Bill Self's Kansas team is the No. 1 overall seed in this year's NCAA tournament*. The Jayhawks' first-round opponent is Austin Peay, which won the Ohio Valley Conference tournament as a No. 8 seed. By virtue of its ranking, Kansas is supposed to have the easiest possible path to the Final Four. So, why was Self quick to dismiss the significance of his team's seed? "Now it doesn't mean anything," Self told reporters Sunday night. "I was trying to think what it would be like, and it would be kind of like having a stellar high school career, and it's over, but when you get to college, you've got to start all over again and go compete."
*What's all of this basketball stuff doing here? Isn't this supposed to be a college football column? Yes, and we'll return to our regularly scheduled programming next week. But the Big Dance is all anyone wants to talk about right now, and as much as I love football, this is the best sports week of the calendar year. Let's enjoy the bouncy hoops.
Self's skepticism is well earned. His team won a national title (in 2008) and played for another (in '12), and it lost to 14th-seeded Bucknell in '05 and 13th-seeded Bradley in '06. Self knows bizarre things happen when groups of 18- to 22-year-olds get thrown into single-elimination scenarios against unfamiliar opponents. That is especially true when there are no superteams in the mix. Six different teams held the No. 1 spot in the AP poll this season. While a poll in a sport that holds a 68-team tournament to determine its champion is about as useful as decaffeinated coffee, it is indicative of how difficult it was to identify the elite teams this year. As Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports pointed out Sunday, this is the first time in tournament history that every team in the field has at least four losses. What does that mean? A few things:
• You're probably going to get crushed in your office pool by that dude in accounts payable who picks teams based solely upon which mascot would win a fight to the death. The lady in HR who makes picks based on the states she has visited is going to mop the floor with you, too. Get over it.
• Some coach is going to ride two (possibly lucky) wins into a much better job than he deserves.
• Any single-digit seed is capable of winning the national title.
• There is a 20-year-old you've never heard of whose life story you will know by Saturday. Fennis Dembo, Harold "The Show" Arceneaux, God Shammgod and Ali Farokhmanesh say hello.
• This will be the first year a No. 16 seed beats a No. 1.
• I'm a football writer. At least one thing on this list will be wrong. (But if the No. 16 seed thing is correct, I reserve the right to brag about it every March for the rest of my life. It's right there in The Rules of Punditry.)
Even though SI colleague Seth Davis—who follows the sport on a daily basis—told us last week that this tournament isn't really more open than last year's tourney, it feels more open. Probably because of oddities such as this one.
Texas is a No. 6 seed. Northern Iowa is a No. 11 seed. They face off Friday night in Oklahoma City. If the Longhorns win, they could wind up playing No. 3 seed Texas A&M in a rivalry game made even more bitter by the fighting between the programs when the Aggies left the Big 12 for the SEC following the 2011-12 season. They finally played one another again in a November tournament in the Bahamas (A&M won 84–73), but this meeting would obviously mean a lot more.
Meanwhile, Kansas did not get an easy path. Even its potential second-weekend destination was in dispute. The Jayhawks are a team from the Midwest. So, placing it in the bracket headed to the Chicago regional would make sense. But whenever possible, the committee puts high-seeded teams into the closest site. As the Jayhawk flies, Louisville is closer to Lawrence than Chicago. Self said his iPhone disagreed with the committee's mileage chart. "Siri told me that Chicago was like 448 and Louisville was 515," Self said. "Maybe that's by vehicle, instead of by air, so I don't know. So Siri, obviously, can't trust her at all."
Of course, every coach believes his team got placed in the region of death. Kentucky coach John Calipari told reporters Sunday that he recently told Indiana coach Tom Crean that the Wildcats and Hoosiers would meet in the tournament. If Kentucky beats Stony Brook and Indiana beats Chattanooga, they'll do just that on Saturday in Raleigh, N.C.
These last few paragraphs likely make too many assumptions. They involve round-of-64 chalk, and history tells us that we'll be shocked by some of the teams that don't make it until the weekend. What if 15th-seeded Cal-State Bakersfield, which qualified for the tourney on a buzzer beater, somehow stuns second-seeded Oklahoma, which ended its last game with a buzzer beater that didn't count? What if 13th-seeded UNC-Wilmington small-balls defending national champion Duke into submission on Thursday?
There aren't a lot of blinking UPSET signs in the bracket, but given the way the season went, it feels as if there will be plenty on the court. It's too bad the person who leaked the bracket Sunday as the CBS selection show droned on couldn't bring us some information from a little farther into the future. When the bracket leaked, I hazarded a guess as to the culprit.
