Tag Archives: Christian Laettner

Sorry Duke, Virginia is the New Taste in College Basketball

Reading some of national reporting on college basketball, particularly Virginia basketball, it might be easy to conclude that there was a crisis in college basketball. It would be easy to conclude that Virginia basketball was an infection slowly killing college basketball. It would be easy to conclude that Virginia was leading NCAA basketball down the path to attention deficit disorder-driven doom.

Such a conclusion couldn’t be more wrong.

I watched Duke play Florida State the other day. It is hard not to be impressed by the embarrassment of riches Coach K has brought to Durham. Duke starts 4 freshmen. At least 2 of those 4 will be one-and-dones. The other 2 could spend a second season in Durham pretending to be college students, but it is not likely. Smart money says all four call it quits on going to class in January and conclude their stints at the NBA’s minor league franchise-in-residence at Durham after March Madness concludes.

As I watched the track meet with FSU, I couldn’t help but wonder what Shane Battier, Carlos Boozer and Jay Williams thought. I can’t imagine what Bobby Hurley, Christan Laettner and Grant Hill think. I am sure they are happy with the continued success of the program. Duke is an unquestioned big dpg in NCAA basketball. However, watching Duke play basketball today has very little in common with Duke basketball that put the Blue Devils on the map. It looks nothing like the game that Battier, Booozer, Laettner, and Hurley played. Funny, I don’t remember many reporters griping about too much defense when defense was Duke’s calling card.

The Duke of old was known for discipline. Hard-nosed, aggressive man-to-man defense was Duke’s differentiation. While Duke had very talented players back in the day, they lived and died with their defense and the offense it so frequently spawned. Prior to the current incarnation of Duke basketball, players went to class and graduated with college degrees.

Not any more. The Duke of today is a staging area for NBA players. A way station, a holding bin. Duke no longer has a brand or calling card other than a roster stacked with kids who have no interest in a Duke education. Instead, they have every intention of leaving Durham before the first commencement ceremonies of their college “careers.” Remember when Coach K wouldn’t raise a championship banner in Cameron Indoor if a player on his team had not finished his degree? Yeah, those days are over.

Watching Duke play these days is like any other play ground game. it is festival of 1-on-1 moves and dunks. Duke’s defense is more happenstance than strategy & execution. When ridiculously talented players log enough minutes, eventually they will be in a position to make a remarkable play. Duke’s defensive success is more like looking down and finding a 4-leaf clover than the result of a well deployed plan.

On the other hand, I just got back from the Virginia/North Carolina game in Charlottesville. UNC came into today’s game averaging 85 points per game. They scored just over half of their average today as Virginia dominated the Tar Heels for the second year in a row in John Paul Jones Arena.

In past two games combined against Virginia, the Heels have scored 92 points for a per-game average of 46. That doesn’t happen by accident. It also is not a result of Virginia’s roster being stacked with 5-star, future NBA lottery picks. Rather it is the result of a program that is committed to winning differently and generally has its way setting tempo and controlling the pace of play.

Unlike Duke, Virginia wins based on stellar execution at both ends of the floor. They win by playing the best defense in the country. They win by frustrating offensive juggernauts used to having their way running up and down the court doing tomahawk and windmill dunks. UNC didn’t have any windmill jams on Saturday. Instead they got their butts kicked at both ends of the court by a team that, on paper, had no business staying within 20 points of the Tar Heels. What’s not to love about that?

David slaying Goliath has always been a popular theme in college athletics. Until Virginia started averaging close to 30 wins a season, no one ever evaluated David’s style points for how he slew Goliath. That Virginia fans went as crazy over 3 uNC shot clock violations as they did for De’Andre Hunter’s thunder jam over Joel Barry shows me that Virginia fans appreciate the full breadth of the college game.

Virginia can’t win playing UNC or Duke basketball, so they don’t. Instead, they play aggressive defense. They make the extra pass on offense. They play Virginia basketball. True basketball fans should at least appreciate if not relish the fact the Coach Tony Bennett has found a way to run with and beat the big dogs by intentionally not playing their game. Strategy and execution should be as appreciated as a part of college basketball as a break-away slam.

I suspect those who grimace at the way Virginia has creeped into the top tier of basketball programs are the same folks who like to see a winning score at the US Open of -20. On the surface a birdie-barrage looks more entertaining than hacking out of knee-deep cabbage.

However, what the run-and-gunners  and birdie fanatics miss is an appreciation for the strategy options and execution that turn an expected outcome on its head. Maybe what irks Virginia’s detractors the most is that Virginia wins enough big games now, that after a beatdown of UNC, no one even considered storming the court…since Virginia has now done this 5 times in a row.

