Separate but Equal

By Jerold A. Wells Jr.
Updated: April 2, 2005

ST.LOUIS, MO.—The climax of a taxing Men’s College Basketball Tournament is upon us. This year’s tourney has come crammed with classic contests, enthralling upsets, and spectacular performances. The Final Four has descended upon St. Louis, Missouri and North Carolina, Illinois, Michigan State and Louisville have emerged from their respective regions looking to cement a place in history as the 2005 NCAA Men’s Basketball Champion. Every Division I basketball team begins the year with that assignment as the prime objective. Only one team can reach the objective, and next weekend we will know which team it is. If the tournament thus far is to serve as a barometer, expect great plays from great players and three excellent games as a conclusion to this years adaptation of March Madness.

Separate but equal. In the history of our illustrious country one surefire blemish is the 1896 Supreme Court case titled “Plessy vs. Ferguson.” The case made the segregation of races law and split the country along racial lines. In the land of the free and the home of the brave it was determined that color would be the deciding factor as to who could really pursue happiness. Not until Brown vs. Board of Education, and the exemplary work of Thurgood Marshall, did Plessy vs. Ferguson get overturned. (Some 60 years later) Although heinous for the time, allow me to reintroduce the idea of separate being equal. The Michigan State Spartans, Louisville Cardinals, Illinois Fighting Illini and the North Carolina Tar Heels will face each other weekend. Each team’s ultimate goal, a national championship, is equal. The path each respective school traveled to get here is different, it is separate.

Complacency The North Carolina Tar Heels will face their toughest opponent this year, and that’s before the game even starts. Complacency will be looking to hand the North Carolina Tar Heels a loss and a long trip back to Tobacco Road. The Tar Heels are by far the most talented team in the Final Four. So the question arises, “How does a supremely talented squad motivate itself to dominate?” On paper there is no way that the inexperience of Michigan State freshman point guard Drew Neitzel and the “shoot first, ask questions last” mentality of alternate point guard Chris Hill can overcome the ACC regular season and tourney mettle Raymond Felton possesses. It would seem that Sean May is too strong, too quick and too skilled to be denied points or rebounds by the Spartan big men. In a tournament packed with big time performances from big time players, common sense would say the Rashad McCants is due for a big night or two. The collective greatness of role players such as Melvin Scott, David Noel, Marvin Williams, Jackie Manuel, and Jawad Williams propose the idea that few teams could field a starting five that would compete with them, let alone a group coming off the bench. With such an embarrassment of riches, North Carolina cannot relax, they cannot stop fighting. Make no mistake, North Carolina is fighting. They are fighting the monkey on their coaches back. They are fighting the myth that their teacher is not a top tier coach because he chokes at the highest level of competition. Roy Williams has coached highly skilled, talented players for the majority of his career, yet he has no title to show. To whom much is given much is required and anything less than a title would be a disappointment to the Tar Heels. The next two games are practically must win for them and that’s unfair, yet it’s reality. Separate Anxieties, Equal Pressure.

Expectations The senior class featured on this year’s Michigan State Men’s basketball team is a class purposely stockpiled with talented performers. After the Spartans National Title run in 2000, Kevin Torbert, Alan Anderson, Chris Hill (as well as too soon departed Marcus Taylor and Zach Randolph) arrived in Lansing with expectations of hanging at least one more banner in the rafters of the Breslin Center. Somehow, those plans were never reached. This is the first and only Final Four appearance for the class of 2001. Thus far in the tournament, adversity has not dealt a blow the team could not handle. Take for example the overtime thriller against Kentucky. Senior Allan Anderson sank four consecutive free throws to ensure a Spartans win and guarantee a Final Four appearance. Can you imagine the pressure? Mr. Anderson must have broad shoulders because the weight of an entire class of Michigan State seniors rested on him at the free throw line last weekend. The weight of expectations, and continuing a championship legacy might have crushed a lesser player. That’s when you remember what this group was brought in for; to make key plays, to lead by example, to continue the legacy of greatness. As you watch North Carolina and Michigan State collide, think about Mateen Cleaves, Jason Richardson and the National Championship team of 2000. Think about their tenacity and will to win. Then think how good you would have to be to replace them. Separate Anxieties, Equal Pressure.

