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The March Madness Mailbag Returns

With the Final Four around the corner, it’s time to size up which coach has the most at stake, break down who casual fans should root for, and offer an extremely in-depth analysis of Loyola-Chicago’s offense

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Before we get started, I just want to point out that this is the fourth time the Final Four will be held in the Alamodome in San Antonio, and the three prior occasions—1998, 2004, and 2008—produced some of the most memorable games in NCAA tournament history. Kentucky erased a 10-point halftime deficit and needed overtime to beat Stanford 86-85 in the 1998 national semifinal, then came back from another 10-point halftime deficit to beat Utah in the title game. UConn went on a 12-0 run with about three minutes left to beat Duke 79-78 in the 2004 Final Four, while Will Bynum’s layup with 1.5 seconds remaining gave Georgia Tech a 67-65 win over Oklahoma State in the other national semifinal (after the Cowboys erased the Yellow Jackets’ 12-point second-half lead). And, of course, 2008 gave us maybe the greatest national title game ever, with Mario Chalmers’s 3-pointer with 2.1 seconds left in regulation sending Kansas to overtime against VACATED, where the Jayhawks eventually claimed their third national championship. In other words, five of the nine Final Four games that’ve been played in the Alamodome have been all-timers. If the pattern holds and my math is correct, that means that this year’s Final Four should be … [crunches numbers one more time to double-check] … pretty good!

Let’s celebrate college basketball’s biggest stage with a Final Four mailbag. Thank you to everyone who sent in questions. I sifted through countless emails from tortured Purdue fans who just want someone to hold them, Kentucky fans wondering why Coach K doesn’t get ripped to shreds like John Calipari when he falls short of the Final Four with a loaded roster, people who just want to laugh at Duke’s demise, and weirdos with wild hypotheticals. (“Could an NBA team make the Final Four if Sister Jean was on the roster and had to play at least 25 minutes every game?”) These are the emails left standing.

Q: College basketball has to have one of the shortest seasons in terms of national media attention. Here’s an idea that could help fix that: Once March Madness wraps up, run the whole thing back again. Same regions, same seeds, same teams. At the end of the second bracket, the two champions play to determine the ultimate national champion. You can’t tell me that if you played out this same bracket again next week the Elite Eight wouldn’t have seven different teams plus Villanova. The second bracket run-through could be called “April Anarchy” and all arguments of diluting the tournament would be rendered moot. Content rules all, and who doesn’t need more noon tipoffs on Thursday?

MT: OK, so one or two weird hypotheticals may have slipped through the cracks. Sorry about that!

Q: How would the results from this Final Four impact the legacy of each coach? Who has the most to gain? Who has the most to lose?

MT: My initial instinct was that Loyola-Chicago’s Porter Moser has the most to gain, because he was an anonymous coach before the tournament started and is still being overshadowed by a 98-year-old woman who is getting all the credit for his team’s success. But I don’t think a legacy can be born overnight. Moser winning the national championship could catapult his career to incredible heights … or maybe it’d just make him the answer to a trivia question 40 years from now. That’s why I’m going with Michigan’s John Beilein as the coach with the most to gain, since he’s been around the block and done everything as a college basketball coach except take home a national title. Getting that crown jewel would turn him into a legend.

As for the coach with the most to lose, well, I guess it’s technically Jay Wright because he has the team everyone is expecting to cruise to a title. He’s also on the cusp of completing one of the most remarkable image transformations a college basketball coach has ever had. Four years ago, he was known as the guy who wore nice suits and choked during the NCAA tournament. Now, he’s considered a genius whose small-ball philosophy was ahead of its time and who is the architect of one of the best five-year stretches in the sport’s history. If Villanova loses to Kansas by 20 points, it’s not like Wright will go back to being a punch line. But given that we’re two games away from Wright ascending into the upper echelon of coaches all time, a blowout loss to Kansas would pull the rug out from under his legacy.

Q: Can you please just give it up for Jalen Brunson as the national player of the year? Much like the Heisman, the player of the year isn’t always the no. 1 overall pick. It’s the player who had the best season. Given Brunson’s stats and status as the leader on the best team (over three years), he is clearly the winner in my opinion. How would you choose player of the year?

MT: I have two big gripes with Brunson winning national player of the year. The most obvious is that he’s not even the best player on his own team. And I don’t just mean that Mikal Bridges is a better NBA prospect. I mean that if I were to form a team for one season of college basketball and had to pick one guy from Villanova to be on my roster, I’d take Bridges without hesitation. Brunson puts up slightly better offensive numbers just because he has the ball in his hands on every possession, but Bridges is more versatile and a waaaaay better defender, and it drives me nuts how the latter doesn’t seem to count for anything.

