By Jason Keidel
So what have we learned over 10 days of March Madness?
We love Sister Jean and her scrappy gang of ballers out of Chicago. Loyola-Chicago has become the clear darlings of the NCAA tournament, an 11-seed making an enchanted run to the Final Four, winning their first three games by four points before blowing out Kansas State in the Elite Eight. The last time Kansas State was in the Final Four was 1964, a year after Loyola won the whole thing. (Tex Winter was the Wildcats coach in ’64.)
Loyola, a school with just over 10,000 students, spends as much on men’s basketball as Ohio State spends on men’s lacrosse. The Ramblers are the fourth 11-seed to reach the Final Four, but hope to fare better than their predecessors. The last three — VCU, George Mason, and LSU — all lost before the championship game. Considering the dearth of dominant teams these days, with senior-laden squads now NCAA fossils, this could be the best shot for a true Cinderella to cut down that final net.
We learned that coaches can feel the crunch of late-game pressure as much as players. Case in point is the Michigan-Florida State affair on Saturday, a 58-54 victory for the Wolverines. Michigan gets ample credit for clamping down on Florida State, which averaged just over 80 points per game, yet scored just 54 against against Michigan.
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But it turns out the Seminoles’ coach, not a star player, tightened up in the end. For some Final Four irony, we have Michigan on the right side of a boneheaded play. If Chris Webber is chided for the most notorious timeout in March Madness history, consider Saturday night, when Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton didn’t instruct his players to foul the Wolverines with precious time left.
After Michigan rebounded the ball with a four-point lead and just under 12 seconds left, we watched the Wolverines dribble the ball with impunity until the final buzzer sounded. Florida State inexplicably let the clock run out without fouling a single Wolverine. Any seasoned basketball fan, of NCAA or the NBA, has seen such leads vanish with fewer seconds left. Yet neither Hamilton nor his players thought it prudent to paw at an opposing player to stop the clock and force a free throw.
Rather than concede the mistake as, say, Yankees skipper Joe Girardi did during the MLB playoffs after a blunder against Cleveland, Hamilton was alternately shocked and outraged when asked about it. Instead of admitting he goofed, Hamilton fired back, asking CBS’s Dana Jacobson if she really thought the entire game was lost in those dozen seconds. Halfway through the interview, he lurched leftward, as if he were walking out. Then some force or impulse guided Hamilton back to the microphone. He never admitted his error, however, instead keeping it caustic in front of millions of viewers.
No doubt someone of Hamilton’s stature and intelligence would regain his senses and eventually admit the gaffe. And he did. Having time to ponder his misguided frustration, Hamilton said he got caught up in the whirlwind of post-game emotions, and agreed that Jacobson was merely doing her job and had to ask the question. But it shows you that no one on the hardwood or gridiron or diamond is immune to choking.
And we learned that the best teams and traditional powers still have their place at the Final Four table. For all the talk of Cinderella and mangled brackets, Villanova, Kansas, and Michigan have restored ancestral order. Loyola is the outlier. Villanova is a top-seed that won the national championship a couple years ago. Michigan was a trendy pick to be here, arguably playing the best basketball in the nation leading up to March. Duke is the greatest NCAA power since John Wooden’s UCLA squads. And they lost to Kansas, another top seed, which just reached their 16th Final Four, and literally has the original rules of basketball on its campus, in Dr. Naismith’s handwriting.
As was written here at the start of this tournament, we love our darlings and dark horses, our underdogs to rise up from the swamps, cornfields or forgotten cities to make a enchanted run toward the first Monday in April. And we have quite a darling in Loyola, led by the most charming and unlikely flag-bearer of all: Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, the school’s chaplain and spiritual compass. As long as they face some chalk in the process — and they will — we’re happy. After all the tumult and broken brackets, we have two No. 1 seeds, a No. 3 seed, and those cardiac kids from Chicago.
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We can all be forgiven for rooting for Sister Jean and her charismatic band of ballers, even if they aren’t likely to beat Michigan and Villanova/Kansas over the next two games. If they do, we all just might invest in a trendy pair of Prayer Jordans, and thank the deity for getting a chance to see some real history.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.