By Aaron Kaplowitz
It’s late Thursday night at the Iron Cactus bar in the heart of Austin, Texas’ famed 6th Street. Just as they had been doing on the basketball court all season, Longhorns guard A.J. Abrams sets up outside while center Connor Atchley takes shots inside. At just about the same time, more than 1,200 miles northeast, Wisconsin guard Jason Bohannon unconvincingly fights off a triple-team, as three blondes use homecourt advantage to trap him at Mondays bar on Madison’s State Street.
And so it goes for the players at the nation’s top basketball programs who couldn’t quite make it to the NCAA Tournament’s final weekend. There’s no shame in reaching the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight, but you can be sure that the players at Kansas, Memphis, North Carolina and UCLA wouldn’t trade their curfews in San Antonio for a night on the town at home.
As top college athletes, the Final Four participants will have plenty of nights to party like college students but first they had to take care of business in the most hyped Final Four ever, featuring all four number-one seeds.
In the opener, Memphis steamrolled over UCLA, 78-63. Former Memphis stars Anfernee Hardaway and Dajuan Wagner sat in the Tigers’ cheering section to witness dominant performances from Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts, who overpowered UCLA’s smaller guards.
“They’re smaller and I’m kind of big,” Rose said after the game. “So I just try to attack when I get the ball and hope to jump over them and shoot. That’s all I try to do.”
There’s a lesson in Rose’s words: If you really want to teach someone basketball, just encourage him to simply jump over his opponents and shoot. Sure. No problem.
Rose showcased his freakish abilities by pouring in 25 points, grabbing nine rebounds and handing out four assists.
“Oh yeah, he’s ready for the NBA,” said Penny Hardaway, who practices with the team several times a week. “We haven’t talked about it yet. I’m just going to let him enjoy this.”
Hardaway’s entourage certainly enjoyed this Rose kid. Every time Rose touched the ball, Hardaway’s friend, who happens to have the loudest voice in the world, yelled “FREAK SHOW,” while the guy to his left nodded continuously.
Rose, a projected lottery pick in this year’s NBA draft, was only outdone by Douglas-Roberts’ 28 points, which included a crucial basket that deflated UCLA’s comeback attempt.
With just under five minutes to play and Memphis holding on to a 59-52 lead, Antonio Anderson found Douglas-Roberts on a backdoor cut, leading to a high-flying dunk that ignited the Memphis fans.
“Chris told me during the timeout that they’re playing defense up on us,” Anderson said. “We decided to try to go backdoor.”
After the game, with a flock of reporters lined up outside the Memphis locker room, Douglas-Roberts emerged and asked no one in particular, “Why is it always a blowout?”
It seemed to be a legitimate question, for after all, Memphis has won every game this tournament by at least 14 points, with the exception of its three-point victory over Mississippi State.
The answer, which it has taken a long time for the college basketball pundits to accept, is that Memphis is a damn good basketball team.
“At this stage I feel like Memphis is definitely the best team we’ve played,” UCLA’s Kevin Love said. “They just got up and down the court very well.”
With the victory, Memphis notched its 38th win, setting an NCAA record for victories in a season. The Tigers will look to extend that record on Monday night when they take on Kansas, which trounced North Carolina, 84-66.
The Jayhawks jumped out to a smothering 40-12 lead, but the Tar Heels rallied back, eventually closing the gap to 58-54. A 14-0 Kansas run in the second half put the game out of reach.
“It was three different games,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “First game we were great. Second game, we weren’t very good, and they were great. The last game, you know, obviously we played super down the stretch.”
UNC coach Roy Williams took the loss to his former team to heart. In the losing team’s locker room, he stole away to the bathroom, where he rubbed tears from his eyes in private.
“I think Roy Williams is one of the luckiest guys in the world,” Williams said about himself. “But this team was really a special team. We had no issues. We no had problems. They were great kids. It was just a fun, fun group to coach. And in some ways, that makes it hurt even more because they are such good kids.”
His players looked shocked, unable to accept that their season was over.
“It just hurts. It just really, really hurts.” Tyler Hansbrough said. “I mean, we had a successful season. We did a lot of great things this year. We just fell short of one goal.”
Although the 43,718 fans in attendance didn’t get the close games they were expecting, they couldn’t have asked for a higher level of college basketball. A Final Four like this may produce the most future NBA players ever.
Former NBA players George Gervin, B.J. Armstrong, Jay Williams, Greg Anthony and Hubert Davis watched the games from the stands. Head coaches Sean Miller, Bruiser Flint, Tom Crean and Bruce Pearl joined them. Actor Tim Robbins, decked out in UCLA gear, sat in the UCLA section with his son, and several rows behind Robbins, pitching great Sandy Koufax made his annual Final Four cameo.
On Monday night, college basketball will crown its champion. Either the Kansas Jayhawks, with the deepest frontcourt in the nation, or the Memphis Tigers, with one of the top backcourts, will earn the right to party all night long in San Antonio.
It’s the difference between winning six games and between winning five games in the NCAA Tournament. It’s really that simple.
Aaron Kaplowitz is a freelance sports reporter. He’s in San Antonio this week covering his second NCAA Final Four. Check out some of his recent articles at: http://aaronkaplowitz.wordpress.com/