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In Praise of the Nobodies

This March Madness, don’t let the stars define the tournament; let the tournament determine the stars

Author Adam K. Raymond Illustration Wesley Bedrosian

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The home crowd booed Luke Hancock in his first games as a University of Louisville Cardinal during the 2012-2013 season. It wasn’t personal: When a player clangs 25 of his first 29 three-point attempts off the rim, it’s hard for 20,000 people to keep quiet as he launches another.

But first impressions aren’t everything. Hancock, a lightly recruited transfer from George Mason University, kept firing, and the shots started falling. By midseason, he had turned the boos into Luuukes and settled in as Louisville’s sixth man.

When last year’s March Madness arrived, the bearded forward with the old man game was a solid role player for the No. 1 seed Cardinals. An ESPN preview of Louisville’s region mentioned him once, in parentheses, while pointing out he was a junior. All of which is to say that no one expected him to go on a historic tear in the Final Four, lighting up Wichita State and Michigan for a total of 42 points as Louisville won its third national championship. With his Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four honor,the first ever for a reserve, Hancock ensured his place in the history of the game, but not necessarily in its future.

As Hancock finishes his senior season at Louisville, his best chance of reaching the NBA is learning to play the trumpet and joining the National Band Association. His slow, crafty game doesn’t translate well to the pros. “Still,” says Sports Illustrated college basketball writer Luke Winn, “there’s room for him to play a role and be really valuable in the college game. That’s what makes it special.”

For hundreds of college players, a spectacular March is the only path to basketball immortality. That’s why hoops fans remember names like T.J. Sorrentine, who rained five threes in the first round of the 2005 tournament to push 13-seed Vermont past Syracuse, and Northern Iowa’s Ali Farokhmanesh, whose sharpshooting took his team to the 2010 Sweet 16 with wins over UNLV and top seed Kansas. “Players you’ve never heard of stepping up and lighting up the scoreboard for a week or two make the tournament what it is,” says CBS’s resident bracketologist, Jerry Palm.

And yet, every March fans and commentators become laser-focused on the game’s replenishing crop of freak-of-nature freshmen. This year, it’s Arizona’s Aaron Gordon, Duke’s Jabari Parker, Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins and Kentucky’s Julius Randle. Were it not for the NBA’s rule against drafting players out of high school, any of these specimens would have been taken first in last year’s NBA draft. Instead, they’ve spent six months attending frat parties in between NCAA games before moving on to the Big Show this summer. “Unfortunately, the way the sport works these days is that the most talented prospects are freshmen,” says NBC Sports hoops writer Rob Dauster. “Outside of the magic of March, most casual fans are more concerned with who will be the next NBA superstar than with the great stories sprinkled across college hoops.”

So for all of you March Madness watchers, here’s a piece of advice: Don’t go out of your way to watch those guys this month. Don’t let the promise of potential steal your attention from spectacular performances. Instead of looking to the stars to shape the tournament, let the tournament determine the stars. Sometimes that will lead you right back to the future lottery picks, but more often than not it won’t. Consider the two freshmen taken in the first seven picks of the 2013 NBA draft who played in last year’s tournament: Top pick Anthony Bennett scored 15 points as his UNLV Rebels flamed out in the first round, and seventh pick Ben McLemore played well in three games, but his Kansas Jayhawks lost in the Sweet 16. Meanwhile, Wichita State’s undersize power forward, Carl Hall, was leading his team to the Final Four, and Florida Gulf Coast high-flyers Sherwood Brown and Chase Fieler were putting their school on the map.

Disappointing March performances from future NBA stars aren’t a 2013 anomaly. In 2011, top pick Kyrie Irving couldn’t lead Duke past the Sweet 16, and fourth pick Tristan Thompson put up a whopping three points in Texas’ second-round loss to Arizona. The year before, Kentucky boasted the future No. 1 and No. 5 picks in John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins but still couldn’t make it to the Final Four. In 2009, Tyreke Evans, taken fourth in that year’s NBA draft, saw his Memphis squad drop its Sweet 16 matchup to a lower seed.

Each of those years saw something special from somewhere unexpected, too. In 2011, Jamie Skeen took 11-seed VCU to the Final Four. In 2010, Cornell’s Louis Dale averaged 23.5 points as the Ivy League school made a run to the Sweet 16. In 2009, Norris Cole and Cedric Jackson revived a Cleveland State program after decades of dormancy. “The maturity gap between an 18-year-old and guys who are 22 or 23 is huge,” Winn explains. “There’s room for these old, savvy vets who aren’t shaken by the tournament to be important players.”

So forget the seven-footer who needs to “grow into his body.” Stop overanalyzing the “athletic swingman” who hasn’t yet but will eventually learn to shoot. Don’t obsess over the six-foot-six point guard with “raw skills.” Instead, revel in the success that reveals itself organically over the course of the tournament. Ultimately, it’s those players whose names become inextricably tied to March Madness, like insects preserved in amber launching deep threes for all of eternity. Valparaiso’s Bryce Drew and N.C. State’s Lorenzo Charles did it with dramatic buzzer-beaters. VCU’s Skeen and Butler’s Matt Howard did it by leading Davids over Goliaths. When their teams landed in the Big Dance, expectations were nonexistent. Outside the quad, few knew their names. Once March turned to April, though, they became Cinderellas writ small, individuals outperforming predictions. Even though they all disappeared into the anonymity of non-NBA pro ball, having most of their checks cut in euros, they’re remembered for what they did one March. “When those kids in the lower levels put together a run in March is when this sport is truly magical,” Dauster says.

Those “kids” Dauster speaks of will be skinnier than Gordon, Parker, Randle and Wiggins. They won’t be able to float on air, and they might not be able to win even a Fisher-Price dunk contest. Their games might not be the prettiest, and their names won’t be the glitziest. But there’s one certainty: They’ll light up the scoreboard. And, more than potential or star power or where a player will spend the next decade of his career, that’s what matters in March.

Adam K. Raymond is an Oakland-based writer whose affinity for undersize guards might relate to his Spudd Webb-ian height of 5’7″.

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