The Magical Mystery Game

Barry Rothbard

While the men’s college basketball season is about 50 games shorter than the NBA regular season, it can be much more grueling, competitive, and intense than its professional counterpart. Every player in the NBA is a “man” (or makes enough money that we can call them men, even if they went to college for just one year). Every player in college basketball is a kid-even Greg Oden-who many mistake for a 40 year old with multiple children. These are 18 and 19 year old kids who have to balance their pro-like schedule filled with practices and workouts with their lives as students. Being a college basketball player is no easy task, especially for the student-athletes who feel the pressure to play well enough in college to eventually make it pro and provide for their families. So ensues the roller-coaster ride that is college basketball. Kids are unpredictable. Behind every loss, every heartbreak, and every upset could be a million reasons. Maybe Joakim Noah’s girlfriend broke up with him before Florida’s loss to Vanderbilt. Maybe USC’s Nick Young was hung over from their loss to Arizona State, who at the time was winless in the Pac-10. Who knows? Kids are emotional, unpredictable, and always changing. So we shouldn’t be surprised that over the course of a long season how much truly changes in this topsy turvy college basketball world.

Clemson started the season 17-0 and was ranked 14th in the nation going into their game against Maryland. Since then, they have gone 2-7 and find themselves precariously on the NCAA tournament bubble. Clemson’s demise, however, was not totally surprising. Coming into conference play, the Tigers did not beat any ranked opponents or any teams that will make the NCAA tournament; however, they did win 17 straight games, so they are obviously capable of having great success. Unfortunately for them, they were hot at the wrong time. When teams go cold in college basketball, they go ice cold, a la Clemson. Now, more than a month removed from being talked about as a Final Four contender, Clemson will have to beat either Duke or Boston College in the regular season and win a game in the ACC tournament to be considered for an NCAA berth. Did Clemson stop trying after their first 17 games? Of course not. They are playing worse against better competition, an equation that just does not ever work in college basketball. And they are playing worse because they are, like us, kids. We have no idea what’s going on in the minds of these student-athletes, what problems their families are undergoing at home, or what troubles they are having in school. We only know that these kids are not playing up to their potential and are in danger of blowing a once promising season. Unfortunately for the Tigers, the NCAA tournament selection committee doesn’t care about these kids’ problems off the court.

Heading into Big East play, Louisville was the anti-Clemson. With a poor win-loss record, numerous injuries, and character issues, the Cardinals seemed destined for the NIT at best. Even a week ago, the Cardinals’ best win was against a mediocre Providence team. First-year stud Derrick Caracter has had to take two leaves of absence from the team, either due to his weight issues or some undisclosed “character” issues. Junior Juan Palacios, the team’s most experienced player, has battled injuries all season long and is just starting to play up to his capability. Coupled with a plethora of other injuries, the Cardinals were sinking fast. But then something clicked. Did Caracter’s large frame in the paint make that much of a difference? Did Palacios’ good health have a huge impact on the team? Did the emergence of first-years Edgar Sosa and Jerry Smith turn this team around? No one besides Louisville really knows how its’ season turned around. But wins over the elite Big East squads Pittsburgh and Marquette have ensured that Louisville will be dancing in March. Something clicked for these kids. Maybe they started listening to new music before games. Maybe they are doing well in the classroom. Or maybe they are just starting to hit their threes. Whatever the case may be, Coach Pitino isn’t complaining. The Cardinals are further proof that nothing is concrete in College Basketball.

Were the two teams simply playing out of character in the beginning season? No. We need to remember that these are just kids playing a game. Most of the time, they don’t even know why they are winning or losing. The result of a game is simply something that happens, whether it’s an effect of some external influence or simply out of luck. Just ask Gonzaga, Josh Heytvelt, and his bag of ‘shrooms. Come Selection Sunday, the unusual, unexpected event of Heytvelt being caught with drugs will probably prevent Gonzaga from making the NCAA tournament. Who knows what stupid mistakes these kids will make on and off the court. But come March, it will sure be interesting to find out who’s clicking, even if we have no clue why they are.