Ten rival Michigan, filtering in from the lobby bar on the other side of the double doors.
As Tracey Maloney, the academic support staff member assigned to the team, looked on, the freshman guard Jordan Hill studied Italian vocabulary. Another freshman, Riley Dearring, researched Plessy v. Ferguson for a United States history class.
Frank Kaminsky, a junior forward whose game-high 19 points and career-high 6 blocks had figured prominently in the Badgers’ 17-point victory against Baylor the previous night, worked on a blog post assignment. The senior guard Ben Brust told Maloney about a Nascar podcast for an independent studies project that he had completed a few hours before scoring 14 points against Baylor.
And between emails with his project partners in Madison, the fifth-year senior Zach Bohannon, a reserve forward, helped the junior guard Josh Gasser with his accounting homework.
The term student-athlete is not an oxymoron in the N.C.A.A. tournament. Every senior on the Wisconsin men’s basketball team in the past two seasons graduated, and the team is on track to achieve that again this year. With their 64-63 overtime victory against the top-seeded Wildcats, the Badgers also managed a first for a Bo Ryan-coached team. They earned a trip to the Final Four, which means they will spend another week juggling classwork and tournament games.
“A lot of people think that it’s easy to be a student-athlete, that people just do things for you and this and that,” said Hill, a kinesiology major. “I don’t know about other schools, but at Wisconsin, that doesn’t fly.”
That? Is awesome. I love that UW-Madison is committed enough to providing their student-athletes with a good education that they send someone along with the team just to make sseveral years of low scores on the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate.ure the players are doing their homework, and that one of the members of the team has already completed bachelor's and a master's degree, and is working on an MBA. Like Jordan Hill, I don't know what other schools are like in that regard, but I think I know one that is pretty much the opposite. Which leads me to ...
FEELING #2: DISAPPOINTMENT
I didn't really mind that Wisconsin didn't make it to the championship game, but it killed me that it was University of Kentucky that eliminated them from the tournament. I hate those guys.
Let's start with Kentucky's coach, John Calipari. He is, without question, a terrific basketball coach, but he's also without question a big scumbag. He has the dubious distinction of coaching two teams, University of Massachusetts and University of Memphis, that made it to the Final Four but later had their entire seasons vacated due to having ineligible players on the roster. Calipari was not implicated in either scandal, but look, Division I coaches are basically autocrats, and I think it's highly unlikely that he wasn't aware of the improprieties. On top of that, he encourages his players to leave school and go pro at their earliest opportunity. How hard do you think Kentucky's players were studying during their tournament run, when it's pretty much a sure thing that none of their starters, all of them freshmen, won't be back for their sophomore years?
But Calipari isn't the real villain. University of Kentucky is. They're the ones who hired him despite having coached two different teams into NCAA sanctions. They're the ones who stand by and let him build the program around "one-and-done." They're the ones with the attitude that says, "we don't care how you do it, just bring home as many national championships as you can. It's disgusting. But ...
FEELING #3: RELIEF
Kentucky lost in the championship game, to University of Connecticut. Now, Connecticut is hardly above reproach when it comes to the "student" part of student-athlete; they were banned from postseason play last year due to "several years of low scores on the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate." Nevertheless, that they were allowed to compete this year indicates that they're they're making some progress. And hey, Anybody But Kentucky.
FEELING #4: CONFUSION
Apparently some people thought it was a big deal that the championship game this year pitted a 7-seed against an 8-seed, which strikes my as deeply weird. Granted, this is the first time since seeding was introduced that both teams were lower than a 3-seed, but look, we're not exactly talking about Rhode Island vs. Navy here. It's silly to get hung up on the seeding when you're talking about two of the most consistently successful men's basketball programs in the country. Between the two of them, Connecticut and Kentucky have won more than a third of the last 20 national championship games. If you didn't know how they were seeded, no one would have been even remotely surprised to see those two teams in the championship.