Texas Tech v Villanova Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The bigger issue I have with Brunson’s candidacy, though, is what you said about equating college basketball’s national player of the year awards to the Heisman Trophy, which has gone from an honor given to the best college football player to an award given to the best quarterback or running back on a playoff-bound team. That’s an awful precedent to follow. Maybe this is absurd, but I believe the award should go to the best player in the nation. That’s it. Ask yourself who the best player in college basketball is in a given season and give the award to that guy. I hate how much intangibles, team success, and the idea of these being lifetime achievement awards factor into the decision-making process.

Twenty years from now, the 2017-18 season will be remembered for the team that wins the national championship, Virginia losing to a no. 16 seed, and all the times Trae Young, Marvin Bagley III, and Deandre Ayton made our jaws drop. Brunson has been incredible and deserves to be a first-team All-American, but I doubt anyone without ties to Villanova will remember this season as the year Brunson took the college basketball world by storm.

Q: If every team that made the tournament could have one current NBA player who went to that school rostered in March Madness, who wins? Steph Curry for Davidson shooting college 3s? Kevin Durant at Texas? Anthony Davis on Kentucky?

MT: I could be talked into any of those three suggestions, or even Villanova with the addition of Kyle Lowry. But my answer is putting Kyrie Irving on Duke. Replace Trevon Duval with Kyrie and every one of the Blue Devils’ issues is immediately solved. They suddenly have a point guard who can shoot, a distributor who can feed the ball to Bagley, and a clearly defined best player on the team who can tell Grayson Allen to stop shooting. I suppose they’d still be a mess on defense, but when has defense ever led a team to a title?

Oh. Right. I change my mind. Give me Anthony Davis on Kentucky. If he was good enough as a gangly 19-year-old to average 4.7 blocks per game and lead a team featuring Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Marquis Teague, and Doron Lamb to a national title, I shudder to think what he’d be capable of as a fully grown 25-year-old with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox at his disposal.

Q: Where do you stand on people rooting for places they went to graduate school? I’m a Loyola law alum and am wondering if I can act like my school is in the Final Four. Also, what are the rules about cheering when someone’s grad school plays their undergraduate school? Undergraduate takes precedence, right?

MT: My power rankings of the order in which you should cheer for college basketball teams:

1. Any team (regardless of rivalry or previous biases) for which a direct blood relative currently plays or coaches

2. Undergrad school (if you graduated)

3. Team you cheered for while growing up

4. Undergrad school (if you didn’t graduate)

5. Any team (regardless of rivalry or previous biases) for which a friend or distant relative currently plays or coaches

6. Grad school (if you graduated)

7. Direct blood relative’s alma mater (assuming that relative played on the team and maintains a positive relationship with the program)

8. Spouse’s undergrad school

9. Grad school (if you didn’t graduate)

10. Local team (if the campus is within 50 miles of your house)

11. Direct blood relative’s alma mater (assuming the relative didn’t play on the team)

12. Spouse’s grad school

13. Any program whose gym you’ve been in

14. The team with the most likable personalities

15. The team with the best mascot

16. The team that is the underdog

Q: I know it wouldn’t make sense given the brackets, but wouldn’t it be way more entertaining if the Final Four reseeded? Imagine if the semis were Loyola-Villanova and Michigan-Kansas. I know it will never happen, but one can dream right?

MT: I agree with what you’re saying in theory. Reseeding the Final Four to set up the best possible national title game makes a ton of sense and would be easy to implement because it’d change absolutely nothing from a logistical standpoint. The problem, as you may have heard, is the NCAA tournament tends to be unpredictable. Heading into this weekend, it may feel like the Villanova-Kansas game is the de facto national championship, but it also felt like UMBC had no chance against Virginia and that Kentucky was a lock to make the Final Four once the Sweet 16 was set. The Duke-Butler title game in 2010 was as memorable as any that’s ever been played, and if the Final Four had reseeded that year, it probably would have happened in the semifinals instead. Most of us who want to see this change don’t actually want the Final Four reseededwe just want this Final Four reseeded.

Duke v Kansas Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Q: If Kansas wins it all, wouldn’t that be the most disappointing narrative coming out of this tournament? Villanova, Michigan, and especially Loyola all have great narratives that we can look back on and remember fondly. If Kansas wins, what would be the story of the 2018 national champions? Has there ever been a no. 1 seed to win it all with less enthusiasm for its success?

