Monday, November 22, 2010

Charleston Classic Recap

A lot has been going on the last few days. I should discuss the fact that no freshman has impressed me more than Texas forward Tristan Thompson. I should ask whether Auburn will ever win a game. But since I have spent the last four days in Charleston, I am going to stick with a recap of the Charleston Classic.

Henry! Henry! Henry!

College basketball fans care about wins, stats, and amazing plays. But if that is all you get out of it, you are missing a lot. College basketball is about watching players develop into men. To a national audience the story is probably minor, but to the Georgetown fans in attendance, the Charleston Classic was Henry Sims breaking out party.

On Thursday I was still complaining about forward Henry Sims tentative play when on the court. After three years, Sims was playing like a player afraid of making a mistake. But something sparked the junior on Friday. Perhaps he was excited to be playing a shorter Wofford team. Or perhaps the coaching staff lit a fire under him. But on Friday, Sims started playing aggressive basketball. He went 3-3 from the floor, but more importantly, he forced the action. He wanted the ball in his hands and he was visibly upset to have his minutes limited by foul trouble.

Then on Sunday, Sims responded with his best game of the season. He scored only four points, but he had 5 assists, and was the heart of the offense for a long stretch early in the second half. In fact, Sims, the scoring-challenged Jerrelle Benimon, and freshman Markel Starks were all on the floor for much of the Hoyas 15-0 run that broke open the championship game. When the lineup first went out on the floor, I was asking myself how they were going to score. But when they left, they left to a standing ovation.

Whether Sims can turn into a consistent inside presence for the Hoyas remains to be seen. No one expects him to replace Greg Monroe. But for the Hoya offense to work, everyone needs to make the right reads, passes, and cuts. And that requires confidence. And while it was a minor improvement, for the die-hard boosters and family members in attendance, they knew what a breakthrough Henry Sims experienced this weekend. And they were more than happy to cheer his name. "Henry! Henry! Henry!"

Chris Wright was the tournament MVP. And this is Chris Wright’s team. But if he turns into a legitimate Big East player, this weekend meant a lot more to Henry Sims.

Eight More Thoughts

1) NC State is one of the fastest teams in the country, and freshman CJ Leslie and Ryan Harrow are wicked quick. I think with the right coaching, NC State could become a top 25 team by the end of the year. But they made a lot of questionable decisions in the championship game. There were too many bad jump shots by a frustrated Leslie. And the Wolfpack fell asleep on a number of back door plays in the second half. And as quick as NC State was in this tournament, Georgetown was equally quick. Once the margin got to 10 points in the second half, Chris Wright was relentless in forcing the fast-break.

2) As someone who has watched a lot of Minnesota’s Blake Hoffarber, I think NC State’s Scott Wood could easily be one of the best three point shooters in the country this year. His stroke is as smooth and as pure as it gets. But the problem with some of these pure shooters is that they need their teammates to set them up. With Georgetown keying on Wood at the three-point line, he was really neutralized in Sunday’s final, shooting just 2-7 with most of his misses coming on plays where he really did not have enough space to get an open shot. I think Georgetown keyed on Wood for two reasons. First, Georgetown played some of its only zone defense when Wood was out of the game. Georgetown seems to play about 50-50 zone these days, and they were far below that on Sunday. Second, I remember a 5-on-2 NC State break where Chris Wright abandoned the middle in order to jump out at a streaking Wood. Wright guessed correctly that Wood would try to take a jumper on the break, and Wood missed a contested three instead of getting an easier basket on the break.

3) Despite NC State’s questionable shot selection at times, I thought the players had a really solid understanding of good spacing. Over the course of the tournament, forwards DeShawn Painter, CJ Leslie, and Richard Howell constantly snuck in position for wide-open lay-ups. It is hard to feed to post in college basketball against well-coached teams, and NC State’s forwards seemed to have an incredible IQ for where to be on the floor to catch the pass, grab rebounds, and finish.

4) Wofford’s Noah Dahlman has a bizarre free-throw shot. He gets down to about his knees before standing up and releasing the ball. It looks like way too much motion to me, but he seems to hit nothing but net most of the time. But Dahlman’s free throw stroke looks normal compared to George Mason’s Mike Morrison. Morrison leans as far forward as possible and seems to release the ball about a foot in front of the free throw line. Hey, whatever works.