I am not asking everyone to be a Virginia fan. All I am asking is for an accommodation, for a grudging acceptance that there is more than one way to succeed mightily in college basketball. Virginia might be an acquired taste, I understand that, but so is good bourbon, good scotch, and stout beer. Beating the tar out of the Heels two years in a row is a great reason to celebrate the acquired tastes in life, wherever we find them.

The Definition of a Team: Mesa Jackrabbits

Everybody likes a winner, especially in sports. It’s why we watch the sports we do, but when it’s high school sports it can be a little different. Students who play sports in high school are playing their respective sports because they enjoy it, for the love of the game, and it’s a way for that athlete to make their mark in high school. There is always a chance that these athletes can take their talents to the collegiate level or even higher, but for most athletes, high school is where it ends for them, so these young men and young women play their hearts out.

In Mesa, Arizona there is a high school that embodies what is so right with high school basketball. The Mesa High Jackrabbits are a team in every sense of the word. From the coaches, to the players, to the manager of the team nobody is bigger than the next guy. They look out for each other, they encourage each other when things don’t go the way the team envisioned, and most importantly they hold each other accountable on the court and outside the court.

“You take care of the little things, big things will happen for us.” Said Head Coach Shane Burcar during a recent practice.

Is that “coach speak”? Absolutely, but the way Burcar coaches his players, they understand the message behind it.

The Jackrabbits have hovered in the top three in the whole state the whole season at the biggest division level in the state of Arizona and are looking for another state title to hang in their well cluttered gymnasium of banners.

When you think of a team you follow winning a championship there are many things that probably come to mind about that team. The team has good offensive players, plays excellent defense, or has such good chemistry that it can overcome most problems that come the team’s way during the march to a title.

This year’s version of the Mesa High Jackrabbits remind me of several teams in college basketballs gloried past. The Jackrabbits are a team with no big-time division-one type of players where you can sit there and say to yourself “that’s the guy that will rescue the team if needed.” Nope, what you have is a team like Villanova that has a collection of guys that play as a team and have each other’s back in tough times.

That Villanova team played a highly-daunted team in the Georgetown Hoyas in 1985, where the Hoyas were the overwhelming favorite and they were the team that everybody hated with a passion. Before that game, Nova Head Coach Rollie Massimino said some things to his players before they took the floor.

“One, do not play to lose. Play to win. Two, you are good enough to win. You can beat anybody in the country. Believe it.” Coach Massimino told his players in 1985.

These are the same thoughts that Head Coach Shane Burcar impresses upon his players on an everyday basis. Burcar is tough on his players, but the Mesa players understand the reason behind his madness. Like Massimino, Coach Burcar never wants his players to doubt themselves when it comes to their opponents even though the talent level may not be what it has been in the past for the team.

In the last three games of the state tournament, the Jackrabbits have what Arizona Wildcats have in terms of not having one true ace in the hole type of player, but a team full of guys who know their role on the team and understand their role for the betterment of the team. The Wildcats lost a lot of talent to the NBA and graduation and to replace that talent takes a massive effort on the recruiting trail. However, has that slowed down the Cats at all? Not really. Do they have a few more losses than last season? Yes, but they are still going to NCAA Tournament and have a great chance to win the Pac-12.

Coach Burcar tells his team at every practice and game that they are no different from the other team.

“You guys will take it to Basha tonight. Take no prisoners!” Coach Burcar yelled enthusiastically at his players before they took floor in the state semi-final game.

The Jackrabbits certainly took it to Basha High School who had a bunch of AAU-type players who were good athletes, but lacked fundamental basketball skills. It was apparent from the start of that semi-final game that if Mesa could get up on them and frustrate them a little bit, then Basha would crumble. That is exactly what happened. Mesa had more hustle for loose balls, timely shot making, good free throw shooting, and most importantly big stops on the defensive end of the floor.

Mesa High locks its opponents down on the defensive end and creates an atmosphere of frustration for their opponent. Once this frustration sets in for the opposition, Mesa has its opponent exactly where it wants them. In this case, it is very much like the Arkansas Razorbacks back in the 1990’s coached by Nolan Richardson where it was termed “40 minutes of hell”.

The Razorbacks would press the heck out of any team they played, they would play the passing lanes, and make life miserable for the other team. Like I said, Mesa gets its opposition frustrated with a relentless attack defensively and you soon see players from the other teams complaining to the refs, complaining to their teammates, and just flustered to the point of giving up.

A mark of a championship team is its ability to go out and impose its will on its opponent. On Monday night, the Mesa High Jackrabbits went out and took the championship from their opponent. Like the Duke teams of the past, where Bobby Hurley, Christian Laettner, and Grant Hill took any momentum in the arena, the Jackrabbits grabbed all the momentum from Sunnyslope High School right before halftime.

