Ahh March Madness. Or as it's known around my house, "Basketball Christmas." Don't get me wrong, I love the NBA, but the NCAA Tournament (and really the entire month of March in college basketball) hold a greater sense of urgency, importance and permanence than the NBA Playoffs. Yeah I said it. I like the NCAA Tournament more than the NBA Playoffs. Maybe it's because of Gus Johnson's screaming, or the phrase "Bracketology," or the fact that, as the commercial with the kid balancing a soccer ball on his foot while playing violin, most of these people will be going pro in something other than basketball. Also, in a related story, if I saw a college in a New York City subway station balancing a soccer ball on his foot while playing violin, I'd totally give him money. But I digress.
Part of the reason I like the NCAA Tournament so much is because I've always been fascinated with potential. I spent all of last year drooling over Ricky Rubio Youtube clips. I still think Tyrus Thomas can become an All-Star big man. I thought Harold Miner was awesome, and I don't fault the Celtics for drafting Kedrick Brown. Does this make me an idiot? Probably. But there's just something about players with unlimited athletic potential that leaves me speechless.
Which is why I am not picking Kansas this year. Every talking head you see is telling you why Kansas' experience and fundamentals and intangibles and (insert vague adjective here) will win them the tournament in the name of PROPER BASKETBALL. To me? They're bland, and not just because I saw them get smoked in person by a Tennessee team with only six scholarship players. Sherron Collins? Blah. He's Kyle Lowry at best and Mateen Cleaves at worst. Cole Aldrich? Hate him. Why a team would waste a top-5 pick on Joel Pryzbilla 2.0 is beyond me. Xavier Henry? A bit better, though it's telling that NBADraft.net's closest comparison to him is Jimmy Jackson. I never had any Jimmy Jackson posters on my wall.
Contrast them with my pick for the championship, Kentucky. Kentucky is the Stones to Kansas' Beatles. Actually, no, strike that - they're the Jimi Hendrix to KU's Nickelback. The Vegas to Kansas' Branson. The 1990s Ice Cube to Kansas' 200s Ice Cube. Kentucky is athletic, temperamental, streaky, young and a wee bit insane, and I simply could not love their team more (and that's speaking as a Gator fan too). I love Kentucky because their top four players could either become huge NBA stars or cautionary tales. Here's a glimpse at each of their top four players and why you, as a lover of basketball, should love them too:
John Wall, PG: Simply put, John Wall is the best athlete heading into the NBA since LeBron James. He reportedly has a 40" vertical leap. He runs the break quicker than Rajon Rondo. His wingspan is ridiculous for a 6'4" guard. He plays defense. He shoots (kinda). Every time John Wall steps on the court, there's a chance of something you've never seen before happening. How many players can you say that about? Yes, he's inconsistent and isn't wonderful in the clutch, but nobody in this tournament (and very few players in the NBA, if any) possesses the tools that Wall has. I'd be absolutely terrified to bet against someone like that. In fact, I should probably stop writing about Wall, for fear of bringing on a restraining order.
Eric Bledsoe, PG: On an unpredictable team, Bledsoe may be the biggest wild card of all. Sure, he's not as temperamental as Cousins or as brazen as Wall, but Bledsoe defines the old basketball archetype of the bombs-away shooter. Granted, teams will try to make him a point guard due to his 6'1" size and the lack of quality point guards in this year's draft (should he declare), but make no mistake: Bledsoe is a shooter first, second and third. And the man is streaky, shooting 4-22 from three in the seven games before Sunday's 5-8 long-distance day. He hasn't had more than three assists in his last eight games, and will need to temper his shoot-first mentality to become a true point guard. He does have speed and defensive skill in his favor however, which should attract NBA scouts.
DeMarcus Cousins, C: Cousins is insanely talented. Cousins is also insanely insane. He was #1 in PER for all of college basketball this season, and generally looked like a man among boys in the low post all season. His size and frame translate immediately to NBA production, and nobody would be shocked if he averaged a double-double from Day 1 in the League. He blocks shots and has a strong low-post offensive game. Talent-wise, he's everything you could ask for in an NBA center. Off the court? That's another story entirely. The fact that most compare Cousins' character to Derrick Coleman is a giant, massive, blaring, humongous red flag. Google "demarcus cousins crazy" and you get 123,000 hits. If you look up "demarcus cousins sane" there's only 8,700. The masses have spoken. But he's also crazy good.
Patrick Patterson, PF: Unlike his teammates, Patterson has been wildly consistent on a team where he often doesn't see as many touches as a player of his talent should. Patterson is the definition of a solid post player - like a slightly shorter Al Jefferson. He's also shown an ability to improve, as evidenced by his development of a jump shot and even a perimeter game over the last year. Patterson's overshadowing in Kentucky may actually also bode well for him in the NBA, as he's now used to playing with immensely talented players and can still adapt accordingly.
I'm reminded of those commercials for Frosted Mini-Wheats cereal from when I was a kid. In the ads, adults talked about how they loved the wheat side of the cereal, while kids proclaimed their joy for the frosted side. In this analogy, Kansas is the wholesome shredded wheat side, where Kentucky is the sugar and frosting side. Whole grains are all well and good, but which side was more fun to eat?