Disrespect The Louisville Cardinals are participating in the Final Four for the first time since 1986 and the whole state of Kentucky (as well as basketball fans across the nation) feels like it’s about time. During the last days of the Denny Crum era and the genesis of the Rick Pitino era, Louisville struggled mightily. Gone were the days of prominence and national title aspirations; they were replaced with mediocrity and complacency. Then suddenly, a shift occurred. Blue chip recruits began to come back to Louisville, yearning to play for a proven NBA talent developer. As the talent trickled in, the wins increased. That trend culminated this year when the Cardinals put together a 29-4 season and waited to enjoy the fruits of their labor, which would manifest itself in a 1 or 2 seed for the NCAA Tournament. Instead the committee seeded them fourth. This meant the there were 12 other teams better than the Cardinals in college basketball, spread throughout the 4 regions. It meant that a whole year’s worth of blood, sweat, and tears were disregarded. As ridiculous as that assertion was, not many basketball fans made much fuss about Louisville’s seeding. They didn’t believe. That is until the round of 32 when they thumped Georgia Tech 76-54. The volume turned up a couple of notches again when they whipped #1 seed Washington in the Sweet Sixteen. An Elite Eight thriller with West Virginia had people from state to state singing Louisville’s praises. One has to question how many of those people actually think Louisville has a chance against Illinois. The drive to prove doubters wrong has provided the fuel for three very impressive Louisville victories in this Tournament. I also have to think that such a frame of mind (doubt from outsiders) is exactly what Louisville wants. If you watch the Cardinals play, you can tell that they are playing with a chip on their shoulder. They have something to prove, ladies and gentlemen. The farther in this tournament they go, the more of a success this season will become. Their hard work will be validated. Separate Anxieties, Equal Pressure.

Integration When the Supreme Court ruled that Plessy vs. Ferguson was unconstitutional, a group of 9 students in Little Rock, Arkansas decided to exercise the right to an integrated education and attend Little Rock Central High School. They were met with a good deal of resistance but eventually they were able to prove that they belonged and that the law was correct. Illinois is the Little Rock 9 of 2005. College basketball is a game of tradition. That tradition is not only of teams and coaches. Rather, it is also of players who year in and year out make us take notice of this tournament. These players don’t always come from Duke or Kentucky. They don’t always shine brightly in a Kansas or Arizona uniform. Sometimes they come from Illinois. It takes truly specials players to make this integration complete. It takes players who could have taken their talents to bigger stages at larger schools, like Deron Williams, to lead his team to a place some thought they didn’t belong. It takes a coach, like Bruce Weber, leaving a place of comfort in order take on the daunting task of making a good team great. In pursuing entry into this place at the top of the college basketball mountain, much like the Little Rock 9, Illinois has faced stiff competition. First, competition took the form of the rough and tumble Big Ten Conference. (A conference that placed 5 teams in the tourney, 3 in the Elite Eight and now 2 in the Final Four; so much for the Big Ten having a “down” year.) Then with upsets happening all around the Illini were able to advance through the NCAA Tournament’s first 4 rounds to an Instant Classic contest with Lute Olson’s Arizona Wildcats. Arizona provided an incomparable Elite Eight contest and served as the hostile crowd preventing the Little Rock 9’s entry into Central High School. You see Arizona is an established superpower. They do not hurt for recruits; nor do they need a savior. That’s why Illinois beating Arizona and advancing to the Final Four is a major accomplishment. It announces to the nation that Illinois basketball is a force to be reckoned with. Now that the Illinois Fighting Illini are here, now that they have met and defeated stiff opposition, the task is to prove that they belong. The task is to win two more games and forever place their names among the greatest college basketball teams of all time. Separate Anxieties, Equal Pressure.

Separate can be and in this case is Equal.