MT: You aren’t wrong. Kansas is definitely the least interesting champion from a story-line perspective. Loyola has the no. 1 spot locked up by a wide margin. Villanova is my pick for no. 2 because another title would spark dynasty discussions (especially since the Wildcats should be really good again next year) and permanently invalidate the belief that jump-shooting teams can’t win national championships unless they also play phenomenal defense. And Michigan is playing for Beilein’s first title and the Big Ten’s first title since 2000, plus the Wolverines have the 2013 vengeance thing going for them with Louisville having to take down that tourney’s banner this year.

I’ll say this for Kansas, though: The Jayhawks making it to the Final Four in San Antonio as we approach the 10-year anniversary of the Chalmers shot is pretty awesome. Also, it’d be cool if Bill Self won a national championship with one of his worst teams. I know that’s why there’s a lack of enthusiasm for Kansas, but it’s also what makes the Jayhawks’ story kind of fascinating. What could anyone possibly say about Self if one of the least-talented teams he ever coached won the Big 12 regular-season title (14 years in a row!), the Big 12 tournament title, and the national championship?

Q: Which member of this Michigan team would you most like guarding your back in an all-out on-court brawl? Mo Wagner feels like the obvious answer, but Jon Teske seems like he likes to throw down. Smaller guys like Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman may be sneaky fast as well.

MT: Wagner is the obvious pick on the surface, but he and Jordan Poole would both likely play to the crowd too much instead of simply trying to kick their opponent’s ass. Duncan Robinson strikes me as a pacifist who would try to break everything up and get the shit kicked out of him in the process. Isaiah Livers is too passive, Abdur-Rahkman gives off an elder-statesman vibe, and Charles Matthews feels like a laid-back guy who would fight only when he’s really pissed off. Teske is a good choice, especially since he’s a big man who would draw a lot of attention, and he gets bonus points for being a blue-collar dude from Northeast Ohio.

But I’m going with Zavier Simpson. He’s a scrappy little ball of muscle who has just the right combination of energy and speed. He also has the balls to play at Michigan with a script Ohio tattoo on his arm, and he wears jersey no. 3 as the Wolverines’ point guard after Trey Burke won the program’s only Naismith Award, which takes a certain amount of confidence. I want that guy on my side in a brawl.

Q: Do you like Jim Nantz?

MT: Nantz is the reason Gus Johnson no longer calls NCAA tournament games. That is my only comment on the matter.

Q: Is UMBC the biggest loser from Loyola’s run of success? The Retrievers looked poised to be considered the Cinderella of this tournament, and they’d still hold that distinction if Loyola had not gone so far. People already forgot UMBC, and soon everyone will only remember that Virginia lost. What do you think?

MT: I don’t think people will forget Virginia losing to UMBC anytime soon, but you’re right—Loyola’s run is not helping UMBC one bit. Although, my guess was always that we were going to remember the first 16-over-1 upset as a Virginia loss more than a UMBC win. That’s just how I process results like this. If a low-seeded team pulls off only one upset in the tourney, my mind frames the outcome as an instance of a favored team getting humiliated. But if the underdog springs another upset and reaches the Sweet 16, I typically remember that team as a school that went on a Cinderella run.

NCAA Basketball Tournament - First Round - Charlotte Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

For example, I know that Duke, Michigan State, Missouri, Syracuse, and Iowa State have all lost to no. 15 seeds in the past, but it takes me a second to remember which no. 15 seeds beat them. However, I vividly remember 15th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast making a run to the 2013 Sweet 16, though I have to stop and think about the no. 2 seed it toppled in the first round.

Maybe that’s just me, though. People went nuts for the UMBC Twitter account and all the pictures and GIFs of golden retrievers, so maybe that was enough to burn UMBC’s legacy into our collective memory. Plus, a 16-over-1 win is a much bigger deal than those 15-over-2 games, so perhaps you can throw my earlier rationale out the window. Whatever the case, your point stands: When we think back on the 2018 Cinderella teams, most people’s minds will go to Loyola, and that’s a bummer for UMBC.

Q: I get all the hype about Sister Jean, but I feel like no one is talking about how good this Loyola offense actually is. Every high school coach should show their team film on how Loyola plays. Everyone on the team is patient, makes the right pass, cuts with purpose, and pump-fakes the shit out of the other team. Loyola turned the second half of the Nevada game into a layup line and then straight-up torched Kansas State. It also runs some great sets. Am I crazy for thinking it can keep up with Michigan?

