The 2017 NCAA championship game has all the earmarks of a classic heavyweight battle.
The North Carolina Tar Heels will face the Gonzaga Bulldogs for all the marbles on Monday night (5:20am Tuesday). Both teams are number one seeds and have enough star power to reach the mountain-top of college basketball.
The contrast lies in what both programs wish to achieve. The Tar Heels have a rich history of winning in the tournament with five titles and 20 appearances in the Final Four, while this will be Gonzaga’s first appearance in the final and they are looking to win their first national title.
Now you might be saying to yourself: why is the NCAA tournament so popular in the United States? Well, the simple answer is the parody.
March Madness has proven to be a month of wildly unexpected results, with underdogs beating favorites, stars showcasing their talents and faces you will eventually see in the NBA.
The tournament brackets have become a yearly ritual for anyone that is interested in college basketball, from the president of the United States to the postman, everyone has a chance to fill out their brackets to decide which teams reach the Final Four.
All the tournament games are sudden death, there are no drawn-out series like the NBA. If you win you advance to the next round if you lose you are out. This keeps the viewers and fans engaged with their teams and favorite players.
The NCAA fandom consists mostly of college students, known for their rowdy nature during and after games – the games become an event to students and parents of the players alike. The games are nationally televised which also gives players the incentive to perform at a high level.
National rivalries also drive the fanatic following of the programs, the most famous rivalry in the NCAA is between Duke University and the North Carolina Tar Heels. Both programs combined to win 9 NCAA titles and have sent 137 players to the NBA.
Most famous of them is Michael Jordan, widely considered the greatest basketball player in NBA history. Jordan won a NCAA title with the Tar Heels in 1982, when he a hit the game-winning jumper to beat the Georgetown Hoyas.
Not only does college basketball cultivate great talent within their programs, fans come out in record numbers to watch these games. The NCAA title game is the event fans want to witness live, nearly 80,000 fans attended the 2014 title game at the AT&T center in Dallas.
On a more serious note, universities and colleges have been criticized over the years for not paying college players. The amount of revenue the programs make is massive, nearing a billion dollars in some cases from TV rights and investments.
The Universities brass offer the rebuttal that the players are given scholarships and that monetary compensation would corrupt the programs. However, the only reason these institutes of higher learning are able to create revenue is off the likeness and product that the players produce on the court.
This could change in the future, but it is highly unlikely. These programs are the conduit to success for most of these players, they offer the platform and have all the leverage.
All in all, the NCAA is part of sports culture in the United States; the fans, players, and coaches all come together to represent the team on the front of the jersey with one goal in mind, contending and winning a national title.
The race to become the most risible person in sport has a clear leader. LaVar Ball, a man with an ego the size of his permanently open mouth, has been polluting the airwaves here ad nauseum.
There was a glimmer of hope that after son Lonzo’s UCLA team crashed out of March Madness on Friday night, this shameless selfpublicist may disappear back into the faux celebrity hole from which he crawled.
Yet within moments of that defeat, Lonzo declared his intention to enter the NBA draft.
The teenage college star will be one of the top picks and has a chance of making it – as do younger brothers LiAngelo and LaMelo – yet if LaVar is to be believed, all three will better than Michael Jordan and worthy of $1 billion footwear deals.
Oh yes, this deluded man who, lest we forget, used to play American football for the London Monarchs, seriously thinks that his little clan (NBA appearances – 0, $100,000 BMW’s – two) should pen agreements that will usurp the $500m Nike handed LeBron James.
The Balls have talent. But a reality check is needed. “You got LeBron — it’s going to be hard for his kids because they are going to look at them like, ‘You got to be just like your dad,’” Ball said.
“And after a while, that pressure starts sitting on you like, ‘Why do I got to be just like him? What can’t I just be me?’ And then they are going to be like, ‘Aw, you’re soft. You’re not that good.’ Because the expectation is very, very high.”
There has since been some backtracking yet needless to say, James was furious. Poke holes at him? Fine. But his kids? That’s another ball game entirely.
“He can talk all about his brand, talk about his sons, talk about basketball, talk about me,” James said. “But keep my family out of this.”
LaVar is a pushy parent gone nuclear. A constantly grinning parody living unfulfilled dreams through his children. He is often trailed by a camera crew in the hope his life and son’s pursuit of greatness could be turned into a reality horror show.
