Final Four Saturday
From the Final Four Radio Broadcast:
“When you were a head coach would you have been willing to let your team wear such ridiculous jerseys?”
Bill Raftery, “For the right price, sure.”
John Thompson, “I could be convinced.”
From the Pregame Press Conferences
“Aaron, 12 months ago, what did you think when you heard Jared Sullinger was coming back for his sophomore year?”
Aaron Craft, “You mean I have to put up with this guy for another year!”
From the Postgame Interview
“Anthony Davis could probably even play point-guard if you needed him too.”
John Calipari, “He does want to play point guard. I told him I would be happy to start him at point guard. All he needs to do is come back next season and he can start at the point.”
Early on Final Four Saturday they aired the College Senior All-Star Game on truTV. They noted that VCU’s Bradford Burgess started 146 games in his career, which is an NCAA record. As enjoyable as it is to see the star players in the Final Four, as a fan you will almost always have a more intense emotional connection to the four year contributors.
I should be writing about Jeff Withey. His length and skill blocked 7 Ohio St. shots and there is no question his defense of Jared Sullinger was the difference in the game. I though the turning point of the game happened 2 minutes into the second half. Ohio St. ran great offense and got Jared Sullinger the ball under the basket. Withey twice blocked Sullinger’s shot, followed by Thomas Robinson drawing a charge on DeShaun Thomas. Kansas was still down 7 at that point, but it was clear right then that Ohio St. was not going to be able to get any easy baskets.
But as great as the other Kansas players played, I am still drawn to writing about the four year starter Tyshawn Taylor. Taylor has been horrible in this tournament. I noted last Wednesday that he had the worst NCAA tournament ORtg of any rotation player in the Final Four. And the CBS graphic said it well. Taylor is 0-20 on his three point attempts in this year’s tournament.
Certainly Taylor did not have a perfect game. He missed shots, he had a few turnovers. Even having played Aaron Craft once before (and being aware of Craft’s quickness), he picked up a charge trying to blow by Craft early in the game. But I thought this was still a fabulous game for Taylor. Part of being a great point-guard is realizing when you don’t have it and getting your teammates involved, and Taylor dished 9 assists in the game.
But even more important was what he did at the end of regulation. After Elijah Johnson (and not Taylor) made a bad pass that was stolen by Aaron Craft that gave Ohio St. a critical 3 point lead late in the game, Taylor did not panic on the next possession. He did not dribble excessively and take a tough jumper. Instead Taylor surprised Craft by refusing the screen. And Taylor’s driving lay-up was a back-breaker. It was the perfect play from a player who has scored so many points for Kansas during his senior season and the three year’s previous. There was a time 8 weeks ago, when some people felt Tyshawn Taylor was a true national-player-of-the-year candidate. And while he has faded in the tournament, when his team needed a bucket, he came through.
Of course, this being Tyshawn Taylor, he had to have one more of those Tyshawn moments. With 8 seconds left he stole the Ohio St. inbounds, but rather than hold the ball and clinch the ball-game, he foolishly passed the ball out of bounds and gave Ohio St. one last chance. It was a moment that almost perfectly encapsulated his career, and it works so much better knowing Kansas won. Taylor will never be the perfect basketball player. But after four years, you can’t take away from the fact that he is a winner.
For fans of other turnover prone freshmen point-guards (Washington’s Tony Wroten, Minnesota’s Andre Hollins, Kansas St.’s Angel Rodriguez), you can only hope for a final chapter this good.
Why Players Don’t Come Back
Jared Sullinger has nothing to hang his head about. He produced two Big Ten championships and a Final Four bid at Ohio St., and that clearly is an important legacy. But there is a reason lottery picks don’t come back to school. Their draft stock almost always falls. I remember reading that the average lottery pick that returns to school sees his draft stock slip 5 points on average, and that sounds about right. A year ago, all people saw was the potential of Jared Sullinger. Today all anyone sees is a player who struggles against taller post players. As a fan of college basketball, I love it when stars return, but I would never advise it. If a player is projected to go in the lottery, it just doesn’t make financial sense to stay in school.
The “Sell Your Kids” Moment
Last week I wrote about those moments in sports when an upset suddenly becomes realistic. When Nick Kellogg hit a three to give Ohio the lead over North Carolina was one of those moments. Today I want to talk about another kind of moment.
Some fans believe their team is the best in the country and the only thing holding the team back is the referees or the bad coaching or some exaggerated third factor. But most fans realize that sports are unpredictable. You watch your team lose enough times and you try to set up a defense mechanism. You try to convince yourself that the game isn’t that important. Sure, every Louisville fan in the country knew that beating Kentucky in the Final Four would have been historic. But you can’t go into a game thinking that. Most fans enter the game thinking, “Well, I’d just like the game to be competitive. I hope we play well, but this whole post-season run has been unexpected, and I will love this team no matter what.”
But something happens during the game. You reach a certain point where suddenly winning is the most important thing in the world. Thoughts run through your head that are clearly absurd. When Peyton Siva hit a three to tie the game at 49 (moments after they had shown his good-luck charm Dad in the stands), the defense mechanism was broken. Everywhere Louisville fans were debating whether they would “sell their kids” to win the game. Of course they wouldn’t “sell their kids”, but this isn’t about the action, it is about the feeling. The beauty of sports is that there are moments where you care more about the outcome of a game than anyone could ever rationalize.
For better or worse, Louisville played well enough that the game reached that point. It makes the loss even more depressing for Cardinal fans. Even with the stolen opening tip, even with the crazy Kyle Kuric scoop shot early in the game, even with Wayne Blackshear making two of the most ridiculous dunks I have ever seen, the upset was not meant to be.
Of course, that’s a huge relief for Kentucky. Wildcat fans have no defense mechanism for this season. Anything less than a title will be devastating, and the title remains within reach.
Whether it was a slumping Michael Kidd-Gilchrist hitting the go-ahead shot, Darius Miller’s big three, or Anthony Davis twice slamming home tipped passes, this is the greatest Kentucky team in at least a decade. And the final chapter has yet to be written.