10 Things I Learned From March Madness

Russ Smith (photo. Louisville Athletics)

There’s always a huge letdown on the morning after March Madness finally ends (even if it is technically April). You see the game. You watch “One Shining Moment” and then boom, no more brackets, no more upsets, no more score checking at work or office pools or Saturday afternoons spent in front of the television with the added benefit of actually valid excuses. The world is so much more dull.

Every year, those three weeks of the NCAA Tournament take over our lives and we learn a lot, not just about how lazy we’ve really become as we get older, but also about the teams. And the players. And the coaches. For some, it’s about improving their draft stock or securing a legacy. For others, they just want that 15 minutes of fame.

Here are the top 10 things I learned from March Madness this year.

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In every tournament, there is always one team that steals the spotlight from the more storied programs. This year there were two teams: Florida Gulf Coast and Wichita State. FGCU was the more unlikely of the two, not too many people had even heard of the school prior to the NCAA Tournament and they were just a No. 15 seed. Their run as Cinderella didn’t die out until a loss to the University of Florida in the Sweet 16.

The Shockers from Wichita State had different plans. After knocking of No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the third round, they fully seized the opportunity in front of them and came one jump ball shy of beating the national champion Louisville Cardinals and making it to the national title game. A run like Wichita State’s hasn’t been seen since Butler was a Gordon Hayward half-court shot away from being crowned NCAA Champions.

Defense was the main calling card for the Louisville Cardinals all year long — their full-court press was almost as disruptive as Nolan Richardson‘s famed “40 Minutes of Hell.” Rick Pitino used his defensive pressure to frustrate opponents into unwarranted turnovers and easy baskets all season.

On the other side of the ball, guard Russ Smith was a dominant force with his ability to get the ball down the court quickly and finish at the rim. For the tournament, Smith averaged 25 points a game and consistently found his way into the paint. Last season, Smith was given the nickname “Russdiculous” because of his knack for taking bad, ridiculous shots. But now Smith has concentrated on getting better shots and attacking the paint more consistently. “Russdiculous” has developed a much more positive connotation for the junior Brooklyn native. Now, his pops is saying the off guard is leaving for the NBA.

Every year as the tournament approaches, most of the talk in the sports media world turns to the teams that are on the bubble and which teams will be able to go from being on the cusp of making the Tournament to being part of the field of 68.

This Tournament has already brought the firing of two head coaches from major programs: UCLA’s Ben Howland and Minnesota’s Tubby Smith. The two teams faced off against each other in the first round of the tournament, with the Golden Gophers emerging victorious. During Howland’s time with the Bruins, he led the team to four Pac-12 regular season titles (2006-08, 2013) as well as three consecutive Final Four appearances from 2006-08. Smith won 20 games in five of his six seasons and made three Tournament appearances as the head coach. However, both of these established coaches were fired following their exits from the tournament.

One of the bigger storylines to come out of the 2013 NCAA Tournament was the Michigan Wolverines’ return to national prominence. Since the Fab Five left Michigan for good after 1994, the Wolverines haven’t been the same.

Trey Burke was the star of the current team and racked up every national player of the year award, as well as the Bob Cousy and the Big Ten Player of the Year honors. However, last night most of the pregame attention was on one of the most infamous players in Wolverines history: Chris Webber. Rumors swirled leading up to tip-off about whether or not C-Webb would attend the game as a fan. Since sanctions were handed down due to improper actions associated with Webber while a student, Webber has slowly distanced himself from the university — even going as far as to not take part in the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary on the Fab Five. However, I’m not so sure if Michigan fans would have rather Webber stayed home after the outcome of the game.

Jim Boeheim is one of the most successful coaches in Division I history, totaling 920 wins in his 37-year career. Through it all, one thing has remained the same for the Syracuse Orange: the use of the 2-3 zone. Players have come and gone, but the zone always stayed consistent.

