Why Villanova’s win was good for college basketball


Words can’t really do justice to the end of Monday’s NCAA title game so let’s begin with non-words “whoa,” “whew” and that old Ralph Kramden favorite: ‘homina, homina, homina.”

Villanova over North Carolina was as good as it gets at a time when college hoops needed a champagne supernova.  The first title game on cable television provided a dynamite ending on a family of channels  that includes TNT.

bigeastIt was a huge, heroic, in-your-face win for the Big East, which was decimated by cut-throat expansion instigated by the predatory ACC, which big-footed six teams into the Sweet 16 but couldn’t cut down the final net.

One theory postulated is that a very powerful ACC coach, who recently irritated Oregon and had knee replacement surgery, didn’t like how big the Big East had grown in basketball. So, he covertly led the charge to lure Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Louisville to the fold.

The Big East was wiped out in football and reduced to small potatoes in basketball.

Well, ACC, how do you like them potatoes?

Monday night proved again why major sports on television remain bullet-proof. You can’t even risk taping the game to skip the commercials for fear of missing something in real Twitter time. There is simply no reality-show replacement for this kind of unscripted drama.

No other television event can make a grown man scream at the boob tube the way I did as Villanova was trying to protect a three-point lead in the final seconds.

Rankman was court side for the 2008 title game at San Antonio, when Memphis couldn’t protect a three-point lead against Kansas. While others may respectfully disagree, the rule in my rule house is you NEVER allow the opponent a chance to tie the game with a three pointer. You ALWAYS foul, within reason, to put the other team on the free-throw line. This almost assures you will get possession back with the lead.

Memphis didn’t foul against Kansas and watched Mario Chalmers hit the game-tying three at the buzzer. Kansas won in overtime.

“Foul them, foul them, foul them!” I screamed at Villanova in Monday’s waning seconds.

It wasn’t that I necessarily cared who won-there were principles and axioms on the line!

Villanova, however, gave guard Marcus Paige the chance to make his preposterous, gravity-defying three with 4.7 seconds left. Villanova was only lucky it had enough time left for Kris Jenkins to put a Philly cheese stake into the Tar Heels’ heart.

College basketball needed this game after the debacle of the lopsided semifinals, which were decided by 61 total points.

College hoops needed Villanova because it was the most well-scrubbed and “hug-worthy” of the entrants.  The other schools came to Houston with an entourage of NCAA baggage. North Carolina over Syracuse in one semi featured a team facing major infractions against another team already serving them out.

Oklahoma hasn’t done anything unscrupulous lately, yet it wasn’t that long ago that Kelvin Sampson coached there. This is also a program that ranks tied for fourth on the all-time NCAA probation list.

Roy Williams and Jim Boeheim, the North Carolina and Syracuse coaches, had become insufferable and sanctimonious in defense of their programs.

Boeheim lectured the press about the difference between cheating and breaking the rules, while Williams whined in the face of legitimate questions regarding pending sanctions related to, potentially, one of the worst academic scandals in the history of higher education.

It’s true players on these teams deserved the lion’s share of the spotlight, yet it’s also fair to query coaches who were both around in the time frame of the alleged infractions.

Even NCAA President Mark Emmert acknowledged things didn’t look good.

“Yeah, sure, I understand why optically people have a lot of questions around all that,” he said last week at his annual Final Four press conference. “It makes perfect sense that they might.”

In that sense, the “right” team won Monday.  Emmert had to be thrilled with the outcome because it relieves his office of potentially handing down major sanctions against a reigning national champion.

Thank you, Villanova, for taking some of the stench out of the air.

Now we wait for the hammer to drop, or not, on North Carolina.

“Obviously a very complex circumstance,” Emmert said last week.  “It’s been moving along very well.”

Not well enough, of course, that it would ever be resolved before the NCAA’s Final Four spring fling in Houston.

Thank you, Villanova, for providing some joy before the ugliness.

