Monday, March 15, 2010

Sixty-four thoughts on the NCAA tournament (give or take 45 thoughts)

I've never called in sick during the first week of the NCAA basketball tournament. Of course, I've actually never been sick during that time but that never stops millions of workers from calling their bosses and taking the day off with a bad cold. The first week of the tournament, specifically the first two days, are among the best two days of the sports year, as afternoon upsets give way to evening nail-biters while Greg Gumbel orchestrates all the action from the CBS studio in New York. An office pool can be destroyed in a matter of hours, as a two seed picked to go to the Final Four falls flat against an unknown school with the words Middle and State somewhere in its name.

The Final Four is often a letdown after the first two weekends of action, though there have certainly been dozens of classic games on that final Saturday and Monday.

Here are some random tidbits and memories about previous tournaments, in no particular order.

1. Actually, this one's sort of in order as it's the first NCAA title game I can actually remember watching. North Carolina vs. Georgetown in the 1982 finals. I watched it while sitting at our kitchen counter eating ice cream, though I'm assuming I didn't eat ice cream for the entire two-hour affair. This game is remembered mostly for how it started and how it finished. Freshman Patrick Ewing was called for goaltending on five early North Carolina baskets, as coach John Thompson had told the youngster to make a statement to a Tar Heels roster that included Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Sam Perkins. Ewing took this to mean any round object near the basket should be swatted away, no matter how easy of a call it would be for the officials. It was sort of bizarre, as if Ewing had never been told the rules of the game.

The game ended with Georgetown guard Fred Smith inexplicably throwing the ball away to James Worthy after Jordan's jumper gave the Tar Heels a one-point lead. I wanted Carolina to win - at the time, my 6-year-old blood was apparently bleeding blue - but I remember feeling horrible for poor Smith, a good guard with a common name who committed an unbelievable turnover.

The quality of this video is what you'd expect from a game that was recorded on a VCR in 1982, but Smith's gaffe can clearly be seen through all the fuzziness.

2. Austin Carr still holds the record for most points in an NCAA game, with a remarkable 61 against Ohio in 1970. In fact, Carr has three of the five best scoring games in tournament history, a Wilt-like achievement.

3. Carr might not have that record if Pete Maravich had ever played in an NCAA tournament game. Instead, the Pistol toiled away on an average LSU team and played in a time when admission to the tournament was tougher than a ticket to the Masters. Today a Maravich-led LSU team would be one of the most-watched teams in the nation, even if they did hover around the .500 mark. And since the floppy-haired hoops genius scored more than 50 points 28 times in his career, it's very possible he would have set a scoring mark that even Carr wouldn't have been able to touch.

4. Not to sound too much like a G-rated Bobby Knight, but I still think conference tournaments are often a ridiculous idea, specifically in the smaller conferences. It seems absurd that a team from a conference known only to gamblers can go through a regular season with two or three league losses, then find itself out of the NCAA tournament simply because it struggled at the free throw line on a random Thursday afternoon in early March. Then again, I have no idea what a solution would be, as the conference tourneys give every team in the country a realistic hope of making the tournament, even after they've struggled or blown opportunities for four months. It gives everyone something to shoot for, and those small conference tourneys often provide the most dramatic moments, before the victor becomes fodder for a traditional program (usually). In other words, let's keep it the way it is, while allowing complaints about the unfairness of it all.

5. ESPN used to make the coolest 30-minute recaps of each season's Final Four. They'd usually play them at like 4 in the afternoon, so I'd always watch them after school. I especially loved the ones from the 1970s and early '80s, as the grainy videos always seemed to feature more shots of cheerleaders than game action. The 1983 video was one of the most entertaining, especially the semifinal between Louisville and Houston. That game became an instant classic long before ESPN monopolized that phrase. Both teams racked up dunk after dunk, though many of the plays that caused people to watch in wonder back then wouldn't even raise an eyebrow in today's game. In particular, there was one play - perhaps by Clyde Drexler - that had the narrator saying something like, "This spectacular, high-flying, powerful, rim-ripping, double-clutch dunk stunned the crowd." I guess. Then, before the actual Final Four, ESPN would run a marathon of these shows, the same way they used to run those 30-minute Super Bowl videos for an entire day before the big game. Now we get marathon sessions of analysts screaming at each other. I'm not going to call that a positive development.

6. Fifteen of the best buzzer-beaters in tournament history. I'd quibble with the top one; I think Christian Laettner's shot against Kentucky has to be No. 1. Lorenzo Charles's putback dunk in 1983 did give N.C. State the title, but Laettner's was tougher, his team trailed at the time while Charles's was tied and it capped what's generally regarded as the best game in tournament history.

7. Speaking of that Laettner game...I watched that with a group of high school friends in a small, smelly room at the Friendly Host, an inappropriately named motel just off of the interstate in Lakeville, Minnesota. We had the room that weekend for the state boys basketball tournament. On Saturday night, we tuned in for the Kentucky-Duke game and sat enthralled for more than two hours as Kentucky took the defending national champions to the limit. We yelled obscenities and one member of our party even rooted for Duke. The rest of us disliked Duke long before it became fashionable. When Laettner hit his shot, the room erupted in screams and cheers, as even those who cheered against Duke couldn't help but unleash a yell that was full of appreciation and horror. Moments later, a bitter, bored clerk who probably failed a police entrance exam at some point and savored any power she had, knocked on our door. She told us there had been complaints about the noise. She was going to kick us out if it continued. It wasn't going to continue, unless Laettner, I don't know, strangled Coach K at the postgame press conference. Surely we were loud and surely if I was next door to a group of teens who cheered loudly for two hours, I, as a 34-year-old, would probably complain. But it was also the best college game in basketball history, so as a clerk you have to use a little judgment. For years afterward, whenever our group drove past the Friendly Host, members of the traveling party raised their middle fingers in salute to the joint, an immature, yet expected response.

