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AMID THE MADNESS, NOTHING WOULD TOP DUKE AND SCHEYER WINNING IT ALL
Narratives range from a fatal shooting (Alabama), the dream of a mid-major such as Drake (not the rapper) and a slippery old coach (Rick Pitino), but what if Coach K’s successor triumphs in Year One?
Your brackets will break. In fact, they already have, instantly ending the one-in-9.2-quintillion chance of a clean, bloodless, 63-for-63 forecast of the NCAA tournament. To call it March Madness is to minimize what’s ahead. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is more like it, though a movie that won seven Oscars might lose to a No. 16 seed if entered in the West Region as the overall No. 1.
Prepare for wreckage — behemoths crashing and mid-majors rising from the smoky debris. Such are the endless possibilities in college basketball, a sport in upheaval through scandals and a busy transfer portal yet still tantalizing to gamblers ranging from high-rolling whales to eyes-closed office guessers. This is where TV networks should post health warnings during games, like the one required on tobacco products, reminding people that buzzer-beaters can kill.
Think anything can’t happen? Even a slippery Rick Pitino lurks, gunning for the St. John’s job via his humble Iona perch, years after his failure to keep sex escorts out of the basketball dorms forced Louisville to vacate a 2013 national championship. He swears he’s a new man now, 70 and over-Botoxed. But here he is again, campaigning for yet another coaching vacancy — name-dropping the St. John’s president as “a superstar” — with his 13th-seeded Gaels poised to knock off a championship darkhorse, UConn, in the first round.
“If I have interest and they have interest, I need to get to that campus and see it,” said Pitino, who lives by a golf club 20 miles from Queens and probably already has signed the contract.
The weeks ahead will be beautifully gnarly. Can you say Drake without a “Hotline Bling” reference? Furman? The College of Charleston? Kent State? FAU, the acronym for Florida Atlantic University in that nouveau-riche hoops hotbed of Boca Raton? Isn’t UC-Santa Barbara where you major in drinking while listening to yacht rock? Colgate, giant-slayer or toothpaste tube? There’s a chance we could fall in love with any of those tales.
And that sounds eminently appealing amid a grotesque scene at Alabama, among the primary favorites but also vulnerable to a colossal upset we’d very much appreciate. Somehow, star forward Brandon Miller continues to play after transporting a gun to a teammate who awaits trial as an alleged killer, leaving a macabre pall every time he touches the ball. Rather than suspend Miller until the legal outcome — a sensible option given even his peripheral involvement in a fatal shooting — the Tuscaloosa athletic factory callously smells a title in a sport where the ball is round and the coach isn’t Nick Saban. This enables a twisted situation allowing idiot fans to wear t-shirts with the slogan, “KILLIN’ OUR WAY THROUGH THE SEC IN ’23,” amid opposing chants of “Lock him up!” and “Guilty!” All while the family of Jamea Jonae Harris, who was 23, grieves her death and pleads for the university to punish Miller and another Alabama player at the crime scene, point guard Jaden Bradley.
Makes you want to start humming “One Shining Moment,’’ doesn’t it? “They sidestepped a situation involving criminal activity in which Brandon Miller was associated,” said CBS studio host Greg Gumbel, mindlessly making an alleged murder sound like an ankle sprain.
If that doesn’t challenge the depths of tone-deafness, consider the guy who does coach this team. Nate Oats, who originally said Miller was in the “wrong spot at the wrong time,” continues to be a clumsy spokesman for a sport trying to cleanse itself. Asked if any of his players own guns and if they’re required to register them with the athletic department — a fair question, considering Darius Miles texted Miller asking him to bring his gun before the shooting — Oats said, “To my knowledge, not one of them has a gun now.”
To his knowledge? To my knowledge, no one outside that state, and maybe inside that state, wants the Crimson Tide anywhere near the Final Four. It’s hard to believe Miller and Oats will persevere through an intensifying media gauntlet. They’re among the endangered species at the top. Kansas is trying to defend its national title, this time without the grime of major rules infractions, but Bill Self will coach his team only days after two stents were inserted in his heart. Houston’s dreamy path to a Final Four in its hometown is clouded by the injured groin of Marcus Sasser, the team’s leading scorer. UCLA had Bill Walton doing cartwheels, at least in his mind, until Jaylen Clark’s Achilles tendon issue knocked him out of the tournament and the Bruins out of a top seeding. Purdue is vulnerable for no other reason than being Purdue, or Purdon’t, a program that never has won a national title and hasn’t reached a Final Four since 1980.
“Obviously, I know, you get judged on what you do in the tournament,” said coach Matt Painter, who has advanced as far as the Elite EIght only once in his 18 seasons and better take advantage of 7-4 unicorn Zach Edey.
It’s time for a new story line, if not a new name. The sport is in a disruptive mode, with Jim Boeheim finally leaving Syracuse after overstaying his welcome way too long, joining Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams and Jay Wright in a recent farewell march of coaching legends. Plenty of old dudes are still around — from Houston’s Kelvin Sampson, seeking his first title at 67, to John Calipari, looking for one final exhaust burst at 64 as they tire of his act at Kentucky. Williams’ successor at North Carolina, Hubert Davis, did such a poor job in not making the field that it’s stunning to think he almost won it all last spring. Kyle Neptune has been less than otherworldly stepping into Wright’s Italian loafers at Villanova, which settles for the NIT consolation event that Carolina arrogantly blew off.
