Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Rock Chalk

As the confetti fell from the rafters in San Antonio, you have to appreciate the joy of winning a championship. Kansas went two decades without a title; Bill Self was the best coach never to have made a final four. And in storybook fashion, the Jayhawks hit a miracle three, won in OT, and gave their fans a final satisfying payoff. Here are five thoughts on an exciting finale:

1) Sometimes the numbers are right.

-Both the Pomeroy Ratings and the Sagarin Predictor tabbed Kansas as the best team in the country. No one was better at blowing out their opponents than Kansas, and in the end, the numbers predicted a tournament championship.

-Memphis was a horrible free throw shooting team in the regular season, and they missed key free throws in the final minutes of the championship game. Perhaps Chris-Douglas-Roberts can take solace in the fact that those weren’t the first painful free throw misses in Memphis history. Do you remember Darius Washington missing foul shots and collapsing to the floor a few years ago? Memphis has come a long way, but they still know how to do heartbreak.

2) Did Memphis choke?

Call me crazy, but I didn’t see a Memphis team that choked away the game. I saw a Kansas team that made plays to win down the stretch. One of my mottos on this site has been - “great comebacks require steals, not fouls.” Too often announcers claim that teams need to foul to get back in the game, eschewing the obvious fact that steals can bring a team back. And as Jay Bilas has pointed out numerous times, it is often easier to get steals at the end of the game because you can slap at the ball without worrying about the consequences.

In a game like this, steals were huge. How many times did we see Memphis steal the ball, only to have Kansas steal it back 3 seconds later. The teams had 11 steals apiece in the game. Heck, Memphis only turned it over 13 times, meaning they had only 2 turnovers that weren’t on steals. So when Kansas stole the ball under the Memphis basket (ala Pittsburgh at Syracuse), and Sherron Collins drained a 3 pointer from the corner, that was the play of the game. Chalmers 3 will be the shot that gets replayed, but if the earlier shot doesn’t cut it to 4 points, it isn’t even close at the end.

Some people view the steal as a choke job by Memphis, but I totally disagree. It was just a good basketball play. The bigger choke job occurred two days earlier when Ty Lawson and Tyler Hansbrough threw it away on a lazy 20 foot outlet pass after UNC had cut the lead to 4 points. That steal was inexcusable. The Kansas steal on Memphis was simply a terrific basketball play.

The biggest argument that Memphis choked was that they missed free throws. But given the way Memphis shot free throws in the regular season, a few misses were to be expected. If Memphis was going to win, they either needed to build a bigger lead, or execute on defense in the final minutes. They weren’t going to win a title by going 24 of 25 at the line. I don’t know anybody that believes the “We’ll make them when they count” theory. The only thing that tempers this is the fact that CDR was the player missing free throws (as compared to say Dorsey), but I still don’t view this as a choke.

3) What was John Calipari’s biggest coaching mistake?

I’ve heard a lot of complaints that Calipari should have called a time out to set up his defense after the Rose free throw at the end of regulation. Part of the reason is that Calipari didn’t handle his post-game interview very well. Calipari criticized the officials for not calling his team for a foul in the final seconds, and he claimed that his players were running away instead of listening to his instructions. But by launching this criticism, he actually put the target on himself. He made it seem like he should have called timeout. The truth is this is a bang-bang decision that only looks bad in 20/20 hindsight. The decision to let his players play defense and not call timeout fit much more with the Memphis season.

The Memphis team has been drilled all season on playing a free-flowing game and making plays in the rhythm of the game. This is not a team where you draw up a set play and expect them to execute. Recall what happened with 45 seconds left in the game. Kansas decided not to foul and the Memphis players started standing around like they didn’t know what to do. Calipari called a time out, but even that possession did not produce a point.

Calipari doesn’t want to micromanage the game. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about strategy. He does want to teach phenomenal defense and drill his team on offense, but in crunch time, he just wants to sit back and let his players make plays. And I think this is one of the major reasons Calipari took a job at Memphis instead of a BCS gig. This laid-back strategy works a lot better in a smaller conference where most of the games aren’t close, and you can just depend on your team’s phenomenal talent to win. There is a reason his recruiting pitch is “Come to Memphis where we won’t make you play a boring screening offense. We’ll just let you play the game.” Calipari is looking for players who will execute based on fundamentals and ability, not based on X’s and O’s.

So I have no problem with him not calling a timeout to set up the defense in the final minute. And despite the outcome, I thought his team executed flawlessly. Memphis nearly forced Collins to turn it over, Memphis pressured Chalmers enough that he double clutched, and then Chalmers made a very difficult 3 pointer. Memphis could not have played it any better.

