Congratulations to all the college basketball players who will be playing in the NCAA tournament, but especially Chris Lykes.
Chris Lykes, an off-the-bench freshman point guard for the 2018 Miami Hurricanes, knows the first thing people — commentators, writers, fans — say about him. They say it to build his case as a college basketball wonder and March Madness darling. They, we, mean well.
The first thing they — we — say is not that he provides instant offense and endless energy. Or that he lights up Miami’s Watsco Center and escalates the pace. It’s not that fans only want to see the ball in his hands or that Coach Mike Krzyzewski called him “one of the better on-ball defenders” in the ACC. It’s not that the Washington Post has declared all of college basketball on the cusp of falling in love with him. No, the first thing people say is that he’s small. Which is true. And it makes him a whole lot of fun to watch.
Chris Lykes is fun to watch because he’s 5’7 and undersized shooters are inherently fun to watch.
Chris Lykes is fun to watch because he’s itty bitty and speedy and zips and zags and watching him play is like watching a magic trick.
Chris Lykes is fun to watch because his tiny frame successfully pestering defense is 1,000 times more entertaining than watching an Aaron Craft acolyte do it.
Chris Lykes is fun to watch because sometimes when he takes a jump shot, he looks like a starburst and it feels like a starburst in your heart.
Lykes would still be a super fun player to watch if he were 6-foot. That energy, speed, defense and jump shot would, in theory, not change. Miami coach Jim Larranaga even thinks “if he were 6’5 or 6’6, he’d be Michael Jordan.” But the fact remains that Lykes’ pint-sized stature is a huge part of why Miami and also the entire DMV is so enchanted with him.
Shakey Rodriguez, a Miami high school basketball coaching legend, per the Miami Herald, tells the story of Larranaga recruiting Lykes in December 2015:
"Coach L walks up to me during layup lines in pregame and says, ‘Guess who I’m here recruiting?’ So, I point to a 6-8 kid, and he says, ‘Nope.” I point to another tall kid. He says, ‘Nope.’ I point to six or seven guys. He keeps shaking his head. Then I say, ‘Don’t tell me it’s the little fella.’ Coach L smiled, and said, ‘Yup.’ One quarter into the game, I turned to Coach L and said, ‘The little fella is pretty darned good.’ He couldn’t have been taller than 5-6, but he was the most dominant and impactful kid out there."
Fans love the little fella on the court, feeling a kinship with his height and size, but few people on campus recognize Lykes is a basketball player, even though he carries the “basketball player backpack.” When he and his teammates created their players in NBA 2K, his teammates changed their heights to virtually try new moves but he made himself a true 5’7.
Lykes doesn’t want to be defined by his height — who would? — but he certainly embraces it. He’s said that he knew he was going to be small his whole life, so he’s making the best he can of it. Being small is what makes everything else about his game so remarkable, and so fun.
March Madness is made for players like Chris Lykes. Players who are endlessly entertaining and objectively talented, but, for reasons mostly related to factors like height, won’t end up in the NBA. (There have been only nine players in NBA history under 5’7, and only six from the ABA merger onward, per Basketball-Reference. Noted short player success story Isaiah Thomas is still 5’9.) Meaning, the three weeks of the NCAA Tournament will likely be the complete Chris Lykes-on-national-TV experience. God willing, we get four years of deep tourney runs.
Unfortunately, No. 6 Miami plays No. 11 Loyola in the first round — Thursday at 3:10 p.m. ET — and it’s looking like a hard win. Miami has been hot and cold all season and will be missing star Bruce Brown, while Loyola has turned a late-season run into a bid for this year’s Cinderella title.
Loyola is a fun squad, with a wonderful story and classic Midwest chippiness. It will, likely, be a good game and Loyola advancing would be fun too. But the thing about identifying potential March Madness darlings is that it’s kind of contingent on that player’s team winning their opening weekend games and so you must root for Miami. You, college basketball, the world, etc., needs as much Chris Lykes as possible.
Miami will play Loyola on Thursday, March 15 at 3:10 p.m. ET on TruTV or the NCAA March Madness live stream hub.