So who stands tall as the most refreshing figure in what would be the most delicious narrative? Meet Jon Scheyer, 35, someone you can’t help but root for.
He’s the coach at Duke, a program you don’t like to root for. But you’ll find yourself liking him nonetheless as an early survivor of a succession plan that seemed heartless. Scheyer was Krzyzewski’s hand-chosen caretaker of the paragon he fathered, from the ashes of nothingness, and anything less than a perpetuation of a uniquely American brand would be considered a failure. You can make a healthy case that Krzyzewski is basketball’s greatest coach ever, figuring he’d have won multiple NBA championships had he been inclined to join Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles. He won five national titles in a game constantly evolving, not always for the better. He won three Olympic gold medals as savior of the U.S. national team. He won a record 1,202 games on the college level.
Would Scheyer get through one season when the Pope still has a campus office directly above his? Duke haters and critics-at-large asked that loaded question as recently as last month, when his young team — loaded with the usual freshmen blue-chippers — suffered back-to-back losses to Miami and Virginia after earlier blowout losses to North Carolina State and Purdue. Maybe he was the wrong guy for the golden gig when Coach K could have hired almost anyone he wanted, including protegees Tommy Amaker and Chris Collins, who cured what ailed Northwestern and has the Wildcats back in the tournament. Was it time for Krzyzewski to come back from his podcasting studio, return to the bench and fix the mess?
“I’m here when he needs me. But I also want to give him the space he needs to develop his own brand within our brand,” Coach K offered amid the storm, calmly keeping his distance, waiting until Feb. 14 to watch his first post-retirement game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Duke hasn’t lost in a month. The freshmen, notably 7-footer Kyle Filipowski, are taking a nine-game winning streak and an ACC tournament title into the Big Dance. Suddenly, no one questions Jon Scheyer or demands Krzyzewski. If injuries were an obstacle for weeks, health is now a core strength as other contenders come up lame.
The shock will be if Duke falls short of the Final Four. No team is hotter and plays better defense. No team has come farther, thanks to a coach who always has believed in himself, dating back to his years as a suburban Chicago prep hotshot who wrote a regular diary in the Sun-Times sports section. He didn’t have to take the assignment, post-Coach K. He wanted the assignment, daring to embrace the enormity when people around the sport and across the land were asking, “Who?” and “Why?”
“All I can tell you is ever since I’ve been young — I’m talking real young — I’ve believed I was going to succeed,” Scheyer said Saturday after the win over 13th-ranked Virginia. “My team was going to win. It didn’t always win, but found a way at really every level. Whether it was unrealistic or not, that’s how I felt.”
He called it “a surreal feeling,” realizing he had overcome a critical hurdle and now can move on to the first NCAA tournament of the Scheyer Era. Imagine if he wins a championship. He must win six games, but the vibe suggests that isn’t impossible. The dramatic turnaround couldn’t have happened if his players didn’t respect him and weren’t buying in. “Everyone was talking about, ‘We're too young, Scheyer's first year,’ ’’ freshman guard Tyrese Proctor said. “We just stuck together all year and just didn't give up.”
“Yeah, it’s been good,” forward Mark Mitchell said. “I think we have a pretty young team, and obviously, Coach has been around a lot longer than us. But in his first year, just to see him grow since the beginning, I think it’s been just a pleasure. I think we’ve gotten better, he’s also got better with us, learning new things each and every day. So it’s really good to see. I definitely think we’re a team to be reckoned with.”
These are Scheyer’s kids, remember, not Krzyzewski’s. He recruited them and knew the importance of building bonds that could withstand impediments. “There hasn't been a season that I've been a part of, whether it's as a player or as a coach, that hasn't had those ups and downs,” he said. “It's a matter of timing with them and circumstances. I’m incredibly fortunate the experience I got before I was a head coach just with Coach K, how he would just be so open in the way he would share, just whether it be game plan, strategy, motivation, whatever it may be. But for me, I feel I’ve gotten a lot better. I’ve gotten a lot better with these guys. I’m just so thankful for them.
“You build up the trust in the relationship, and that’s what I’m most proud of. We’ve been through a lot together, and people — I don’t know what people say, to be honest with you — but I know for us, we believe in each other, and that’s what I’m most proud of throughout this year. They understand it now. It’s a matter of getting there and growing up. I don’t look at these guys as freshmen anymore. I’m just proud of them for what they’ve been through. Any noise, anything else. They just hung tough.”
Don’t expect to see Coach K anywhere near the traveling party. He wanted his successor to build his own brand. That is happening, already, and if Duke beats Purdue in the Sweet 16 and Gonzaga in the title game and wins a national championship in his first season, the Pope can move out of his office. Jon Scheyer will own the building, the program and the whole damn sport.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.