OK, no, it has not been much of an NCAA basketball tournament when it comes to drama. Lots of marching, little madness. But here's one thing you can say: There is plenty of coaching star power out there. There are 16 teams left, of course, and seven of them are coached by men who have already won a national championship. Those seven coaches have won eight of the last 13 championships.
Yes, you can hear chalkboards squeaking. The thing about those seven remaining championship coaches is that, beyond their flair and fame, they have all built something familiar: basketball styles that you can count on this time of year. You have:
• The defensive intensity of Bill Self's Kansas.
• The up-and-down offensive firepower of Roy Williams' North Carolina.
• The unbreakable 2-3 zone of Jim Boeheim's Syracuse.
• The charge-taking, floor-slapping fervor of Mike Krzyzewski's Duke.
• The blue-collar brawling of Tom Izzo's Michigan State.
• The blocked shots and fast-breaks of Jim Calhoun's Connecticut.
• The full-court, three-point shooting mayhem of Rick Pitino's Louisville.
On top of that you have the increasingly familiar styles of Memphis' John Calipari, Pittsburgh's Jamie Dixon, Villanova's Jay Wright, Gonzaga's Mark Few and so on. It's a coaches paradise, and while the tournament may not have many surprises, it does have Xs battling Os for people who like that sort of thing.
And then there's Missouri. I really like Missouri. For one thing, the Tigers are plain likable. Take one of their star players: DeMarre Carroll. He is coach Mike Anderson's nephew. He transferred to Missouri from Vanderbilt -- in large part because he wanted to help out his uncle -- and he has been through every emotion imaginable. He is an all-conference player, he is an academic all-conference player, he has already graduated, he has evolved into a leader and, also, he was shot a couple of years ago while trying to break up a fight at a local bar. His brilliant 3-6-3 poem summation of a career:
"I got shot.We lost a lot of games.And so on."
This Missouri team has numerous other stories like that. Leo Lyons was once Leo Criswell, a brilliant young recruit who wanted desperately to go to Kentucky. And Kentucky made a late push to sign him, but his mother Gloria Lyons would not let him sign with Kentucky -- she thought he wanted to go to Kentucky for all the wrong reasons. He reluctantly signed with Missouri, took his mother's maiden name, and was mostly miserable for three years. Now, as a senior and a team captain, he has emerged in this tournament, almost singlehandedly beating Cornell and making huge plays down the stretch in the Tigers' tough victory over Marquette. "He's as good as it gets in college basketball," Cornell coach Steve Donahue said.
And so on. Of course, every team left in the tournament has players who are also great stories. No, the big reason I like Missouri is because the Tigers don't play quite like any other team in college basketball. Instead, they play like a team from the past. They play like that Arkansas Razorbacks team that ravaged and pillaged college basketball 15 years ago. They play the new FMOH -- Forty Minutes Of Hell.*
*Which the school has somewhat pathetically renamed the more politically correct, "Fastest 40 minutes in college basketball."
Remember that Arkansas team of 1994? Those Razorbacks would suffocate you, interrogate you, confiscate you. They came at you in wave after wave. They played a full-court pressure defense, sure, but what made them different was that they were always running forward, always attacking, always coming at you like Cool Hand Luke in the prison fight scene. Coach Nolan Richardson would play 12, 13, 14 guys, and every one of them played with the same ferocity, and they never tired.
They announced their presence with authority in only the second game of the season, when they obliterated an excellent Missouri team 120-68. After that, they would allow more than 80 points in 11 games, but they only lost one of those. If you ran with those Razorbacks, you were done. But it was almost impossible to NOT run with those Razorbacks because they were always coming.
Anderson was an assistant coach on that team, and he remains Nolan Richardson's most fervent disciple. He took FMOH to Alabama-Birmingham, and he was able to recreate the experience. "What you need," he said, "are players who buy in." Three years ago, when he came to Missouri, the Tigers were an absolute mess. Former coach Quin Snyder had shown some promise, but in the end he may have been best known for having a bucket of popcorn dumped on his head and for the teeth-rattling embarrassment of his Eye of the Tiger team speech that later became a YouTube sensation. The program was put on probation. The remaining players wondered if they could get out. To give you a final idea: On the very day Anderson was hired, there was a big meeting to discuss whether or not to fire athletic director Mike Alden. The final answer was "No," and Alden was allowed to introduce the coach he had just hired.
"There was no mystery about why the job was open," is all Anderson will say about that.
During the first two years he had a hard time getting his players to buy into the all-out style. Well, it's a hard sell. A coach who wants to play FMOH has to get his players to accept that they will not play even 30 minutes a game ("But the minutes they get are QUALITY minutes," Anderson said). They have to accept that the style relies on unselfishness -- there are few stars in the system (even that great Arkansas team only had one first-round NBA pick: Corliss Williamson).
More than anything, they have to accept that they are not allowed to stop, not ever, that the system only works if they never slow down. The full-court defense will allow some easy baskets. The all-out offense can sputter in the half-court. But everyone has to keep running and keep the faith because the point of it all is that sooner or later, the other team will wear down, they will get frustrated by the constant pressure, they will try to speed things up. And that's when FMOH really kicks in.
Anderson does not like explaining it. He does not like for people to think that this style is some sort of gimmick. "We are just teaching the fundamentals of basketball," he said, and that's right. But it's also right that he does not try to dazzle anyone with fancy Xs and cursive Os. "Other coaches like to play chess," DeMarre Carroll said. "We don't do that."
And that's the heart of the system: It lets the players play the game. This Missouri team does not quite create the chaos that the great Arkansas team did. And it's harder to make the system work in the NCAA tournament -- FMOH becomes FMOHBUBILT -- Forty Minutes Of Hell Broken Up By Interminably Long Timeouts.
But Anderson does think these Tigers are getting close to that Arkansas team.
"We're hard to play, now," he said. "I wouldn't want to play us."