February is a wasteland. The Super Bowl is gone and with it football. The NBA begins grinding to its All-Star break, and then we have the trade deadline to keep us entertained, but that's not even something that happens on the court. The same goes for hockey, but also, it's hockey. The story getting the most play in the sports world this week was Major League baseball considering doing away with the requirement of throwing four pitches for an intentional walk. So yeah, February is a slow month for sport. But then here comes college basketball, sauntering out like Vince McMahon.
Since the season started, I am sure there have been great games that I might have seen, and great games that I have not seen, but with limited mental real estate in the fall, and with 68 teams getting into the tournament, college ball gets put on the backburner. For college basketball, November is its February. But usually around this time, in the lull after the Super Bowl, like clockwork, college basketball pops up to say it's been here the whole time.
Most of the attention in college sports goes to the coaches and the schools rather than the players, for obvious reasons: the fiction of amateurism, the fact the schools and coaches are the only constant while players come and go. As a result, most of the narratives get constructed around the coaches and institutions. On Tuesday night, John Calipari, the most honest used car salesman in history, abruptly left a halftime interview on ESPN because Mizzou fans kept chanting "Cal you suck." This was days after Calipari went off on a "you shittin' me?" tirade about firing coaches midseason. All that was prelude to last night, however, with four big-time programs, and their respective big-time coaches in action.
First (in degree of importance, not chronology) we had Louisville head coach Rick Pitino losing his mind because a heckler at UNC "got in my face and said something I didn't like." According to ESPN sideline reporter Maria Taylor, the fan said "Pitino, you suck." College fans are nothing if not creative. After the game, Pitino said it wasn't even a student, but an actual adult.
"I take it from the students all the time; you expect it from the students. But from an adult? And then to turn his back on me like he's a coward?" Pitino said. "And he is a coward, but North Carolina is a classy place and he doesn't speak for the rest of the people."
Such great theater. UNC beat Louisville 74-63.
Earlier on ESPN, we had Duke visiting Syracuse. Jim Boeheim. Mike Krz…Coach K. Despite Boeheim's "1,000th win"* this season, the Cuse are having a middling year and needed a big win to get on the selection committee's radar. Duke, coming in ranked 10th, gave them the chance. With seven seconds left, John Gillon forced a tough shot and took the outlet pass up the court, to the top of the three point arc, and hit the game-winner, off the glass. It was magical. Dick Vitale was beside himself.
Tremendous theater. Let's hear from Coach K:
"So when it got down at the end, they've been in those situations before and they've performed well. They hit the shot they were supposed to miss and we were supposed to win. They screwed up my game plan."
Oh, yes. Hook it directly to my arm and don't ever stop flooding my veins.
The 2017 NCAA tournament is now less than a month away. We'll have conference tournaments before that. Every year I seem to forget, and every year I have to remember that college basketball will warm my cold, February sports heart.