LaVar Ball is straight up crazy 😳pic.twitter.com/UwwQbAFI7P— Highlight Center™ (@HighIightCenter) March 24, 2017
Of course, he loves his kids. But this kind of needless pressure could destroy careers before they’ve started. Just ask Stephan Gilling what it’s like to have him around.
The coach of Chino Hills, the team in California which LiAngelo and LaMelo play for, has detailed the embarrassing contretemps which ensued during a game late last year after Ball Snr kept shouting down the coach’s instructions from the stands.
“He comes to me and says, ‘What are you doing? What are you doing?’ I said, ‘What do you mean? I’m trying to win the game,’” Gilling told USA Today.
“He turns around and walks to our locker room. I said, ‘LaVar, don’t go into the locker room.’ He continues walking. I said, ‘LaVar, why are you trying to embarrass me?’ And he just kept walking and goes into the locker room. He’s in there sitting down with the team.” It didn’t stop there. He got all the players out of their rooms and let them know it was his system which did the trick. “He was saying ‘I run Chino Hills! I run UCLA, about to run the NBA!’” added Gilling.
The problem with parents like LaVar however, is that their brains and mouths don’t operate in tandem.
Furthermore, the mindless bleating – “I would kill Jordan 1-on-1” and “Lonzo is better than Steph Curry” are two gems – is so transparent, it’s cringeworthy.
Whenever anyone has the misfortune to see him on TV, he is wearing a ‘Big Baller Brand’ t-shirt – that’s the same Big Baller Brand company he’s set up in the hope it will fill his bank account for years to come.
Modern society and the penchant for giving those who shout loudest the grandest platforms – Donald Trump, I’m talking to you – shoulders some blame.
But you can’t help but feel sympathy for his boys who have to smile every time dad makes an utter fool of himself. Unfortunately for them, they don’t have an off-switch on their TV.
We’ve seen this movie before. The Cleveland Cavaliers go through a lull in the regular season, forcing us to reconsider their contender credentials, only for LeBron James and Co to remind us the playoffs are a different animal and a Finals appearances is all but a formality.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times…
Here’s the thing though. The Cavaliers’ recent stretch of play, in which they’ve dropped seven of their last 12 and allowed more than 120 points five times this month, should be concerning because there’s more to it than too many games in too few nights or yawning through the regular season with the playoffs on the horizon.
Two opposing ideas can be true at the same time. The Cavaliers have the best player in the world, championship experience and a know-how of locking in when the games truly matter. They also have real defensive and personnel issues this season that can’t be swept under the rug.
Will they again annihilate the Eastern Conference in the playoffs or is this the year when their regular-season ghosts come back to haunt them? As is often the case, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
It’s impossible not to compare Cleveland’s season to their past two campaigns, when they looked vulnerable for prolonged periods before unleashing hell in the playoffs, losing all of two games before the Finals in each postseason.
Offence has never been a cause for concern. Rather it’s been the other side of the floor that’s seen Cleveland wildly fluctuate, but weak defensive stretches during the 2015-16 and 2014-15 regular seasons were made a thing of the past in the playoffs.
History, however, is very much against them this time around. No team outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency has hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy since the Los Angeles Lakers in 2001 and the Cavaliers currently sit 22nd in the league with a defensive rating of 108.1. No team had ever overcome a 3-1 deficit in the Finals either, so it’s hard to bet against Cleveland and namely LeBron, but it’s also hard to ignore a red flag like that.
Last season, the Cavaliers were right on the cusp by ranking 10th with a defensive rating of 102.3 and two years ago they finished 20th. Sure, they could have well broken the trend in 2015 if Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were healthy in the Finals, but consider that Cleveland’s defensive rating for that season was 104.1, which would be tied for sixth this year.
Personnel and situation has everything to do with their struggles.
Matthew Dellavedova is no longer around to hound opposing guards and the Cavaliers’ big man depth is paper thin. J.R. Smith, meanwhile, hasn’t been the same reliable wing defender from last season, while Tristan Thompson has been overextended at centre. But in both Smith and Thompson’s case, injuries and workload have played a role in their ineffectiveness and those factors should be mitigated in the playoffs.
And then there’s LeBron, who is saving both his energy and a higher gear on defence for the postseason.
Even when the intensity and focus is ratcheted up, it may not translate to another comfortable jaunt past the East. Instead of sweeps, Cleveland could actually be in competitive series.
Still, the Cavaliers have earned the benefit of the doubt and we may again be left waiting for a downfall that never comes.