Emmert said his staff is nearing a point where it can “issue allegations, or notice of allegations, in the very near future.”

Rest assured, that won’t be “one shining moment.”






Catching up with Tommy Bonk: the man behind Phi Slama Jama

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Houston Cougars: greatest team that didn’t win the NCAA title


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Tommy Bonk

SAN FRANCISCO–Sometimes you do your best work under  pressure. Take my friend and longtime Los Angeles Times colleague Tommy Bonk, who coined the greatest team nickname in sporting history.

On a Sunday afternoon in early January, 1983, Bonk was assigned to chronicle a column for the Houston Post, which is different than posting a column for the Houston Chronicle.

He had just watched the Houston Cougars’ basketball team do a big number on the University of Pacific.

“The final score was 112-56,” Bonk recently recalled over a hamburger he ordered so raw he suggested for it to still be “mooing” when it reached the table. “And I said ‘what the hell can I say about this shit?’ I mean, really. And they were dunking. These guys were really good.”

Bonk wasn’t writing for the Monday paper but was under his own gunpoint pressure.

“It was deadline for me because I didn’t want to work Monday,” Bonk said.

Bonk had become smitten with the Cougars, coached by Guy Lewis and led by the high-flying likes of Akeem (later Hakeem) Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.

This week’s Final Four is in Houston, but who really needs a reason to sit down with Tommy Bonk and commemorate the nastiest throw-down college team ever?

Bonk said he stared at his computer screen that Sunday and tried to synthesize what he had just seen, which was young men flying through the air with the greatest of ease.  The NCAA had, thank God in hoop heaven,  reinstated the “slam dunk” after years of draconian darkness caused by Lew Alcindor’s dominance at UCLA. Remember the silliness of Bill Walton laying the ball over the rim like a baby into a bassinet?

So the game is over and Bonk is thinking: “Ok, it’s college, so if you had a college fraternity, what would a dunking fraternity be named? So I thought of a bunch of stuff and came up with Phi Slama Jama. And it worked. It appeared on Tuesday.”

Bonk’s column lede of Jan. 3, 1983, appeared as such: “As members of the exclusive college roundball fraternity Phi Slama Jama, the Houston chapter has learned proper parliamentary procedure.”

All Houston hell broke loose. “Phi Slama Jama” took off faster than Houston players launching off the rubberized court at Hofheinz Pavilion. Bonk’s phrase captured a movement and a moment. It hit home in the talent-rich NCAA era before “one-and-done” stripped the game of its front-line depth.
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Sweet (16) dreams are made of this-who am I to disagree?


Rankman was all set to pen a Pulitzer after last weekend’s scintillating rounds of NCAA pod action before realizing Sunday night he didn’t have a job anymore.

What was the big fuss anyway? Oregon played another late night game no one saw on the East Coast. That sounded just like Pac 12 football.

Yes, Texas A&M overcame a 12-point lead with 40 seconds to topple Northern Iowa, but who hasn’t see that before? Wisconsin’s Bronson Koenig also made a three-pointer from the corner to defeat Xavier in St. Louis, so we guess now “X” will always mark that spot.
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Rankman picks his NCAA field and prays for a good harvest.


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College basketball is really two sports. There is a serious regular season where pundits pore over the teams and offer insightful, incontrovertible analysis.

And there is the NCAA Tournament, which is like the dime toss at your church’s harvest festival.

It’s nice to know, actually, that your dog “Spot” is as well equipped to pick the winners as SI’s Seth Davis.

If the NCAA was like the NBA, which produces the best true champion because playoff winners are decided in a best-of-seven series, the tournament would be worth agonizing over.
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NCAA hoops needs a plumber to deal with all of its leaks


The NCAA Tournament will always be a fantastic event so long as gambling remains legal in Las Vegas and ignored in every other state.

Don’t believe me…well, how much you want to bet?

College basketball is still the best three-week sport in America but doesn’t have much more wiggle room after seeing its regular season diminished by late season college football and player poaching by the NBA.
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