The NCAA Tournament

What's the Matter With Duke?
The stadium scene.
March 19 2007 12:25 PM

The NCAA Tournament

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My favorite moment of the tournament's first weekend came before the games even started. On Thursday morning, I clicked over to CBS's March Madness on Demand about 15 minutes early. The Louisville-Stanford broadcast hadn't started, but the announcers' mikes were live, allowing me to listen in on Dan Bonner and Gus Johnson's pregame preparations.

Dan Bonner: This has the chance to be a really great game.
Gus Johnson: Yes, it does. [PAUSE] Let's use that. Let's say that off the top. [PAUSE] Can I use that line?
Bonner: Absolutely!

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

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Louisville-Stanford wasn't close to great. But that pregame exchange makes me wonder if the milquetoast Bonner and the incredibly excitable Johnson have a Cyrano de Bergerac thing going. Is it possible that near the end of Saturday's Xavier-Ohio State thriller, Bonner turned to Johnson and whispered …

Bonner: You know, Gus, if Ron Lewis ties the game here, maybe you should say, "Lewis has been awesome … LETS IT GOOOO … HITSITAWWAAAAOOOOOOH … He ties it at 62!"
Johnson: Yes, let's use that. [PAUSE] Can I use that line?
Bonner: Absolutely!

CBS really needed Johnson's boisterousness in the historically dull first round, when the higher seeds won 27 of 32 games. The only highlights came courtesy of VCU and Winthrop. What stood out in VCU's win over Duke, Winthrop's defeat of Notre Dame, and even Wisconsin's close call against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi was that the smaller-conference teams were much quicker and more athletic than their big-name opponents.

The formula for Cinderelladom used to be that a bunch of pasty-faced hayseeds would slow down the game and make 3-pointers to beat a superior opponent. Now that's the formula Duke—a team Tom Scocca aptly described as "schlumpy, slow-moving, and vanilla"—has to use to hang with a team like VCU. Rob, how can it be that a no-name program like VCU has better players than Duke, which can recruit pretty much anyone it wants? Has Coach K simply become too fixated on recruiting the nation's best Annoying White Guys?

VCU, which fought valiantly before losing to Pittsburgh in the second round, was part of a long string of fantastic finishes Saturday. The common thread: missed free throws. The VCU-Pitt game went to overtime when the Panthers' Levance Fields missed a pair with two seconds to go. Ohio State tied up Xavier after Justin Cage rimmed out a foul shot that would've won the game for the Musketeers. And Edgar Sosa missed two foul shots that would've given Louisville a late lead against Texas A&M.

Maybe I'm a weirdo, but all the missed free throws made me love Saturday's games even more. Part of it is that clanged freebies enable dramatic shots like Ron Lewis' 3-pointer against Xavier. But I think most of the appeal comes from the fact that a late-game free throw is the most stressful event in sports. It's thrilling and nauseating to watch a guy step to the line, knowing that he might be screwed up for the rest of his life if the ball doesn't go through the net. As sports fans, we spend a lot of time pretending that the players care as much about these games as we do. During the NCAA Tournament, one of the few sporting events that can make world-class athletes cry, we don't have to pretend.

If this weekend is remembered for anything, it will be for the final game of Kevin Durant's college career. The best player in college basketball scored his usual 30, but Texas was surprisingly never in it against USC. First off, condolences to Bryan, our resident Longhorn. Second, I didn't get to see much of the game, but it seems like much of the blame for Texas' defeat rests with freshman point guard D.J. Augustin, who scored only six points before fouling out. A question for you, Rob: Does age matter in college basketball? Can a freshman point guard win the title?

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