Drew Hatch hit a Steph Curry type three-pointer at the halftime buzzer to pull Mesa within four. The halftime score was 27-23 and the throng of Mesa fans went nuts. From there, the Jackrabbits had all the momentum to come out in second half and gradually take the lead from Sunnyslope.

The pressure defense that had been Mesa’s trademark all tournament long, and probably all season long shut down the opposition’s players who were known for bombing three-pointers. Mesa wasn’t going to let them get any clean looks at a three ball and from there the frustration on the opponents face was increasingly becoming apparent.

In the end, Mesa did what they needed to do to win the Arizona State Championship, 51-48, and put themselves into the storied history of Mesa High athletics. Fear the Hop Mesa players and coaches, you are the champs and nobody, absolutely nobody can ever take that from you. Carry On!

On the Brink of Immortality

What if? Any discussion of NCAA Tournament lore from the last decade yields more conversation about the hypothetical than reality. What if Gordon Hayward hit the half-court shot against Duke in 2010? What if Wichita State held on to beat Louisville in the 2013 national semifinals?

Why do sports fans prefer to spin fantasy instead of talk about history?

Well for one thing the list of NCAA Champions from the last two decades is a laundry list of yawns. All great teams with fantastic players but none of them particularly memorable. One has to go back over twenty years to find the last legendary team to win the title, the 1991-92 Duke Blue Devils.

Coach K’s second national championship team had the “It” factor. The Blue Devils had a freak athlete in Grant Hill. Their point guard was the son of a legendary high school coach. At the center of it all was basketball’s ultimate villain, Christian Laettner. All season long the chatter around college basketball centered on Durham and the team’s bid to repeat in March.

Since then many teams have attempted to claim the throne as a legendary champion. All have failed.

Now, the Kentucky Wildcats enter the madness with their bid to be remembered for more than one shining moment.

What makes this team so special though?

A look at their record gives an easy answer, 34-0. Kentucky is the first major conference team to enter the tourney unscathed in several decades. Going 40-0 in modern college basketball is an achievement worthy of immortality. Yet the unblemished mark is not the only reason this Kentucky team could become legends.

The fact that Kentucky has beaten all their opponents is no doubt impressive. However, the manner in which they have beaten their opponents is awe inspiriting. Against each ranked opponent the Wildcats have cruised to victory by a margin well over fifteen points per game. In early November the Wildcats beat top ten fixture Kansas by thirty-two points. UK held UCLA to seven points in the first half during a December matchup.

Another facet of their legendary resume is the team’s defense. On average opponents only shoot thirty-five percent against UK. Only three foes have scored over seventy against the Cats suffocating pressure.

Adding to their legend, the nation’s number one has come back from the dead on the road thrice this season. Against a pesky Texas A & M team Kentucky dodged a bullet in double overtime. At LSU, after blowing the lead and the momentum, Kentucky rallied in the final minutes to steal win. Late in the season in Athens, Georgia when the Bulldogs had the game in hand UK turned on the kill switch to complete an incredible comeback.

Even more incredible is the fact that the team has weathered the storm with minimal distractions. No publicized feuds with the coaching staff or public embarrassments has disgraced the team. Instead, charity work and exemplary performance in the classroom have become the team’s off the court calling card.

Six games separate the Wildcats from a title and a place among the elite teams of all time. Of course, this is March and in March one game is all that stands between legend and what if.

Time to Flip the NCAA’s March Madness Switch!

The best month on the sports calendar is here.  The NCAA basketball tournament.  Opening Day. The Masters. Finally.  For those on the East Coast who are snow blind after this record-setting winter, Selection Sunday heralds both the promise of spring and the unmatched excitement that accompanies college basketball’s marquee event.

For a few days after Selection Sunday, each of the 68  teams has a chance.  For some teams that chance is infinitesimal, but that doesn’t keep everyone from dreaming about what, theoretically, is possible.   College basketball’s increasing parity has given rise to a higher number of upsets in recent years.  A 15 seed has beaten a 2 seed just seven times, but the pace of high seed upsets has increased dramatically in recent years. Last year 14 seed Mercer destroyed at least 99% of the nation’s brackets on the second day of the tournament when it stunned Duke 78-71.  Last year 11 seed Dayton made the Elite Eight. Virginia Commonwealth accomplished the same feat in 2011, losing to 8 seed Butler for a spot in the championship game!  There’s a reason that Warren Buffett can offer $1,000,000 for a perfect bracket. There has never been one and there never will be.  He should offer a grabazillion dollars.  It’s a safer bet than the sunrise.