Unfortunately, we'll have to rule out Biff Tannen. The Grays Sports Almanac he picked up after Marty McFly discarded it only included NCAA tournament results through 2000. So, while Biff probably made a killing on Valparaiso's upset of Ole Miss in 1998 and Connecticut's win over Duke in the title game in '99, he is as clueless as the rest of us about what will happen once the ball tips off Tuesday night in Dayton.
That's what makes this the best week in all of sports. No one knows. Because while it's possible to leak a bracket, it's nearly impossible to predict how the lines should be filled in.
A random ranking
At the first Final Four I covered, the televisions in the rooms at the media hotel had a channel that featured every "One Shining Moment" montage created to that point. They ran continuously. Cheerleaders' skirts grew shorter, and then they'd drop back toward the knee as 1987 rolled around. Players' shorts grew long and then short again. I hated the song before that weekend, but I grew to love it because of The Loop. After careful study of all the montages scored by David Barrett's musical disaster, I have formulated a top 10.
The decision to include two crying Adam Morrison shots probably qualifies as gratuitous, but the final shot—the camera pulling back as the star of the tournament, Joakim Noah, stood atop press row—was a classic.
Someone pushed the Video Toaster to its limits, but anything that includes the Grant Hill alley-oop is perfect.
This one includes the Bryce Drew shot and is also believed to include the last known images of teased cheerleader bangs.
Georgia State guard R.J. Hunter hits a three-pointer that knocks his dad (Panthers coach Ron Hunter) off his stool. Also, the crying piccolo player is at 1:05. Before social media could turn this poor young lady into a meme, this image would have lived on only in our memories and in the "One Shining Moment" montage.
The formula was established immediately. Player being introduced/cheerleader/band/cut to someone pounding chest for "beat of your heart."
The first time Luther Vandross sings the song. This should have been included on my ranking of covers that were much better than the original. Luther's version was so good that when CBS tried to freshen things up by using a cover from Jennifer Hudson—a fine singer—in 2010, fans revolted and implored the network to return to playing Luther's version. CBS complied.
Looking back, there wasn't enough Steph Curry. But we'll take it.
Dunk City, Jim Larrañaga shadowboxing and Michigan's Trey Burke from the Wal-Mart across the street from Jerry World against Kansas.
This is the first Teddy Pendergrass year, and now I can't listen to his version without thinking of David Alan Grier's filthy Pendergrass impression.
Listening to this made me realize the selection show could have been ever so slightly worse on Sunday. CBS could have had Chuck sing this for two consecutive hours.
The Elite Eight
1. The people at NCAA headquarters did not find the bracket leak funny. "We go through great lengths to prevent the tournament field from being revealed early and the NCAA took its usual measures to protect this from happening," read an NCAA statement released Sunday night. "Unfortunately, and regrettably, the bracket was revealed prior to our broadcast partners having the opportunity to finish unveiling it. We take this matter seriously and we are looking into it."
If the NCAA's investigations of the past few years are any
indication, the search will take five years and will result in the leaker's
children being ineligible for the NCAA tournaments in 2022, '23 and '24. The
leaker will then sue the NCAA for defamation and settle out of court.
2. Sorry to anyone who believes the final at-large slots are sacred. When choosing between teams with massively flawed résumés, the selection committee should base its decisions strictly on entertainment value and then make up a basketball-related reason for the chair to spout in the CBS interview. The committee clearly didn't do that this year, as it deprived the network partners of frequent shots of the Monmouth bench.
3. Oh, and the decision to leave Monmouth out also basically told mid-majors to stop scheduling tough nonconference games. They don't matter. Just play cupcakes and pray you win the league tourney.
4. Selection Sunday always brings out the hot takes.
Before we pass judgment, though, let's take the time machine back to 2011.
In case you forgot, VCU
did O.K. in the 2011 tourney.
5. The best early matchup in the tournament might be the second-earliest game. After Dunk City (Florida Gulf Coast) returns to the field Tuesday for the first time since its Sweet 16 run in 2013 with a First Four game against Fairleigh Dickinson, Vanderbilt and Wichita State will play for the right to be the No. 11 seed in the South region. The Commodores beat Kentucky 74–62 three weeks ago, and the Shockers have the same backcourt (Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker) that led them to the Final Four as freshmen in '13. The winner of this game is capable of beating just about anyone, which should make Arizona—the winner's opponent in the round of 64—especially nervous.
6. Stephen F. Austin mascot Blake Loggins will fit right in when the Lumberjacks invade Brooklyn. Of course, Loggins had to grow his bushy beard for a role. The hipsters he'll be surrounded by this week have no such excuse.
That said, Loggins is bringing an axe to a rifle fight.