MT: Of course nobody is talking about Loyola’s actual team. This is by design. Sister Jean is a calculated distraction who exists to keep the spotlight and pressure off of the Loyola players and coaches. It’s impossible for anyone to talk about Loyola’s surprise run to the Final Four without the conversation turning into a Sister Jean discussion, which is a damn shame because the Ramblers offense is—hang on a second, my inbox is blowing up right now. Let me see what’s going on here.

Q: Are we sure Sister Jean isn’t a genius marketing concoction somebody came up with to garner attention for their school? Did you see the bodyguards surrounding her at the last game? Maybe they weren’t protecting her from evildoers. Maybe they were making sure she didn’t make a run (or slow wheelchair ride) for it to expose the whole situation for the sham that it is.

Will Sister Jean cry when her squad gets trounced?

So is Sister Jean really just a way for Loyola to distract attention away from the actual basketball? If everyone is focused on an old nun, then there’s no pressure on the team.

What if the entire college basketball season comes full circle with a breaking rent-a-nun story indicting Loyola’s athletic director in a bag-dropping scandal at a Chicago church, proving that Sister Jean is a fraud who has never had anything to do with Loyola?

MT: Whoa, whoa, whoa. Come on, guys. I know that talking about Sister Jean is irresistible, but I was in the middle of discussing Loyola’s offense. We’ll get to Sister Jean in a second, I promise. But I think we owe it to head coach Porter Moser and his players to applaud them for how well they’re playing. The Ramblers offense is putting on a damn clinic right now and Clayton Custer has completely ... oh no. It’s happening again.

Q: Do you think Sister Jean truly understands how she is being received in the media? She told Mariah Musselman last week that she doesn’t know what “viral” means, yet she also corrected a reporter to say that she’s become an international celebrity. She definitely knows she’s popular because she’s been getting interviewed so much, but do you think she really knows how famous she is? I’m leaning toward yes, but I also realize that she’s 98 years old, so I’m not sure what to think.

Please compare and contrast 2018 Sister Jean and 2015 Ron Hunter.

MT: Well, I personally think that Hunter’s story was more fun because he was the head coach during that Cinderella run, his son was on his Georgia State team, and he had a more vibrant personality than Sister Jean. But I don’t necessarily think that—wait a second, I’m not getting sucked into this!

I have no idea how this keeps happening. I’m over here trying to discuss Clayton Custer and Ben Richardson spraying 3-pointers and dropping backdoor dimes, and all anyone wants to talk about is an old lady with a Harry Potter scarf. Back to the point: Loyola can absolutely give Michigan a good game on Saturday. The Ramblers and Wolverines both embrace a similar brand of basketball in the sense that both play great defense and slow the game down offensively as they work for the perfect shot. I have a harder time envisioning Loyola beating Villanova or Kansas in a potential national championship matchup, but it definitely wouldn’t shock me if they did, especially since … oh God … NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

Q: Sister Jean is undoubtedly a sweet old lady, but I can’t imagine any 98-year-old thriving at compiling scouting reports and being a chaplain. What does she talk to 18-year-old kids about? Does she know about the 3-point line?

Michigan’s Charles Matthews stated that he had no idea who Sister Jean was. On a scale from 1-10, what do you give that on the BS meter? I’m calling 12.

Do you think Sister Jean is going to take money from the offering plate, stuff it in a duffel bag, and give it to Porter Moser to entice him to stay at Loyola?

Hot take: Sister Jean shouldn’t be as loved as she is. She picked her team to lose in the tournament’s second weekend! We can forgive her all we want, but to turn her into a national icon when she had Loyola losing in the Sweet 16 is some bullshit. SHE PICKED THIS TEAM TO LOSE AND WE JUST DON’T CARE ABOUT THAT!

MT: I give up. This woman is too powerful. Let’s move on. Only serious emails from now on, please!

Q: I’ve always wanted to see a player foul out at the end of an NCAA tournament game and just punt the shit out of the ball into the stands. Obviously he would get T’d up, so the game would need to be out of hand when this happens. My question to you: Why haven’t we seen someone do that before? I have no reasoning behind this, I just think it would be hilarious.
—Rick Majerus’s Towel Guy

MT: Aaaaaand that’s my cue to wrap this thing up. Before I go, I’ll mention that while it’s not exactly the scenario you’re describing, O.J. Mayo chucking the ball into the stands after scoring the final points of his high school career comes close enough.

Enjoy the Final Four, everybody!