In this AAU-diluted college basketball world, Aaron Craft and Trey Burke offer the best individual rivalry in recent memory.
Of course, the fact that there’s apparently very little vitriol between the two hurts this theory, but the Ohio State and Michigan point guards fit all the traditional archetypes. Watching the two Tuesday night in Ann Arbor, the storylines could not have jumped out more: the ultra-skilled and athletic Burke versus the hard-nosed, physical Craft; offense versus defense; black versus white; Wolverines versus Buckeyes; the hometown kid that got away (Burke is from Columbus) and the small-town kid (Craft hails from Findlay, a town of 40,000-plus) making good.
And to this point, it’s been a refreshing treat, a much-needed dose of natural drama to a basketball season occasionally lacking in captivating storylines. Make no mistake, either: these two are captivating when they share the court. They go at it. No holds barred.
Starting last season, Burke’s freshman year, Ohio State has three wins and Michigan has two in the rivalry—they’ve split this season’s series. Craft has held Burke to some of the worst offensive performances of his career, and Burke has humbled Ohio State’s defensive whiz quite a few times. They bring out the best in one another.
In the one-and-done era—where the sport’s most talented players head for NBA waters (and money) earlier and earlier—it’s rare that two such players compete at such a high level so often. It’s more rare that they compete for one of the top rivalries in sports. And it’s even more rare that they so conveniently fit into many of the prototypical one-on-one rivalry aspects. Think about it: Other than the classic Magic-Bird example, there aren’t exactly many other similar cases to select from over the past 30 or 40 years.
When it comes to personal rivalries in college basketball, Burke-Craft remains the best show in years. Bar none.
KEEP AN EYE ON…
James Michael McAdoo, UNC: Perhaps caught up in a bit of overhype early in the season as many NBA Draft boards rated him as a top-five prospect, the athletic Tar Heels is starting to come on strong for a team that has won six of its last seven games. In ACC play, the 6-foot-9 forward is averaging 15.9 points per game including back-to-back 20-point outings for the first time in his career. If he can continue developing his game, Roy Williams’ team might just be dangerous in March after all.
Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State: Any reference to Thomas should be prefaced by, “The Curious Case of…” as the Buckeye scorer is one of the more difficult players in the country to figure out. Some nights, he’s engaged and lethal. Other nights, he disappears. His role in Ohio State’s 76-74 loss was palpable (17 points, four rebounds, four assists), but he practically disappeared in overtime, not attempting a single shot in the final five minutes. By comparison, his point guard, Craft, attempted four shots despite being an inferior offensive threat. Thad Matta and Thomas’ teammates need to keep him involved.
THE FIFTH WATCH
Colorado at Oregon: Highlighting this game seems strange here, but with the Pac-12 lacking in depth, this could be an important game for a team like Colorado, which is just 14-7 but has played a brutal schedule (the 6th-toughest nationally). No. 19 Oregon has surprised most this season, but have lost two straight in unspectacular fashion. With the trio of Askia Booker, Andre Roberson and Spencer Dinwiddie leading the way, expect the more balanced team to come out on top. Pick: Colorado
North Carolina at Miami: As mentioned above, the Tar Heels are on a roll, but their second-to-last loss came to Jim Larranaga's Hurricanes by way of an efficient pick-and-pop offense featuring Kenny Kadji (18 points, nine rebounds). Miami shot a 55.7 effective field goal percentage in that game. McAdoo, Reggie Bullock and the rest of UNC’s team is playing better as of late, but Miami is one of the hottest teams around. If the Tar Heels want to prove they’re legitimate, they have the perfect opportunity versus the ACC’s newest top dog. Pick: Miami
Louisville at Notre Dame: Rick Pitino’s Cardinals have rebounded from their midseason slump, and are really starting to hit their stride with double-digit wins over Marquette and Rutgers. Louisville’s offensive production has picked back up, as well, over the past week, and Notre Dame’s defense (179th nationally) should offer a prime opportunity for Russ Smith and the Cardinals to keep the train rolling. Pick: Louisville
Indiana at Ohio State: The Big Ten gauntlet continues to wreak havoc. Just coming off its loss to Michigan (Indiana played the Wolverines just last week), Ohio State’s defense will once again be tested against a top-three offense. However, unlike perimeter-oriented Michigan, the Hoosiers’ offense is run through center Cody Zeller, which offers a brand new set of challenges for Matta’s defensive strategy to deal with. The balanced Hoosiers could steal one on the road. Pick: Indiana
Kansas State at Kansas: The job Bruce Weber has done in his first season in Manhattan should not be understated, but his second taste of this in-state rivalry won’t likely be any sweeter than the first. For starters, the Jayhawks should be focused after suffering back-to-back losses to unranked opponents. And in facing one of the nation’s elite defensive teams in one of the nation’s toughest venues, the balanced Wildcats will find scoring comes at a premium. Adding to this sentiment: Freshman star Ben McLemore looks to be back. Pick: Kansas
THIS IS WHY…
Dick Vitale deserved his shot.
It seems inconceivable that one of college basketball’s most visible and recognizable ambassadors has never called an NCAA Tournament game—yet here we stand with Vitale, 73, presumably nearing retirement with one final spot on his announcing to-do list. It’s been 34 years; it’s time. Vitale, who has worked his entire career for ESPN, a network that has never carried the Big Dance, will call Final Four games international, this March.
Now, full disclosure: Vitale, as a basketball analyst, is far from my cup of tea in 2013. While the stories are true, he used to offer much more insight into top collegiate games, I find his antics less amusing as time ticks by; putting a "CAPITAL A" on everything or yelling the trademark "ARE YOU SERIOUS?" only holds so much shelf life per 40 minutes. There are other ways to commemorate big moments.
Now, that’s not to diminish his contributions to the sport. The man is a broadcasting gem; he’s an icon. That’s simply one TV-viewing preference in 2013.
Regardless, Vitale’s affiliation with the Worldwide Leader should not keep him from becoming a part of his sport’s pinnacle, even if it is broadcast to 150-plus countries not named U.S.A. Good for Dickie V.
This is why network affiliations are such a big deal, as TV rights often dictate the voices we hear during the top sporting events of our lifetimes. Like his style or not, can you imagine John Madden never calling a Super Bowl game? It seems outlandish, but Vitale is similarly synonymous with his respective sport. He even had his own Sega Genesis video game.
This is why you can’t help but feel good for Vitale getting his One Shining Moment.