Jesse Jackson playing basketball with Marvin Gaye.
What can I say?
Watched more mediocre basketball this past weekend; sadly, having the Four Tops make the final four for the first time didn’t make it any better than it was at the beginning. The semi-final games were ugly, ugly affairs. That’s all I’ll say about them – I’m not a glutton for punishment – except to point out that UCLA point guard Collison quit on his team (purposefully fouling out with 2+ minutes left) because he was getting embarrassed, which doesn’t make me think he’ll adjust well to being a backup in the pros.
But I had moderate hopes that Monday’s final would be decent. The two teams were as close to statistical equals as I can remember in a final; similar points per game, similar margin of victories, similar shooting, rebounding, etc. They even had similar coaches, two (strangely) well-respected men who had brought teams close to climax but never gotten them over the hump, so to speak.
Memphis had the two best players on the court, and yet the coach seemed unable to utilize them properly. The PG, Rose, was bigger, stronger and faster than anyone Kansas could use to guard him; if they wanted to stop him they needed to double team. In that situation, the obvious move is to isolate the player and force Kansas to run cross court to double, thus leaving someone wide open. However, for the first thirty minutes of the game, Memphis tried to run pick-and-rolls with Rose, thus bringing a second defender (usually a 6’10” or bigger man) into Rose’s face without spreading the defense and opening a passing lane. For thirty minutes Memphis did this! With ten minutes left in the game, they began isolating him and he scored several easy baskets in quick succession. Nice gameplan.
After Rose began to isolate and impact the game, Kansas switched to a box-and-one zone, with a lone defender shadowing Memphis’ second best player, Douglas-Roberts. He had kept Memphis in the game to that point with acrobatic drives and clutch shots; Kansas, by employing the box-and-one, decided that the box would swallow up any drives Rose might make to the hoop, and Douglas-Roberts would be a hard option to go to for a shot. They were daring the rest of the Memphis squad to make shots. This wouldn’t have been a problem if Memphis recognized the defense (dribble penetration by Rose would open space behind him, something he could utilize with his size and strength to turn and make the pass), but it took three empty possessions, and over 2 1/2 minutes, for Memphis to figure out what Kansas was doing. This is really, really, sad; neither the players nor the coaches made any adjustments and those empty trips (Memphis threw up a few long three-pointers at the end of the shot clock) may have cost them the game.
It wasn’t just the offense that was stagnant and oblivious, as they also failed to adjust to the ease Kansas was having getting open shots in the paint. It is simple, especially in college basketball with no defensive lane violations and a short three-point line, to play a zone that still gets decent pressure on outside shooters. Instead, Memphis stuck with a man-to-man defense and switched defenders on every screen, meaning a smaller player was now guarding a big as he rolled off his pick towards the basket. Easy pass, easy bucket. Kansas was additionally helped in their pick-and-roll offense by Memphis trying to go under the screens, and not fighting through/over them. By not forcing the pick setter to stay stationary to avoid a moving pick foul, the Kansas bigs were slipping the screen with no contact and actually getting an effective second screen by rolling to the hoop as the defender tried to get under them. This wasn’t illegal because Memphis was ducking the screens instead of forcing the contact.
And the ending! Kansas wisely chose to foul a notoriously indifferent free-throw shooting team; Memphis lived up to the billing by missing four out of five freebies. Then, with ten seconds left, two timeouts, and Kansas down by three, they fail to foul the Kansas guard as he crosses half-court. He escapes the weak defense and hits a challenging, but not impossible, three to tie. No time-out called when the coach could have bought a moments rest for the tired legs of his players, to get them in position to give up a two but not a three if they were unable to foul, and force Kansas to get a second possession with even less time on the clock. I didn’t even watch the overtime; Memphis had nothing left and the outcome was inevitable.
Kansas deserves some praise for sticking with a winning game plan and forcing the ball into the paint over and over, but Memphis lost a very winnable game more than Kansas beat them. Unfortunately, this tournament may be the last straw for me as far as college hoops goes; if I want to see poorly played basketball with passionate fans I’ll catch some local high school games. There just is no excuse for players, many in their second decade with the game, being unable to recognize a box-and-one; and certainly no excuse for these millionaire coaches to be so inept and incapable of adjustments my junior high coach would make.
Though I haven’t talked about it, I’m a huge basketball fan. It was, and is, my favorite sport to play or watch. The combination of athletic ability, acquired skill and strategy – when properly applied – I find both beautiful and engaging. If you look at the sidebar, you’ll see a handful of basketball links. Look closer, and you’ll see they’re all for people covering the professional game. There is a reason for this; the pro game is, for the most part, played on a higher level of complexity and skill and athletic ability than anywhere else. This past weekend, with the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament, proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Was there drama in those first two rounds of games? Yes. Was it because two teams were playing well? No. The winner, with rare exception, was the team who made the fewest egregious, boneheaded errors. What I saw was a litany of bad decisions; running down the court to shoot a three-pointer with no teammates in position to try to rebound the probable miss (the best shooters make four out of ten, with anything above 33% considered okay); teams playing aggressive pressure defense and never adjusting to the back-door cut; so-called defensive stoppers losing track of their assigned player for ten seconds (yes, I counted); coaches who haven’t taught anything but their plays, so if the defense is able to stop the pass or harass the shooter the team flounders.
I said their were a few exceptions, so I should justly praise those who played the game well, to the best of their abilities. Though I hate to praise Bob Huggins (his Cincinnati program was a disgrace off the court, for winning trumped education and hooliganism by the players was the norm), but his West Virginia team played well, making adjustments as needed, and they knew when to force the ball in to their best player and when and how to use him as a decoy. The off-the-bench play off Joe Mazzulla against Duke was key, and he handled the pressure of the situation with grit and aplomb. The tourney’s overall number one team, the University of North Carolina, ably lived up to that ranking by utterly decimating their weaker opponents. On both ends of the court, UNC dominated and executed to perfection, making the proper reads and decisions and rarely hoisting a bad shot or letting the other team get an easy opportunity.
The contrast between the level of play of the professional and college game was readily apparent Saturday night. While Pittsburgh was shooting a stellar 11% on three-point attempts (even though their opponent, Michigan State, turned it over on roughly 20% of their possessions which should have led to open looks on the other end), and UCLA & Texas A&M combined for a scintillating 28% from behind the arc, on another station the Celtics were playing the Hornets in New Orleans. The difference in quality was to be expected; after all, those two teams are two of the best in the game this season. But to switch back and forth between the games was illuminating.
The pros were executing plays, but also reading the defense and deviating and adjusting as appropriate. Rotations on both offense and defense were sharp and timely; the give-and-take nature of the sport was readily apparent. Both teams were playing as teams; even with the shorter shot clock and greater individual talent level, the Celtics scoring was from an assist pass 51% of the time (21 assists on 41 made shots), the Hornets 49% (19 on 39). Again, in contrast, the Pitt Panthers managed to get 4 total assists on their 17 made baskets for a paltry assist rate of 23%; UCLA, in their win over A&M, managed a 35% assist rate with 7 on 20 made shots. UCLA is a number one seed, and are picked by many to win the whole thing, so are arguably one of the best teams in the country. I actually agree with that assessment and like the Bruins, but they aren’t playing good team basketball. UNC, who I properly lauded above, are playing team basketball. They had an astounding assist rate of 64% ( 28 assists on 44 made baskets) against a solid Arkansas team.
I understand why everyone gets excited by the tournament; its one and done nature, the lower seeds that manage to upset the higher ones, the drama of close games, the ubiquitous office pools. Sadly, I’m a basketball fan first and foremost, and lately the college game hasn’t been very good basketball.