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The Gods and the Games

We should have seen it coming. Saturday morning Sportscenter had comments from some clown who had called in and brayed about how his Tar Heels were going to knock off UConn. It seemed to be classic weauxfing, most notable in that it glossed right over the little fact that the Tylers had a couple of games before a meeting with the Huskies.

Intrigued, I ambled to a message board populated by large numbers of Tar Loons. Sure enough, I found a board slam full of outrageous predictions about how Ol’ Roy was going to establish himself as the greatest coach since You- Know- Who. No coach in the history of the game had come close to accomplishing what Ol’ Roy was easily going to manage just as soon as lowly George Mason had been dispatched by 25.

There was one final bit of rank overlooking of the next opponent. For Sunday lunch, I succumbed to the entreaties of that Gilligan’s Island song repeated every few seconds on television during the games. At the next table, a middle-aged and well-dressed couple was also discussing Ol’ Roy’s chances against Jim Calhoun. I listened in amazement. The Tar Loon on Sportscenter sounded like he was calling from a Wal-Mart parking lot. This couple seemed to be of a better class than the typical Wal-Mart Tar Weauxfer and should have none better. One does not trifle with the Weauxf Gods and get away with it.

As Ol’ Roy slammed his fist into inanimate objects and angrily threw a chair to the floor, he gestured for all who fell to this latest display of the awful power possessed by the Weaux Gods. Comments such as “George Mason? You have to be kidding me. At least Roy will be able to rest the starters in the Second Half,” “It’s insulting that Iowa should have to play somebody called Northwestern State in the NCAA Tournament” and “Anybody that knows anything about basketball realizes that Kansas will beat Bradley by 30,” always come the attention of the Weauxf Gods. Retribution is swift and fierce.

The Sweet Sixteen of this year’s NCAA tournament has become the Weauxf Gods round. Hoo AD Craig “See, Tubby- I was right” Littlepage and his NCAA Mid-major Selection Committee certainly must feel vindicated. Especially the George Mason AD, whose manipulating his team into the NCAA field resulted in the Patriots taking out in one weekend half of last year’s Final Four, including that most storied program in the land, North Carolina . Of course, 75% of the remaining field is composed of teams from the power leagues, but who’s counting? At least one of the ‘little guys’ will make it to the Elite Eight. I imagine the number of brackets calling for George Mason to meet Wichita State is few.

The biggest upset around these parts was GMU knocking off Carolina . The Patriots’ win was schemed by former Hoo assistant Jim Larranaga, a solid coach who has spent a couple of decades perfecting his strategic and tactical techniques well out of basketball’s limelight. It never seemed to occur to any of the ACC’s highly-paid coaches that the Heels could be stopped in their tracks by denying Tyler the ball, draping two, three or even five and six players around Ol’ Roy’s super-frosh and daring the rest of the team to beat him. It did to Larranaga, who makes about as much as Carolina spends on valet service for Ol’ Roy. Wanna guess what Coach K tries during the next Greatest Rivalry Ever game?

There are a couple of things to be gleaned from the weekend’s spate of upsets. One is that there are some pretty good coaches operating off the ESPN radar. The fifty-something Jim Larranaga is certainly one of them. As far as I know, he has never gotten a sniff of the big-time jobs that seem to go to the young guns wearing designer suits and gobs of hair gel. All he has to offer is a solid basketball mind.

If Herb Sendek tires of listening to the Loonpack calling for his head, gives them the finger and quits, Lee Fowler could do a lot worse than Larranaga and probably will. The fiction that either of the Ricks, Barnes or Pittino, will give up their sweet deals to come be third banana in the Triangle remains just that. A place whose program was ground into small pieces by Jim Valvano certainly does not need Bob Huggins. Larranaga might not be interested in moving to the ACC’s pressure cooker, but it just might be worth at least asking. His hiring would certainly enrage the “Let’s Get A Big Name In Here Crowd.’ But, Larranaga has already proven he can out-smart Ol’ Roy, which should be the big thing for the Pack.

The second Upset Lesson is that the large numbers of early exits to the NBA are leveling the collegiate playing field. A snarling Caulton Tudor of the good old N&O, who seemed to take the Heels losing as a personal affront, pointed out that this would not have happened had Raymond Felton, Sean May and Rashad McCants hung around Blue Heaven. It probably wouldn’t have. At least Tudor did not blame Carolina ’s loss on ACC expansion. Duke would also be a bit better if Luol Deng were still there and Shaun Livingstone had shown up in the first place rather than heading straight to the Navigator lot. If Chris Paul and Jarrett Jack had spent senior years for Wake and Georgia Tech the ACC likely would have had a couple more teams in the NCAA Tournament instead of the bottom two seeds in the ACC one.

A team composed of seasoned second and third-tier recruits that develop together can knock off a team of freshmen, still wet behind the ears no matter how many recruiting stars were affixed to their names by the recruiting services. Tyler Hansbrough is not going to hang around Carolina long enough to one day be a wily veteran schooling some freshman hotshot the way Jai Lewis did him. Neither will Josh McRoberts, coming into his own just in time for the NBA draft. The lure of pro cash is just too great for those to whom it is available.

Teams like Carolina , and Duke, and UConn and Kansas and all of the other places that attract the high-caliber recruit are going to be turning over their rosters at a much faster pace than will those operating on a lower recruiting plane. Having far more experienced teams will create opportunities like the one George Mason took advantage of Sunday. Both Duke and UConn are playing with a lot of seniors, increasingly a rarity at the elite programs. We shall see what happens to them next year when both will be about as young as was Carolina this year.

In the meantime, we head to the Sweet Sixteen, which CBS will manage to wedge in between all of the repetitive commercials, although I did notice the Coach K Chevy ones disappeared during the Carolina game. I imagine it would have been entirely too much for the Heels to watch their heroes lose, then stare at Coach K talking about ‘truth.’

It will be a Sweet Sixteen that will have only two ACC teams, one in Tudor’s Bizarro post-expansion world. It will also have two from the Missouri Valley Conference, although none from the vaunted Big 11. CBS is probably not altogether thrilled with the ratings possibilities of GMU-Wichita, a mid-major dream that may one day hasten the creation of a new NCAA ‘BCS Division’ that takes the basketball tournament with it. In the meantime, fans of UConn would be well advised to keep the weauxfing to a minimum.

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