Carmelo Anthony ain’t walking through that door.
The ’76 Indiana Hoosiers ain’t walking through that door.
The Fab 5 could walk through that door, but they’d run into the Fab 6.
Some things have changed as the 2014 NCAA tournament has unfolded, but a lot stayed the same.
Still the same
Kentucky is still a pretty good program and they’ll keep on getting heralded freshman by the basket-full: the brilliant Kentucky-Wichita State game Sunday was hyped up as a possible referendum between two different ways of building a college basketball program — the Shockers built themselves into one of the most successful teams of the last two years by stockpiling several talented but overlooked players who were assured to stay on campus for a few years, while the Wildcats put forth a team built on six high school all-stars who pretty much knew that this year would be the only one they play together as a complete unit.
The mercenaries won this one and despite Wichita’s incredible effort, their never-before-seen 35-game win streak to begin a season and their own pro-level talent in Cleanthony Early, they were not built to win this one.
Kentucky’s freshman class for this season was unprecedented in both its talent and its depth. Many might have been indifferent towards them, filled with cynical feelings about how John Calipari runs his program, but it was proven in that game just how much of a team they are. The Fab 5 was a true team as well and so was the 2012 Kentucky National Champions.
True teams don’t always uphold the most traditional values we like to see, they don’t always come draped in romantic story lines, sometimes they’re just young guys who like to get together and play ball for a little while — one step taken on their way to their ultimate destiny as ballplayers. This hasn’t been an easy season for Kentucky but after Sunday, Julius Randle, the Harrison brothers and company are certainly on their way whether they win the Final Four or not.
It’s very hard to win a national championship as a mid-major: Wichita was as well built as any team from the Missouri Valley Conference and any other conference like it, but it still didn’t happen. Look at the remaining 16 teams in the tourney — only San Diego State comes from a conference considered a mid-major, but that program itself has been one of the most successful in the college game in the last several years, they’re not a mid-major program under Steve Fisher.
Dayton is certainly a Cinderella, but they are not unlike Stanford and Baylor, lower seeds who sharpened themselves competitively in major conferences (the Atlantic 10 isn’t a BCS conference, which doesn’t really matter anymore anyway, but in basketball it is a major).
Mercer and Stephen F. Austin gave us all some thrills but they couldn’t keep it up and both loss big time in the second round. You can even extend this to Creighton, who played in the Big East this season but still has a lot of mid-major DNA in them. The Bluejays suffered the most embarrassing loss of the first four days of the tournament and in doing so proved that they’re still lacking something that the likes of Baylor has naturally, even though that team didn’t have as overall an impressive season as the Bluejays had.
You always need more people: Carmelo Anthony sort of spoiled things for all the college basketball prodigies that have followed him and his spectacular 2003 run, basically carrying Syracuse to the National Championship.
As the most recent example of this phenomenon (see: Danny Manning in ’88 and Larry Bird almost getting it all in ’79 as earlier examples), a still very relevant pro player, Anthony casts a shadow over every out-sized talent who stands clearly as his team’s best player. Entering each tournament, each one of these players are measured (some passively, others directly) against Melo, their team’s chances of winning it all based on the star’s chances to put together a six-game stretch for the ages.
This year’s main big dawgs were Duke’s Jabari Parker, who spent his entire freshman season doing things no one who was only in their second semester in Durham has done before, and Doug McDermott, who Sports Illustrated went as far as to make a direct visual comparison to another gangly, white midwestern workman of the court who dazzled a previous generation.
Both Parker and McDermott flamed out spectacularly, nothing was really cemented for either player this March — Parker was left completely dazed and only questions remain as to whether he’ll leave behind an incomplete legacy as a college player to expedite his sure draft lottery path into the NBA or if he’ll join another standout Duke freshman class next year and give it another go.
McDermott’s legacy at the college level is rock solid overall but he never put together a strong March. Again, he is almost assured a spot in the upcoming NBA lottery, so it may not mean much in the grand scheme, but no player of this generation has represented both the honor of staying in school for four years as a pro prospect along with the folklore that can surround an athlete when they play outstandingly as an big-time amateur.
In the end, though, all that meant little, it meant little to T.J. Warren, Marcus Smart and definitely to Andrew Wiggins, who judging by his six-shot attempt effort Sunday in Kansas’ loss to Stanford is not about that one-man gang life.
The best teams — the teams who typically win the NCAA tournament, the teams who are left in this year’s tournament — either scoop up a group of McDonald’s All-Americans in one swoop or they mold several players with promise and heart over the course of at least two or three years. Once or twice a generation an exceptional talent can catch fire better than Katniss Everdeen but unlike those movies she stars in, sequels do not come every year.
*stay with WARR.com for more on the NCAA tournament, including preview posts on all the Sweet 16 games early this Thursday and Friday
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