That doesn’t mean that there is nothing certain about March Madness, however. Excitement is  certain. Heartbreak is certain. Heck, even uncertainty is certain. There certainly will be some mid-major or small conference school that beats the odds to win a game or three.  Or four. However, for the first time that I know of the odds makers have made one team the even-money favorite to win the title. That team of course is Kentucky. Even money.  Bet a buck to win a buck.  The sharps in Vegas have a better feel for Kentucky’s chances than just about anyone else, so this betting line tells you all you really need to know about the 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats and their national title hopes. This team of teenaged marauders and future lottery picks has cold-cocked the rest of college basketball this year and now stands just six games away from immortality.  The Wildcats had a few close calls early but now are playing at a level that likely makes pretenders of every other tournament team.Even money might seem preposterous given the incalculable number of scenarios yet to play out, but the odds makers are signaling that only long shot lovers should bother to put any team but Kentucky on the champion’s line.

It’s unfortunate that newly-ascendant teams like Northern Iowa and Virginia are having great seasons in a year in which Kentucky is having a historically great one because when a team makes history by going undefeated, that’s all anyone remembers.  What else do we remember about Indiana’s undefeated 1976 season besides the Bicentennial and Elton John singing “Philadelphia Freedom” to honor his friend Billie Jean King? Okay, I might be the only person to remember that but does anyone remember that Rutgers also was undefeated going into the Final Four?  Maybe if you went to Rutgers. History, as they say, is written by the winners.

The selection committee’s job never is easy and always is subject to ridicule.  Geography mandates the placement of the higher seeds, with but one exception. Teams from the same conference that have already played twice in the regular season cannot be among the top four seeds in the same region. Larger schools from power conferences undoubtedly get the benefit of the doubt over smaller schools from lesser conferences, as is the case with UCLA this year. The Bruins posted a 2-8 record against teams in this year’s field, but passed the “eyeball test” according to selection committee chair Scott Barnes. Was UCLA more deserving than a Colorado State team that reeled off 15 straight wins to start the season and had a better record against the RPI top 100 than did the Bruins? The selection committee determined that it did.  With so much emphasis placed on quantifiable metrics, the eyeball test seems like a very unscientific methodology.

Despite that, the committee always manages to create some compelling matchups with interesting storylines.  Virginia opens the tournament against Belmont, which features Virginia transfer Taylor Barnette.  Belmont shoots the hell out of the three, which is a shot that Virginia grudgingly concedes in order to better defend the basket.  It is not unthinkable that Belmont could shoot Virginia right out of the tournament. Should Virginia prevail,  an even more stern test likely awaits the Cavaliers. Michigan State. The Spartans ended Virginia’s season last year in an epic tournament game at Madison Square Garden and this year are Dick Vitale’s sleeper pick to make the Final Four. Additionally, Tom Izzo is a great tournament coach and has the record to prove it. According to Jared Andrews, since becoming the Spartans’ coach in 1995, Izzo is 19-4 in the round of 32 game.   Michigan State looks horribly under seeded at the seven spot, but I am sure that the committee felt like a Virginia-Michigan State rematch would make for good television. Virginia fans are feeling hosed.

Why?  Because Duke. In filling our my own brackets and doing my research, Duke’s path to Elite Eight seems absurdly easy.  Of course, that’s what we thought last year before Mercer messed everything up. However, Duke’s path most likely looks like this: San Diego State, S.F. Austin.  Yes, I am picking  S.F. Austin  to win two games.  They are the trendy 12 pick in the first round against  Utah and should they triumph, they most likely will get a game against an overseeded Georgetown squad that has gone 7-5 in its last 12 games and got knocked out of the Big East semifinals by Xavier, the 6 seed over in the West bracket. Prior to the ACC Tournament, both Virginia and Duke looked good for 1 seeds. Then both teams lost in the tournament semifinals, Virginia to a UNC team that played its best game of the year and Duke to a Notre Dame team that had already beaten the Blue Devils earlier in conference play. Duke’s loss had no apparent effect on its seeding while Virginia, getting a marginal contribution from vital cog and twice-injured Justin Anderson, was bumped to the 2 line for its loss. And people wonder why it seems like Duke gets preferential treatment? Selection Committee chairman Scott Barnes said Duke got the higher seed by virtue of its win at Virginia in January, ignoring that Duke had some inexplicable losses and Virginia didn’t.  Splitting hairs, I know.

Having now lost two of its last three, Virginia does appear wobbly.  A healthy Justin Anderson may be just what Virginia needs to go along with the motivation provided by the perceived seeding slight.  Virginia coach Tony Bennett, diplomatic as ever, waved it off, stating that every team will need to win six games to be national champion and that his team will play whoever is on the schedule. Tony Bennett, unflappable as always.

Some paths to the Final Four undoubtedly look easier than others, but then a funny thing happens. The refs throw the ball up and the players play, often with unexpected–but never boring–results. March Madness baby!

Oh, and I still hate Christian Laettner, even if he is resting in a hammock made of his own laurels.