Some people claim that Memphis should have fouled in the final seconds, but how could they? Kansas had the ball at the three point line with 5 seconds left. You just can’t foul when a team gets this close. You can foul if a player is facing the wrong way or out at half-court with 3 seconds left, but it is way too risky to foul when a player like Collins or Chalmers has the ball at the 3 point line. At contact, either of those players could just throw it up and act like they were shooting. I thought Memphis executed fine defense on the final play of regulation, Kansas just made a better offensive play.

The mistake I think Calipari made was how he handled the Joey Dorsey foul situation. The absence of Dorsey was clearly critical in the game. It didn’t matter in regulation, but with him out of the game in OT, the Kansas interior players were able to put the game away. How could this happen?

First, what was Calipari doing with Dorsey at the end of regulation? Dorsey is a terrible FT shooter, and an irrelevant offensive player, so why pull him from the game when he picked up his 4th foul with 3:36 to go? The only reason would be to tell him not to commit a stupid foul. But that’s clearly not what happened. Memphis took him out, realized it was silly, put him back in, and watched him commit a stupid foul on the perimeter to foul out of the game. I just don’t get what they tried to do here.

Second, if Calipari’s skill is in player management instead of X’s and O’s, why couldn’t he fire up his team for the start of OT? Why didn’t he go to Taggart and Dozier and challenge them to make it happen with Dorsey fouled out? That to me was a bigger mistake then not setting up the defense on the final possession.

4) What was the biggest coaching mistake in the championship game?

I thought the worst coaching move belonged to Bill Self, not John Calipari. The move to the junk defense (Box and One) was a horrible mistake. Kansas had led for most of the game and was doing a decent job on Rose and CDR. But when Kansas moved to the junk defense, Rose heated up, Kansas blew the lead, and Kansas almost blew the game.

Having watched a number of Bill Self press conferences at Illinois, it just didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Self has always said that he believes in order to win a championship, in the key moments of a championship, you have to be able to beat the other team with man-to-man defense. So why would he change his philosophy when he was finally playing in the championship game?

Yes, Kansas had used a box-and-one a little this season. But this totally played into the hands of Memphis. Ever since the USC game, Memphis had been expecting to see junk defenses, and they’ve been practicing against them on a regular basis. So while Kansas busted out a less effective defense that it used only occasionally, Memphis was playing against something they had practiced against all year. This decision didn’t cost Kansas the game, but it almost did.

5) Was Kansas a surprise champion?

As I said at the beginning, the predictive ratings loved Kansas in this tournament because they were great at blowing teams out. This was partly because they had the best interior depth so that it was easy to build a big lead, even when they went to the bench. This proved particularly true in the tournament when Sasha Kaun dominated the early rounds and was perhaps the MVP of a victory over Davidson. Similarly, Cole Aldrich came off the bench against UNC and played phenomenal. I wrote a few weeks ago that foul trouble would probably do Kansas in during the tournament, but I had no idea Kaun and Aldrich would play so well.

The truth is that Kansas was what we expected all year long, the most talented team in the country. Despite the fact that college basketball has become a game for ultra-talented freshman (like Rose and Love), at least for one year, experienced talent won it all. If Kansas hadn’t been so disappointing in the tournament the last few years, that talent might not have stuck around. If Brandon Rush didn’t get injured last spring, he might not have stuck around. But at the end of the day, no one stacked up to this team. The rotation of 8 players in the title game included 3 seniors who were top 100 recruits out of high school in Kaun, Jackson, and Robinson, a junior McDonald’s All-American in Chalmers, a junior who was a huge MAA snub in Rush, two sophomore MAA’s in Collins and Arthur, and a freshman MAA in Aldrich. It hardly seems fair when you can bring a player like Aldrich in off the bench as an emergency sub. (UCLA’s emergency MAA James Keefe was not nearly as brilliant.)

Honestly, if Kansas hadn’t been such a big disappointment the last few years in the tournament, if Bill Self didn’t have the Final Four gorilla on his back, we all would have picked this team to win it all. And they still only won in OT. That’s how great CDR and Rose and company played. These were two phenomenal teams. The numbers may not mean as much now that the seasons have been expanded, but Kansas has the most ever wins for a National Champion. Memphis has the most ever wins for a Runner-Up. And best of all, after weeks of blowout games, the final lived up to the hype.

Blog Notes

I intend to be back with updated coaching rankings and notes on the coaching changes later in the month.