5) I am always going to have some major conference bias. But it really is fun to see dominant small conference players in person, like Wofford’s Noah Dahlman. Dahlman was incredibly smart about getting himself in position to score over the whole weekend. And despite often being triple teamed by George Mason, he still managed to find open shooters on his team on Sunday. Kudos to Wofford for winning in overtime after Dahlman fouled out, and particularly Jamar Diggs for hitting a huge three pointer to ice the game in overtime. Diggs really seemed to want the ball in his hand in crunch time.

6) I was also really impressed with George Mason senior Cam Long. He is one of those quiet scorers that every good team needs. He does not get the flashy dunks or make the off-balanced shots. But he is just one of those guys who knows what he is supposed to do in the offense, and where to get the easy baskets.

7) Unfortunately, George Mason does not have a go-to playmaker. In a lot of ways, forward Luke Hancock is that player. He has incredible assist numbers for his size over the course of his career. And in this tournament, he had great scoring totals in the second half of games. I tried to figure out why he was waiting until the second half of games to score, and I think he is simply trying to play smart basketball. He knows he does not have the quickness to blow by people early in the game, but often late in the game, when legs are a little more tired, he has the tenacity to put himself in position to finish. (And I should mention that his late dunk against Charlotte practically blew the roof of the building. I had no idea he could jump that high.) But the reality is that Hancock does not have elite quickness or a great shooting stroke. And against an equally well-coached Wofford team, he could not make quite enough plays to win the game. But Hancock, Long, and the whole George Mason team, play smart basketball. And that will win a lot of CAA games again this year.

8) Charlotte’s Shamari Spears made the all-tournament team and deservingly so. He has a similar body-style to Michigan St.’s Draymond Green, but both players are out to prove that skill sets do not always match body types. While Spears is not nearly the passer as Green, he seemed to have a very nice outside shot in this tournament. But for everything nice I want to say about Spears, emerging point guard Jamar Briscoe, or even An’Juan Wilderness who rebounded from a horrible game against George Mason to have a good tournament, I would be really nervous if I was a Charlotte fan. This team just does not look well-coached right now. I saw a bunch of players playing one-on-one basketball, not putting themselves in position for rebounds, and generally playing well below their ability. Sometimes when a disciplined coach leaves town and the players are given more freedom, good things happen. Mike Davis took Indiana to the Final Four right after Bob Knight left. But, I do not see a similar spark following the departure of Bobby Lutz. I think Coastal Carolina and George Mason beat Charlotte because they played smarter basketball, not because Charlotte lacks talent.

A Few Thoughts as a Fan

The George Mason band completely made the four-day weekend special.
Let me count the ways:
-The crazy yellow and green suits on the band leader
-The awesome saxophone solos
-The fun woman in a wheelchair and her drum
-The cowbell
-The way everyone in the band would dance when they were not performing
-The amusing guitar riffs
-The green and gold headbands
-The nicknames on the back of their jerseys (like Big Kahuna)
-The way the band would continue to sing after the action re-started. (They are not allowed to play instruments while play is going on, but that doesn’t mean they could not continue singing the melody.)
-The three-part George Mason rouser

The Dayton Flyers are always going to be my favorite NCAA tournament band, but if you get a chance to see George Mason somewhere, please make the effort.

-In some minor ways, these early season tournaments are better than those held in March. Win or lose, you are guaranteed to see your team play three times.

-There is no reason to stress about games this early in the season, but I cannot help it. That is why there is no better feeling then having your team win early in the day. You have the euphoria of the victory and you realize you can just relax and watch some great basketball.

-I thought when Georgetown went on a 9-0 run to take a 7 point lead and the band started playing that I could not be happier. But to keep pouring it on and coast to victory after trailing much of the first half, this was a very satisfying win. I have never seen my team win a tournament in person, and I really tried to soak in the moment, even if this was "just" the Charleston Classic. From the MVP presentation to Chris Wright, to the team photo, to the in-house DJ playing “Celebration”, the moment could not last long enough.