First-year Kansas State coach Jerome Tang had just guided his third-seeded Wildcats to an East Regional second-round victory over sixth-seeded Kentucky Sunday afternoon when he made the following observation:
“Dudes,” he said. “We got dudes. That’s what it takes. People get all caught up in coaching and all that stuff. It’s dudes. We had more dudes than they did today.”
If you want to understand what is separating the winners from the losers in this wackiest of NCAA Tournaments, that’s it.
Call them Dudes or Dogs or Dreams - anyone old enough to remember former Marquette guard Dean “The Dream” Meminger from 1970? - it’s the Jimmys and Joes rather than the Xs and Os who are surviving and advancing this March.
That doesn’t mean they are the usual suspects. Even though the seed line said fourth-seeded Tennessee was supposed to prevail against fifth-seeded Duke on Saturday afternoon, the experts were almost exclusively picking the Blue Devils.
But once the game began in Orlando, it was the Vols who were the better team, especially “Dude of the Day” Olivier Nkamhoua, who scored 27 in UT’s 65-52 win.
Then there’s Arkansas, which posted a losing record within the SEC (8-10), yet finds itself in the Sweet 16 for a third straight season under coach Eric Musselman after knocking off West Regional top-seed and then defending national champ Kansas on Saturday evening.
Prior to that Kansas win, the Hogs’ Devonte Davis hadn’t scored 20 points in a game all year. He got 25 against the Jayhawks, 21 of them coming in the final half. And when he fouled out late, Ricky Council IV saved the day by hitting five of six free throws in the final 35 seconds of the one-point win.
Then there’s the SEC Dude of Dudes this season - Alabama freshman Brandon Miller _ who scored exactly ZERO points in the top-seeded Crimson Tide’s 96-75 first-round win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, then 19 in its second-round win over Maryland. When needed, Miller - who is expected to be the first American player taken in this summer’s NBA Draft _ almost always delivers.
Who hasn’t delivered throughout the first weekend of this NCAA Tournament are the officials. Tournament play is often more closely officiated than the regular season. This is more like Demolition Derby.
Merely consider this quote from ESPN analyst Jay Bilas concerning the Vols’ win over Duke: “That Tennessee-Duke game, that was not a basketball game. It was a hockey game. It was officiated like a hockey game. There were fouls that were flagrant fouls that were not called flagrant. I can’t understand why. I’ve talked to several officials about it and all of them seem to agree that that should not have happened that way, but we’re seeing that more and more.”
It is somewhat comical to hear a Dookie (Bilas starred at Duke in the 1980s) whine about officiating since Duke coaching legend Mike Krzyzewski often appeared to get all the calls.
But he has a point far beyond the Vols’ win. Time and again in this tourney officials have missed fouls, especially on shots, traveling and the oldie but goodie _ the block/charge call. The game deserves better.
Otherwise, the one and only criticism of the Selection Committee is not who got in and who got left out - other than Vandy should have been the Southeastern Conference’s last team in instead of Mississippi State - but rather allowing No. 9 seed Auburn to face Midwest Region top-seed Houston in Birmingham, Ala.
If this was merely an oversight, it was embarrassing bordering on reprehensible. If it was to sell a few extra tickets it was almost criminal. The only possible respectable explanation was if the committee released a statement saying it was unofficially apologizing to Auburn and Bruce Pearl for the Tigers being cheated by the officials inside the final minute of their Final Four semifinal loss to Virginia in 2019.
Otherwise, this was the biggest blunder in site placement since 11th seeded LSU got to play the first two tournament games at home - barely winning both - on its way to that year’s Final Four. Never has a team deserved so little to be handed so much by a supposedly impartial committee.
Still, for this tournament only, what excitement to see two No. 1s go down on the opening weekend in the teams of Purdue and Kansas. What anticipation here in Big Orange Country that the Vols now have a relatively easy path to make their first men’s Final Four in school history. All they probably have to do is survive either Michigan State or Kansas State in the East Regional final, assuming they can escape Florida Atlantic in Thursday night’s semifinal in Madison Square Garden.
Of course, if Sparty wins its semi against K-State’s dudes, the Big Orange Nation may also remember that its only other Elite Eight appearance ended in a loss to Michigan State in 2010.
So here we go, college hoopniks. The most intense weekend of the year is upon us. Sixteen teams left, three from the SEC. And does anything say more about the changing face of SEC hoops that none of those three is Kentucky, which is apparently short of enough dudes to advance.
And while your humble scribe still believes Alabama is the best team still standing, the Vols are undefeated this year against both the Tide and the Razorbacks.
Either way, as the noted March Madness junkies Mott the Hoople once sang, “All the young dudes, carry the news.”
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Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org