Sports

Bruce Pearl: Face of the Final Four

NCAA tourney is beauty surrounded by hooey

Bruce Pearl waves to the fans as he is recognized during a reunion of Iowa’s 1986-1987 Elite Eight men’s basketball team before a Hawkeyes game in Carver-Hawkeye Arena in 2012. Pearl was an assistant coach on that team. (The Gazette)
Bruce Pearl waves to the fans as he is recognized during a reunion of Iowa’s 1986-1987 Elite Eight men’s basketball team before a Hawkeyes game in Carver-Hawkeye Arena in 2012. Pearl was an assistant coach on that team. (The Gazette)

College basketball has true beauty. Carsen Edwards of Purdue and Cassius Winston of Michigan State, to name but two, were utterly brilliant in last weekend’s play.

But the tourney also is a huge blob of hooey. Starting with all those teams with Nike contracts wearing warmup shirts that say “FAMILY.”

As a rule, the father of a family doesn’t take off on a moment’s notice to become the head of a better-paying, higher-profile family, as coaches will do this spring at Arkansas, UCLA and many other schools.

As a rule, people don’t drop in from New York City (St. John’s) and South Dakota to spend a year in a family of people they’d never before known, as two starters for Final Four-bound Texas Tech have done.

It does please me greatly that Bruce Pearl-coached Auburn is in the Final Four. That’s the fellow who got fired by Tennessee in 2011 and had a three-year show-cause penalty assessed by the NCAA because he lied to its investigators.

An Auburn championship might knock the NCAA off its axis.

Meanwhile, Fred Hoiberg was introduced as Nebraska’s new men’s basketball coach Tuesday, and the family there has some empty bedrooms at the moment. Hoiberg will surely work the transfer portal hard to fill some spaces, or else his first Cornhuskers team will be a strong candidate to finish 14th in the Big Ten.

Some non-Iowa State fans mocked the way Hoiberg brought in multiple transfers after getting that job several years ago. As if he were supposed to meekly get his brains beat in waiting for his freshmen to become upperclassmen.

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You don’t get paid more than the university president or the governor of the state to gradually develop a family. When Hoiberg won 23 games including one in the NCAA tourney in his second season at ISU, I don’t recall any Cyclone fans saying “Yeah, this is nice. But I sure wish all our players had begun their careers here.”

You’re Auburn and you hadn’t been to the NCAA tourney for 11 years. You hired Pearl, then sighed with relief when he wasn’t named when the FBI arrested assistant coach Chuck Person (who eventually was convicted) on federal corruption charges.

Sunday, Pearl snipped a net after beating Kentucky in the Elite Eight.

That’s the Kentucky coached by John Calipari. He coached Massachusetts and Memphis to Final Four appearances that were later vacated by the NCAA, with Calipari not cited in either case. This week, Kentucky gave Calipari a “lifetime” contract, ensuring he wouldn’t flirt with UCLA. Calipari already had a deal running through the 2023-24 season, with a base annual salary of $8 million plus incentives.

Why, you’d think Kentucky had won a national championship more recently than 2012, two Villanova titles ago.

It’s all quite funny, especially since the NCAA tourney is one big crapshoot that doesn’t mean nearly as much as most would have you believe. If Iowa had made one more basket in regulation, it would have beat Tennessee. If Iowa State had made one more 3-pointer or Ohio State had made one less, the Cyclones might have advanced in the tournament.

If Kenny Goins hadn’t walked on at Michigan State and instead accepted one of several scholarship offers from smaller programs, he doesn’t hit a 3-pointer with 34 seconds left that gave the Spartans the lead for keeps against Duke Sunday.

If New Mexico State hadn’t royally screwed up the last seconds of its first-round game against Auburn, we’re not mentioning Pearl this weekend. If Virginia didn’t convert a play at the end of regulation against Purdue that maybe had a 2 percent chance of success, the Big Ten has half of the Final Four.

In college hoops, a Butler or Gonzaga or Loyola can be No. 1, or at least come darn close. Even an Iowa or Iowa State can if the dice roll right for long enough.

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You just need the right head of the family, eight or nine talented players who fit into the right slots the right way in the right moment in time, and away you go.

Yeah, Duke’s gonna Duke and Kentucky’s gonna Kentucky over 30-plus games. But to have them sidelined while Auburn is in the Final Four is, well, a beautiful thing.

l Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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