7. Kentucky coach Calipari told reporters that he told SEC commissioner Greg Sankey the league needs to play its tournament championship game on Saturday instead of Sunday. Otherwise, Calipari contends, the contest has no seeding benefit for the winner. Texas A&M, which lost to Kentucky 82–77 in overtime on Sunday, is a No. 3 seed. The Wildcats drew a No. 4 seed. "If this is what happens, why are we playing that game?" Calipari said. "We won the game."
Committee chair Joe Castiglione tried to explain the seeding choice Sunday night. "Well, we know A&M split with Kentucky. They were co-champions of the SEC," Castiglione said in a conference call. "In the case of Kentucky, by winning the SEC championship today, they picked up only their third top-50 win. They had five losses to non-tournament teams, four of which were ranked below 90. That was part of the consideration when talking about Kentucky, where they were placed on the seed line."
8. Castiglione did point out one way to end complaints about teams that won their leagues in the regular season getting left out of the tournament. Conferences don't have to send their tournament champion. They could choose to send their regular-season champ and not have a conference tournament. "Each conference determines how they wish to designate their automatic qualifier," Castiglione said. "In the case where we are today, every Division I conference has decided to stage a conference tournament and let the tournament champion be their automatic qualifier."
Castiglione quickly caught himself. One league sent its regular-season champ, but that will change beginning next year. "The only conference that uses regular-season conference champions is the Ivy League," Castiglione said. "We've learned recently they're going to move on to having a postseason tournament as well."
What's eating Andy?
While we collectively care deeply about the tournament, none of us gives one whit individually about your bracket. Thank you and carry on.
What's Andy eating?
John Lewis, the man who helped open Franklin Barbecue and who served as pitmaster at the excellent La Barbecue, has left Austin to bring brisket to South Carolina. He has chosen to bring it to Charleston, which boasts an equal amount of ironically grown beards (per capita) and pretension (grand total) as the last place he plied his trade. If Lewis can replicate the brisket he served at La Barbecue, it will definitely be the best in the state—but not by as much as you'd think. The current belt holder (brisket division) lives in the Upstate region, and it remains one of the best overall dining experiences in one of America's best barbecue states.
On my first trip to The Smokin' Pig in 2013, I was shocked to discover that a place in South Carolina served quality brisket. Earlier that year, I had been equally shocked to eat perfect pulled pork at Pecan Lodge in Dallas. The pork experts live in the Carolinas. The brisket experts live in Texas. That was simply the way things were. Fortunately, some enterprising pitmasters realized that Texans would adore the opportunity to devour a lovingly smoked (Boston) butt and South Carolinians would appreciate the bovine as much as the porcine. Barbecue xenophobia hasn't been completely wiped out, but places like The Smokin' Pig have done their best to eliminate it.
If you've been to Clemson for any reason, you have probably driven past The Smokin' Pig. It's located in Pendleton, the town between Anderson—where most people get off Interstate 85—and Clemson. If you drove by between Sunday and Wednesday, the place was deserted. If you drove by between Thursday and Saturday, though, you likely saw cars lined up to grab spaces in the gravel parking lot. The Smokin' Pig might draw a big enough crowd to make money if it opened every day, but its choice to serve only three days per week lends the barbecue a slightly mythical quality. Something available every day might feel common. The brisket and pork at The Smokin' Pig are anything but.
Neither meat needs sauce. Nor do the pork ribs. This must solve a lot of arguments, because The Smokin' Pig is the barbecue equivalent of Switzerland. It sits between several warring barbecue nations. To the north and east is Vinegarland. To the south and east sits Mustardrovia. To the west and north is Ketchupburg. The Smokin' Pig makes sauces to satisfy each palate—plus a hot version—but the only flavor boost the meat requires comes from the bark created by hours spent in the giant smoker behind the ramshackle building.
A place that serves delicious meat doesn't need to bother with sides—just ask the proprietors of those great Texas joints that throw a pot of lukewarm beans on the counter and call it a day—but extra credit should be given to a restaurant that clearly cares about the quality of its sides. The jalapeño cheese grits alone would earn some bonus points, but a tangy Brunswick stew featuring huge chunks of pork ups the ante. But neither of those, which are both delicious, comes close to the Loaded Baked Potato casserole. What's that? Load a potato with all of the usual goodies. Butter. Sour cream. Bacon. Now mash that all together. Then bake it. It's even more amazing than whatever flavor your imagination has conjured.
Let the hipsters have their authentic Texas brisket in Charleston. In the opposite corner of the state, the cow is almost as good, the potatoes are smashed into another dimension and the pig is smokin' for the three most glorious days of the week.