The world’s biggest and best basketball tournament tipped-off this week. Four years ago I zoomed in on the 2014 World Cup and called worthy of attention. Four years later, with the US National Team absent from the World Cup I thought I’d shift my attention to a different sport. Here’s an introduction to the 2018 edition of the NCAA college basketball tournament through a couple of lenses.
Moe Wagner. He’s my favorite player in this year’s tournament and there is no second favorite. Wagner is a 20-year old Berliner who came to Ann Arbor three years ago with a profile that’s not uncharacteristic for international players: lots of potential, little certainty. Since then, Wagner’s natural talent and technical discipline have developed him into one of the most versatile power forward threats not just on his own roster but across the NCAA.
On top of that, Wagner is widely recognized him as the emotional engine of the Michigan team and not only by Germanophiles like me. Coach John Beilein and Wagner acknowledge they have a special relationship. The coach calls him “so important to this team.” Beilein, who Wagner recently introduced to German rap music, playfully chastises Wagner in the media. When he can’t get through to Wagner he uses post-game interviews to crowdsource German translations to coaching tips.
For the curious: “Fouling is stupid” translates to “Foulen ist dumm.”
Duncan Robinson and the D-3 dream. I don’t have a second favorite player on the Michigan roster, but if I did Duncan Robinson might be the guy. The transfer from Williams College is proof of the health of the game at the Division III level, something every Calvin College alum can take quiet pride in. Under Beilein’s tutelage, Robinson has transformed from a player whose only asset—indeed, maybe his only value—was shooting, into a sixth man whose not only one of the best shooters in the conference, but a viable defensive player who can also be trusted to with the ball in his hands for longer than the nanosecond it takes him to release a shot.
Crisis of the mid-majors. March Madness is marked by its Cinderella stories and the mid-majors are everyone’s favorite protagonist. But does the glass slipper still fit? Traditional mid-major conference teams feel that bias toward more prominent, major-conference universities comes at their expense.
A 2017 Sports Illustrated piece sums it up as follows:
“Big schools that are coasting off their reputations, despite middling league records and safe non-conference schedules shouldn’t be given the benefit of the doubt. “To be rewarded for going 17–14 and not doing anything in the non-conference makes no sense,” says Rhode Island coach Danny Hurley. ‘There’s logo bias.‘
Keep an eye on mid-major performance in the 2018 tournament to judge for yourself. Of note: Danny Hurley’s Rhode Island squad took down the Oklahoma Sooners on Thursday’s opening round. Score one for the mid-majors.
In the early 1990s, the Fab Five introduced a sportstorial (term credit: Wesley Morris) trend to college basketball: baggy shorts. Nearly three decades later, the same university is at the vanguard of that trend’s rollback.
University of Michigan freshmen Isaiah Livers, Jordan Poole and sophomore Ibi Watson are quoted in a recent New York Times profile on the Maize and Blue’s habit of hiking up their shorts—two rolls of the waistband recommended, three are the maximum, and four are two much.
Coming off a slow, ugly but eventually conclusive first-round victory over Montana, the Wolverines are riding a wave of 10-straight wins. May the streak run longer than their inseams.
The persisting question of amateurism.
This year’s tournament comes just weeks after Yahoo! Sports published documents shedding light on an ongoing FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball. The documents open a window into what journalists Pat Forde and Pete Thamel call “the game’s underground economy.”
The investigation, which began several years ago, is examining an illegal recruiting scheme that touches at least 20 Division I basketball programs. The development casts doubt the institutional integrity of high-profile college athletics, where players are participants in but not full recipients of the capital of a billion dollar industry.
From German transplants to rolled-up shorts; I hope this collection of thoughts primes you for the next couple of weeks of college basketball. Enjoy the madness.