8. Everyone remembers Laettner's shot and everyone remembers that Duke eventually won their second straight national title that season. But a lot of people forget just how bad Laettner was in the final two games of his career, the semifinal victory over Indiana and the title victory over the Fab Five. It seemed like he never quite recovered from the shot against Kentucky; he peaked as a player with that game and that shot. Against Kentucky he didn't miss all night - 10 for 10 from the field, 10 for 10 from the line and 1 for 1 in foot stomps to the opposition. But he struggled against Indiana and Michigan, though Duke's overwhelming talent made up for it. Still, those two performances in Minneapolis set the stage nicely for Laettner's disappointing career in Minnesota. Fans should have seen those games as a warning, instead of an aberration.

9. Here's a Sports Illustrated article following the 1992 Final Four, where a scout says he would seriously consider drafting Laettner over the consensus No. 1 pick in that year's NBA draft: a large man named Shaq. In fact, 12 of the 14 people polled said they'd take Laettner over Alonzo Mourning with the No. 2 pick. Ouch.

One scout loved "whatever it is inside Laettner that makes him such a winner. He's made the big shots and the big plays year after year." At least until the Final Four and his entire NBA career.

10. UNLV's Mark Wade holds the record for most assists in a tourney game, with 18 against Indiana in the 1987 semifinals. UNLV still lost.

11. Shaq holds the record for most blocks in a game, with 11 in 1992 against BYU. One pro scout watched this game and immediately said, "We gotta take Laettner over this kid."

12. While I cheered against Georgetown in that 1982 final, I was fully in their corner by the time the 1985 title game rolled around. Georgetown was a budding dynasty and was attempting to become the first team to repeat as champs since Wooden's UCLA teams. Maybe this is when I first started cheering for overwhelming favorites instead of underdogs, which I still do fairly often today (this says something about my personality, though I'm not sure what). I loved the Georgetown press. I liked the intimidation and Thompson's towel. And I loved the T-shirt Ewing wore underneath his jersey. But Villanova pulled off the improbable victory that year, stunning Ewing in the final game of his fabled career. I didn't watch the end. Instead I went to bed with like 10 seconds left because I didn't want to watch Villanova celebrate. When it came to sports, I could be an odd child.

13. The 1997 Minnesota Gophers are still fondly remembered in the state, even if the season doesn't officially exist in the record books, thanks to the academic scandal that erupted a few years later. That Bobby Jackson-led team made it to the Final Four and it was a great ride all year. But the team I enjoyed even more was the 1990 club, led by Willie Burton and Melvin Newbern. Clem Haskins had taken over a Gophers program that was ripped apart by scandal, the same way he'd leave it. He turned the program around - before turning it upside down a decade later - and led the team to the NCAA tourney in 1989. The following year the Gophers made it all the way to the Elite Eight, where they lost to George Tech in the final seconds. In the Sweet Sixteen, the Gophers defeated heavily favored Syracuse, a team featuring Derrick Coleman and Billy Owens. I can still picture Kevin Lynch's failed jumper from the corner in the two-point loss to Tech. Damn it, why didn't Burton get it?

15. Dean Smith's second championship, in 1993, was again sealed by an amazing gaffe from an opponent. Chris Webber's timeout followed Fred Smith's errant pass. The timeout - or non-timeout - helped everyone forget about one of the worst non-calls in tournament history. Trailing by 2, Michigan regained possession in the closing seconds off of a North Carolina missed free throw. Webber grabbed the rebound and went to pass. Instead, a Tar Heel defender jumped in the way so Webber held on, only he took a giant step and dragged his pivot foot before finally dribbling up the court and into the corner, where he turned to call the timeout that didn't exist. But really, how did the officials miss that traveling?

16. Four years earlier, Michigan benefited from another bad call, though this one led to a national title for the Wolverines. Michigan coach Steve Fisher took over at the end of the year from Bill Frieder, who was sent packing by Bo Schembechler after Frieder took a job at Arizona State. Fischer led Glen Rice and the Wolverines to the finals against Seton Hall, where they won in overtime. Robinson drives to the lane with Michigan trailing by a point. Someone breathes on him and the ref calls a foul with 3 seconds remaining. How? Have a sense of the situation, ref. He was as blind to the moment as that Friendly Host clerk. Not to mention, it looks like Robinson wasn't even touched, so it's not even a matter of asking the ref to swallow his whistle. This would have been a terrible call three seconds into the game as well. Go to the 1:55 mark of this video: Terrible call.

17. I've never said the word bracketology, and I never will. I'm a free speech purist, but I wouldn't be completely against the idea of a constitutional amendment banning the word, along with its cousin: bracketologist.

18. I've never won a tournament office pool. In fact, I've rarely finished in the top five. Women who know nothing about basketball routinely beat me by utilizing a picking system that focuses on the colors of the school uniforms. Children under the age of 10 routinely best me by simply picking the higher seed every game or going with the team with a cooler-sounding mascot. Some years I only do a dozen picks better than a dead guy. My picks are terrible.

So...I've got Kentucky beating Kansas in the finals.


Dad said...

I have to say it, the Weber non-call was the "worst non-call in the history of basketball"

Shawn Fury said...

Maybe he subconsciously felt guilty for getting away with that, so he called the bad timeout. A makeup call. Wonder if Ed Hightower was doing that game.