So, you’re looking for a team to root for in the NCAA tournament? I have seen some well-intentioned people suggest that you root for a team by choosing your alma mater, the school closest to where you grew up, or the university with the the best uniforms/mascot/fight song.
Do not feel obliged to go down that well-traveled road. Instead, you can, and should, refer to my totally subjective list of teams to root for in the 2019 NCAA men’s basketball tournament. I have five, of course, and my criteria is, quite simply: Are they compelling, according to me?
- Duke. Zion Williamson is to college basketball what the Washington Monument is to the U.S. capitol. A singular force inspiring apotheosis, towering above the landscape. What I love the most about him is not so much his athleticism, size, and feel for the game as it is how hard he plays and how fervently he roots for his teammates. That is, I have never seen such a celebrated recruit carry himself as if he were a walk-on; such a physically gifted and skilled player with boundless energy and enthusiasm. To those who debate whether he is the best prospect since Anthony Davis and whether he can stay healthy in the NBA, I say, with all due respect: Shh. Enjoy Zion in the moment, in all his glory now because we’ll never see anybody like him ever again. What we will see the next two weeks, however, if the regular season is any indication, will be invigorating. Because Zion Lateef Williamson is a 6’7” 285 pound extraordinaire who floats like a butterfly, jumps like a grasshopper, and works on a team like a bee.
- Syracuse and Washington. So, two teams who play the Syracuse 2-3 zone defense. Fran Franschilla said it best. If man-to-man defense is a fastball and normal zones a curveball, then the Syracuse 2-3 zone is Mariano Rivera’s cutter: very difficult to hit and if you’re lucky enough to make contact, you “may break a bat” but it ain’t for a “grand slam.” A long-time assistant coach under Coach Boeheim, Mike Hopkins is now roaming the sidelines in the Pacific Northwest and playing a 2-3 zone, reaping similar benefits. If you watch Syracuse or Washington, note how on defense, they discourage the most valuable shots in basketball — uncontested 3s, lay-ups, and free throws — with keen angles, tactical coverage, disciplined rotations, and deceptive length, and make the offense feel as if they are near when they are far away and far when they are near. Boeheim and Hopkins are modern-day reincarnations of Sun Tzu.
- Vermont. Fun fact #1: Head Coach John Becker has won about 70% of his games at the University of Vermont the past eight years. Fun fact #2: Coach Becker used to coach at Gallaudet for two years. Fun fact #3: In both years, he went 3-22 and won 12% of his games. Fun fact #4: Head Coach Kevin Kovacs has coached at Gallaudet for four years now and won about 60% of his games.
- UC-Irvine. I graduated from University High School down the block from UC-Irvine; their mascot is the Anteaters. (Thought exercise: what would it be like if it weren’t the Gallaudet Bison but the Gallaudet Anteaters? Interestingly enough, the question would be not whether, but how many people would be offended.) But, anyway. I realize I told you not to root for the team with the best mascot or the school where you graduated. But we’re talking about the university next to my alma mater.
- Gonzaga. Gonzaga has graduated 99% of their basketball players, one of the highest rates in the tournament. Yale is first, having graduated 100% of its players, but they’re also seeded #14 in the tournament. Gonzaga, on the other hand, is seeded #1. Excellence in the classroom and on the hardwood at the highest level in the country is notable and ought be rooted for.