During the Orange’s latest run to the Final Four, their ability to cause havoc with their zone defense was critical to their success. With their length at guard and their athleticism on the wings, it was hard for any team to get any consistent pace or scoring against them. Michael Carter-Williams was one of the key cogs that helped make this defense work. The 2013 Orange weren’t the greatest offensive team that Boeheim ever put on the court, but when March Madness came they escalated their play on defense and it took them all the way to Atlanta.

Keep reading for the top five things we learned during March Madness this year…

One of the best parts of the NBA on TNT broadcasts are the analysis from Hall of Famer Charles Barkley. Barkley, along with Kenny Smith, Shaquille O’Neal and Ernie Johnson make up one of, if not the, best in-studio grouping.

Barkley often steals the scene during pregame and halftime, though it’s not always for his educated analysis. Barkley is known for not having much of a filter on air. He gives his opinion and he gives it to the world blunt and straightforward. Throughout the Tournament, we got much of the same from Chuck. If the action on the court happened to be less than spectacular, there were always Barkley’s halftime antics to look forward to.

Trey Burke got most of the recognition and awards for the Wolverines this season, yet it was the emergence of another player that propelled Michigan to the national title game. Freshman center Mitch McGary started only two games during the regular season, but when the Tournament started, McGary found himself as a new addition to the starting lineup.

McGary was a heralded recruit when he entered Michigan, but didn’t show his potential until late March. He tallied averages of 14.3 points and 10.6 boards through five tournament games, including three double-doubles. McGary looked as if be could’ve been playing in the NBA some nights, especially after posting 25 points and 14 rebounds against 7-0 Jeff Withey of Kansas in the Sweet 16. No other player saw a better rise in their stock during the Tournament than McGary. Yet foul trouble, the length of Gorgui Dieng and the strength and relentlessness of Chane Behanan proved too much for McGary in the championship game.

Every year people from all over the country get pulled into the March Madness hoopla and one of the most popular aspects of the NCAA Tournament: a fan filling out their brackets. It’s even reached a point that President Obama gets featured on SportsCenter making his annual selections.

I toot my own horn about my basketball knowledge, but when it comes to the Tournament that’s all thrown out of the window. The Tournament is truly, as the nickname states, madness. In a survive and advance format, any team can truly win at any time. Many people take different approaches with their formula in how they pick which teams win, but in the end the key component to having a stellar bracket is a whole lot of luck.

Louisville sophomore guard Kevin Ware suffered one of the most gruesome injuries in basketball history. In an Elite Eight matchup against the Duke Blue Devils, Ware jumped out to try and contest a Tyler Thornton shot and ended up flat on his back on the sideline with a broken leg.

Everyone who saw the result of the injury had the same shocked reactions. Thornton turned away and covered his face immediately. Other Louisville players dropped to the ground and began to cry. It certainly wasn’t for the faint of heart. While on the floor, Ware shouted words of encouragement to his teammates. These served as the motivation needed to carry the Cardinals to a championship trophy. The fact that Ware was able to make it to Atlanta to attend the games is nothing short of remarkable. The photo of Ware holding up the cut down net in celebration of the team’s victory will be the lasting image from the Tournament.

Florida Gulf Coast stole the show in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. Thanks to an impressive first-round upset of the No. 2 seed Georgetown Hoyas, FGCU instantly became a household name (it also helped that former coach Andy Enfield‘s wife is Amanda Marcum, a former model).

However, the Eagles were not a one-hit wonder. They defeated the San Diego State Aztecs in the third round and “Dunk City” was born. “Lob City” is the popular nickname for the high-flying Los Angeles Clippers, and while Florida Gulf Coast isn’t on the same athletic level as DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin, the Eagles made some athletic plays of their own during the Tournament. “One Shining Moment” could’ve been all “Dunk City” highlights and it still would’ve worked. Florida Gulf Coast is now on the map and could make even more noise next season, though it will be without Enfield leading them.

What did you take away from this year’s Tournament?

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