Sports Nut

Fantastic Four

Best basketball weekend ever: Comebacks! Overtimes! Bad coaching!

Illinois: what a comeback
Illinois: what a comeback

They may save the song for the final game of the NCAA tournament, but the past two days were college hoops’one shining moment. One game that came down to the last minute. Two overtime games spurred on by mind-blowing comebacks. A double OT thriller forced by a crazy, disputed buzzer-beater. The only damper on the weekend: some horrible play-calling by several big-name coaches.

Roy Williams of North Carolina got his first reprieve on Friday night thanks to a terrible traveling call in the final seconds against Villanova. In Sunday’s game against Wisconsin, Ol’ Roy never figured out that no one on Wisconsin could guard mightily haunched forward Sean May. Despite long stretches without the ball, May still scored 29 points—and Wisconsin hung around long enough to push the monstrously talented Heels to the last couple of possessions. The hazard of coaching so many great players is that sometimes you can’t resist sharing the ball.

Louisville’s Rick Pitino gets the Elite Eight’s lone coaching laurels for disposing of his beloved zone once West Virginia’s bombardier squadron made 10 three-pointers in the first half. Many of those long-range shots fell under the heading “crazy.” If the regionals had a theme besides questionable coaching, it was the questionable morality of the three-pointer. In the West Virginia-Louisville game, the Mountaineers made 18 threes and only eight twos, and Cardinals’ guard Taquan Dean went 7-for-17 from beyond the arc. Is this basketball or Pop-a-Shot?

West Virginia coach John Beilein doesn’t deserve the same props as Pitino. Once the ‘ville’süberscorer Francisco Garcia fouled out with four minutes left, the Cardinals had only two offensive options: the overly arm-muscled Larry O’Bannon and hobbled sharpshooter Dean. Instead of pushing the defensive perimeter outward and forcing someone else to shoot, the Mountaineers sealed their demise by letting O’Bannon get to the line and ceding open threes to Dean.

Still, these questionable moves are small beer next to the plays “drawn up” in the endgame by Kentucky’s Tubby Smith and Arizona’s Lute Olson. Two coaches who have won national championships. Two graduates of the Andy Reid School of Clock Management and Game-Ending Infamy.

Don’t rail against Olson because the Wildcats blew a 15-point lead in the span of a single TV timeout. Perhaps owing to a home-court edge the tournament supposedly eradicated years ago, Illinois won late-game favor from whistle-swallowing referees who allowed the final minutes to turn into an episode of The Shield. Even with the historic comeback, Arizona still had the game in its hands with seconds left. So, what does Lute draw up? A clear-out for Salim Stoudamire, who was off during the game but hit game-winners in the regular-season finale and 48 hours previous against Oklahoma State? Perhaps a simple two-man game with Stoudamire and big man Channing Frye, who dominated inside all night? Nope, he put the ball in the hands of Hassan Adams, a brilliant offensive rebounder who can’t pass or sink outside shots. Adams should’ve been crashing the boards to tip in a potential Stoudamire miss. Instead, he heaved an off-balance chuck—and this crazy shot didn’t come close to going in.

Kentucky and Michigan State went to overtime because the crazy shot did go in. They went to double overtime because Kentucky turned into a JV team at the end of the first extra session. Patrick Sparks’ wild, around-and-in-and-out-and-in multi-bouncer will live forever in tournament memory, but the Bluegrass State won’t soon forget that UK had the ball for a full minute at the end of a tie game with a chance to get to St. Louis. Kentucky ran down the shot clock once, missed a desperate shot, and got the rebound. Given a reprieve, the Cats didn’t get a shot off on the final possession. Michigan State grabbed the game in the second OT as Rajon Rondo, et al, ran out of ideas offensively.

Tubby’s folly: leaving foul-ridden Chuck Hayes, the team’s gamer and mensch, to rot down the stretch. Sitting a star with five minutes left because he has four fouls is cowardly. Failing to give him the ball when the game’s on the line is just stupid. In the SEC tournament semis, the senior forward made a layup off a set play in the waning moments of overtime to beat LSU by one. So, wasn’t Hayes a better option than Kelenna Azubuike dribbling around in a circle?

The twin sets of Wildcats are callow, flush with underclassmen playing critical roles. Olson and Smith deserve the genuflection of the collected Vitales and Packers for getting these teams to the regional finals. But given the magnitude of the tourney, it’s only fair that the gray hairs on the sideline get the blame for putting their young charges in position to fail at winning time. If it makes Tubby and Lute feel better, a three-time winner saw his team come unglued in the final minute of the regional semis. Bobby Knight finally advanced past the second round, but given the way Texas Tech performed down the stretch against West Virginia, he may have preferred another early exit.