MILWAUKEE — For as delightful a circus the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is for America, it can feel like a frontal lobotomy behind the scenes.
The tournament sends media people a list of things it can’t do here, and this year I didn’t even bother to open the file. I just assume everything is taboo.
An usher fist-bumped me in friendship here Thursday, and I was deathly afraid we had both committed copyright infringement of some sort.
Once I feared I was headed to NCAA prison for taking a can of soda to press row at courtside instead of pouring it into a paper cup that said “NCAA.” I gave up soda forever.
Everything’s regimented here. During pregame and postgame press conferences, we’re constantly told we’re dealing with “student-athletes” and only “student-athletes.”
Then in a few weeks we’ll learn that many of the very best players in this tourney will leave that “student” portion unfinished and ride off to the NBA.
Have you ever heard an All-Academic Team mentioned on “SportsCenter,” by the way? ESPN would be nuts to give airtime to that. No one cares other than parents, the coaches who want their guys to stay eligible, and the players themselves. Er, the student-athletes.
But sometimes candor still seeps through the cracks here.
It’s one thing for a coach to rave about one of his own players. We expect it.
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“The best point guard in the country,” Iowa State Coach Steve Prohm told us with conviction late Thursday night. That was after Monte Morris had 19 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists in ISU’s 84-73 win over Nevada.
Now, coaches and teammates sell hard for one of their own. Saturday, though, Morris agreed with Prohm and teammate Naz Mitrou-Long in front of microphones and cameras. That was different.
Morris was asked about Prohm’s declaration about him. “It’s an honor, first off, and, you know, without my teammates, none of this recognition is possible on my end. But like I said, it’s an honor. I take my hat off to him saying that. You know, it’s a pleasure and blessing.”
However, a reporter showed why we’re called the “press.”
Q. Monte, just to follow-up, are you the best point guard in the country?
Mitrou-Long (interrupting): “Yes, he is.”
Mitrou-Long: “I had to get there and say that.”
Q. I’m sorry, what did you say?
Q. You are?
Now we’re talking. Entering a game Saturday against Purdue with a Sweet 16 berth at stake, Iowa State’s senior point guard says he’s the best at his position.
However, anyone who has listened to the fellow over the last four seasons knows he isn’t an I-me-mine guy, and he had this addendum to his claim:
“If you don’t believe in yourself or feel like you’re the best, why are you playing this game? And I put in the work and overtime this summer, with the guys and every guy on our roster for like we’re the best on the court at times. So we just got to carry that swagger so we can play with it.”
Monte Morris was asked by a Purdue writer if he's the best point guard in the country...his answer (with some help from Naz) pic.twitter.com/WSJki19i5Y
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— Cyclone Basketball (@CycloneMBB) March 17, 2017
In other words, it was back to press conference-speak, no more provocative in Milwaukee than declaring your love for a Friday fish fry.
Oh well, Purdue-ISU may not need a sales pitch. It has what you might call the feature time slot today of the eight NCAA games. It’s the last game of the day.
Wisconsin plays defending national-champ Villanova in the afternoon. Feel-good story Northwestern faces Gonzaga in midafternoon. But the game that starts at 8:40 p.m., Central time is the Boilermakers and Cyclones.
Ratings records won’t get shattered, but these are two excellent teams with headliners in their lineup. Purdue’s mountainous Caleb Swanigan is a bona fide All-America forward. It’s hard to envision Iowa State finding defensive answers for him and 7-foot-2 Isaac Haas.
Morris must play like the nation’s best point guard Saturday. If you’ve seen him perform in the last several weeks, you don’t need a leap of faith to believe it could happen.