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Arizona loss opens door for Challenge field
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Brett Lewis has a white-knuckle grip on the lead in the first-ever Coaches Bracket Challenge. 

Notice, though, that I didn’t say “lock tight.” His hold on the top is slipping the way Wiley E. Coyote’s would – one finger at a time before SPLAT!

Remember how the Manteca High coach went against his intuition, picking a relatively young head coach (Sean Miller) to take an even younger team (read: potential NBA Lottery pick Stanley Johnson was tearing up the California high school ranks just 12 months ago) to the national championship? He went with the trendy pick, hoping the Bear Down Wildcats would emerge from a field teeming with coaches whose gray hairs have experienced more winning than your or I.

Yeah, how’d that work out you?

“I’m done,” Lewis conceded in a text message after Arizona’s 85-78 loss to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight. 

Not exactly, but let me play on your misfortune.

Lewis sits atop the Challenge heading into the Final Four with 134 points, seven clear of Lathrop boys basketball coach Nate McGrath. It’s been an impressive run for Lewis, who looked dominant through the first three rounds of the tournament. He missed just five games in the Sweet 16 and one in the Elite Eight. 

The problem with Lewis’ bracket is that there’s really nothing left. He rose like a busted firecracker – fast and loud at the start, followed by a quick rise and then ... and then ...

Dead air at the finish.

Lewis has two of his Final Four teams left (Duke and Kentucky) with only one advancing to the national championship game (Duke). And let’s not forget one very important variable: His national champion – Arizona – will have the same seats for Monday’s final game that he has.

Lewis can improve his point total by just 32 points (Duke), which can keep the rest of the pool at bay if Wisconsin knocks off Kentucky and then flattens Duke for its first national title. 

Only one Challenger (Chris Teevan, 117 points) took Wisconsin to the Final Four. Nobody picked the Badgers to win it all. 

So it seems, Lewis’ only chance to hold onto the cheese is to root for the Cheese. Vegas suggests those odds aren’t very gouda.

So while Lewis’ grip loosens, instead focus your eyes on the pack jockeying for position in his rear view mirror: McGrath (127 points), former Weston Ranch girls basketball coach Chris Bauer (109), East Union boys basketball coach Ryan Tarr (92) and myself (116). This is where the real action is.

Of that motley crew, McGrath probably has the best chance at leapfrogging our leader. He correctly picked three of the four Final Four teams – Kentucky, Duke and Michigan State, giving him 128 possible points – and he’s boxed out Bauer and Tarr, who have the same national champion.

All McGrath needs is for Kentucky to complete its perfect season. If the Blue Grass ‘Cats can get by Wisconsin and then topple the winner of Duke-Michigan State in the title game, McGrath will have his revenge.

The second-year coach was humbled by a top-heavy schedule in the Valley Oak League. The Spartans finished near the bottom of the standings just one year after clinching a Sac-Joaquin Section playoff berth and exciting its fan base with a first-round home victory.

After struggling to win four total games, McGrath was hoping the Coaches Bracket Challenge would lift his spirits.

Perhaps it’s too soon to call it, given Kentucky’s struggles with Notre Dame over the weekend, but ...

Unpack that smile, Nate. You may get to wear it Monday evening.

Of course, he has one very worthy challenger. 


While Tarr and Bauer have maneuvered their way to the top of the Challenge standings, they’re really just there to fill a quota. Somebody has to finish third, fourth or fifth, right?

The only person that can seriously threaten McGrath and Lewis’ stake to the championship is me. Of all the brackets, only one savant ... one genius ... one handsomely fit and fun fellow picked Duke to win it all.

Kall it a Kurse, but I’ve picked Duke to win virtually every bracket I’ve ever played. Most years, I’ve been burned.

Sometimes, though, I hit it big with the Blue Devils, the program I cheered and remained loyal to even through the UNLV debacle in the 1990 national championship, the can-Bobby-Hurley-dunk days and all those forgettable NBA careers. 

Like McGrath, I’ve got 128 possible points – and the game’s only trump card.

Lewis is slipping, clinging to a bracket without a winner. McGrath is poised to supplant him atop the standings with a bracket ripe with points.

But I like my position, too. The Blue Devils have been one of college basketball’s unshakeable truths.

For three decades, Duke has won with a white-knuckle grip that hasn’t loosened or let go.

I guess we’ll learn a little more about Lewis’ grip in the next few days.


To contact Managing Editor James Burns email Follow him on Twitter at jburns1980.