Monday, March 26, 2007

The Comeback Part II

I'd like this blog to be mostly impartial, but Sunday's game leads me to write the following mission statement for the blog. It includes a number of quotes I captured while watching post-game shows until 1 am.

Mission Statement

After the 2005 Final Four, Illinois held a celebration at Memorial Stadium. As Deron Williams trotted out, the fans chanted “one more year”, and I just smiled. An hour later my wife and I were having dinner at Zorbas when Bruce Webber walked in to order food for his family. My wife said, “good job coach,” and in a quiet raspy voice Webber responded, “thank you.”

A Webber media interview the next day expressed a different encounter with a fan. “I ran into a fan today and he said, next year we’ll win 38 games. I want to make this clear, 37-2 is a special season. I hope the fans had as much fun as we did. I hope they enjoyed the ride, because a season like this doesn’t come around very often.”

To anyone whose team is headed to the Final Four, I say: Enjoy the Moment. College basketball teams are fleeting. With the possible exception of this year’s Florida team, good teams don’t get second chances in college basketball. Every team is new. Every year is unique. It is all part of what I love about the college game.

It starts in November with the exhibition games, a chance to see the transfers and the young freshman take the floor for the first time. And what about the juniors and seniors? Who has stepped up his game and taken it to the next level? Next come the non-conference games. A few tough games provide a learning experience, a chance to build a resume, and a taste of what is to come. But the blowout games are fun too. Who doesn’t enjoy rooting for the walk-ons to take the floor as a payoff for all the hard work they do behind the scenes. Then the conference season starts. The arena is a little more full, the games a little more meaningful. Some players take their game to the next level, some players struggle against the tougher competition. Somewhere along the way, the games become more than just games, they become the difference between being a 2 seed or a 5 seed. Or maybe they mean the difference between the NCAA tournament and the NIT. But, somewhere, somehow, when a senior hits a clutch basket, or a freshman shows a rare flash of brilliance, you begin to believe.

Then March hits and every game matters. If they replayed that game 30 times, both teams might win 15 times, but they only play once. If your team loses, it is over. The seniors will be gone; the star may be headed to the NBA; there is no second chance with this group of players. But when your team wins, when your team hits the banked in two point shot with 2 seconds left, when your team comes back from 10 down in the final 7 minutes to win… Enjoy the moment.

Even the great coaches, and believe me, Bill Self is a tremendous coach, sometimes cannot crack the Final Four riddle. Even the elite teams, the Kentucky Wildcats, the teams with the best fans in the country, sometimes cannot crack the Final Four. And if your team is lucky enough to still be playing. Enjoy the moment.

In his press conference after the game, Roy Williams said, “I would give every cent… to have the feeling, for my players to have the feeling, that those Georgetown players are feeling right now as they cut down those nets.” You’ll rarely see that same emotion out of a pro coach. A pro coach thinks, “next year we’ll be better”. But, for college teams, there are no second chances with these players. These are the emotions of college basketball.

After the game, Jesse Sapp was wearing a cap that said, Georgetown Hoyas, East Regional Champions. He said to a reporter, “After what we did out there, to come back against a team like North Carolina, I didn’t care what happened in overtime, I was going to wear this hat.”

There was Patrick Ewing Jr., with tears in his eyes. “You don’t understand. Georgetown hasn’t done this in 22 years. And my Dad and I did this. We share this.”

Doc Rivers, “I have never been happier in my entire life.” Unable to watch as his son Jeremiah defended the Ellington shot at the end of regulation, Doc Rivers said this: “I just listened to the cheers of the fans around me, and I knew the shot was no good.”

Sitting on my couch during the timeout with 24 seconds left in regulation, I uttered the following. “Georgetown needs to get the rebound here. North Carolina is a smart team. They are not going to take a shot as time expires. They want to take a shot and get a chance at an offensive rebound. Georgetown needs to get the rebound here if they want to win.”

Roy Williams expressed the same thought in his post game interview. “When Wayne took that shot, we didn’t plan on it being the final shot. We wanted to give ourselves multiple chances.”

But there was no second shot in the final seconds. Despite 16 offensive rebounds in the first 34 minutes, in the final 6 minutes North Carolina could not get a single offensive rebound. (Carolina got four more in overtime, but only after their shooting touch had gone cold.)

Hibbert and Green were monsters on the boards at the end. And as Billy Packer pointed out, Hibbert may have benefited from the foul trouble. By sitting out 8 minutes early in the second half, he was completely rested for the end of the game. Instead of folding in the final 5 minutes as several analysts had predicted, Georgetown went on an 11-6 run in the final 5 minutes.

But, again we see the difference in strategy employed by John Thompson the 3rd (aka JT3). Hibbert played with 2 fouls throughout the first half, but sat for a long stretch with 3 fouls in the second half. Perhaps he knew that at half-time Roy Williams would emphasize taking the ball right at Hibbert. Perhaps it was just luck. But, if you watch JT3 enough you realize that he isn’t trying to coach like everyone else. He is his own coach. Roy Williams, “I think if you asked Big John, and I haven’t done this, but I think he’d be very proud to see that his son is his own man.” John Thompson Jr, “My son let’s me meddle around a little, but the best thing he does is ignore my advice.”

JT3 doesn’t run the intimidating physical offense that John Thompson Jr. used to run. He doesn’t run the Princeton Offense that Pete Carril used to run, although you might have thought so on Sunday with all the back door cuts. (I swear, Georgetown got more lay-ups and dunks on back-cuts Sunday then they did all season combined.) JT3 runs a combination offense, that all depends on the intelligence of his players, and their willingness to share the ball. Jeff Green has been the poster-child all year, a player who could average 20 points a game, but would rather be part of a Final Four caliber team. JT3 says Jeff Green is the smartest player he has ever coached.

But on Sunday, it was another player who looked just as smart. Jonathon Wallace had a good enough academic profile to be a basketball player at Princeton. And he was headed to Princeton, until JT3 moved to Georgetown. He shoots 48% on his 3 point shots on the year, and like Green, he could score a lot more points if he was more selfish. But, when describing his three point basket to tie at the end, Wallace had this to say: “The reason I took the shot is that it was the right shot within our offense.” I thought Roy Williams description was more accurate, “That was a big time shot. If he doesn’t make that shot, they probably lose the game.”

Enjoy the moment Georgetown fans. Comebacks like these, big shots like these, seasons like these are truly special.

Enjoy the second chance Florida fans and Bruins fans. Rarely is a national semi-final this good.

Enjoy the moment Ohio St. fans. Feel free to chant “one more year” at Greg Oden if you want, but I’m going to enjoy each game as if it is Oden’s last.

And if this is the end of the college road for Jeff Green (likely) or Roy Hibbert (becoming more likely), I’ll still be seated in the stands this fall. I’ll be watching DaJuan Summers who scored 20 points against North Carolina and who has somehow flown under the radar. I’ll be watching for the new freshman and enjoying the journey all over again.

Illinois 2005 vs Georgetown 2007
In 2005, Illinois celebrated 100 years of basketball.
In 2007, Georgetown celebrated 100 years of basketball.
In 2005, Illinois came back to defeat Arizona to advance to the Final Four.
In 2007, Georgetown came back to defeat North Carolina to advance to the Final Four.
Biggest Three of Life to tie: Deron Williams
Biggest Three of Life to tie: Jonathon Wallace

That's the reason I call this "The Comeback, Part II."

I’ve now cheered three separate teams to the Final Four. If you’d like me to cheer for your team next year, please send a check to…