By Sherman Johnson
What a difference a year makes. Prior to last night I admit that like a lot of other folks, I hadn’t been paying much attention to the alternate (some say inferior) tourney because I’d been preoccupied with the major one. Going into the NIT semis I figured the match-ups were a precursor to a repeat of last year’s big game between the Gators and Buckeyes. Both teams advanced through the earlier rounds of this year’s tournament with relative ease, and reviewing some of the games of tonight’s contestants, I started to wonder how either team didn’t make it to the big dance. But then a few minutes into the first game of the night between Florida and UMass I soon started to realize why.
The Gators got off to a better start than the Minutemen early on, but I was more impressed with the strong consistent inside game of big men Marreese Speights and Dan Werner than anything else. They anchored an already porous D that reverted to the zone a few minutes in, but they were also more sensible and consistent with their shot selections. The first few minutes of the game were characterized by the jitteriness of both teams in run-and-gun mode with quick in-bounding, rushing up-court and through their offensive sets and up with shots after a couple of passes at best. Back and forth, back and forth, and so on and so forth, neither team really able to separate themselves from the other until late in the half when the Minutemen went stone cold from outside (they never really were hot to begin with), forcing threes from so far beyond the arc people in the crowd were ducking from the rock ricocheting off the glass like a meteor. It was more like a meteor shower for UMass. They were 1 for 11 from way out with about five minutes left in the half. With all the timeouts being called to fix the cracks in the glass you would’ve figured that UMass’s coach would’ve closed down the launching pad but the Minutemen kept firing like they were in a shooting gallery full of free bullets. The only reason the lead wasn’t double digits was because of the deplorable ball handling of the Gators after they managed to collect all the misses. But still, they went into the half with a nine-point lead behind a couple of drop-step crams in the lane by Speights.
I figured the second half would be a cakewalk for the Gators, and went to the pressroom to try and finish off the leftover pasta by myself but was shocked like everyone else when the Minutemen started to close the gap ten minutes into the second. And they didn’t do it with their defense or their shooting which was still pathetic to say the least. They pretty much did it by hanging around until the Gators finally started to unravel and go cold themselves. During one stretch when they went into the bonus they missed four straight “free” throws and the front end of a one-and-one and relinquished the lead when UMass momentarily got “hot.” It all began roughly at about the same time it literally started to heat up in the press section. In the end I think it was all that “veal” parmigiana but I swear it wasn’t me. I think it was the guy next to me. My insides were clinched liked the rest of the Gator fans holding their breaths.
Something was definitely rotten in the state of Denmark. Come to find out it wasn’t the guy next to me either. (I never figured out who it was but figured it must’ve been collective seeing as how the stench persisted up until the last minute of the second game of the doubleheader). Needless to say, that wasn’t the only thing in the Garden that reeked. The Gators shoddy free throw shooting was the biggest factor in their last-minute capitulation. They went 4 for 13 in the second half and shot 38 percent for the game! Nearly as bad as UMass from beyond the arc only the Minutemen made their shots when the game was on the line. Comparatively they shot much better from the charity stripe going 15 for 20 in the second and decisive half. In the end they were 70 percent from the line and outscored the Gators by 20 in the second to spoil the rematch that everybody was sure was bound to happen.
The second game of the doubleheader started off much like the first one, with a noticeable drop in attendance. Suddenly it occurred to me what OSU’s David Lighty was referring to when he commented in a previous post-game interview that the situation reminded him of when he was in high school, which wasn’t that long ago. On the northeast end where I was sitting was the Buckeye contingent. Opposite in a darker shade of red was the Ole Miss faithful. But really, what I think Lighty was referring to is the fact that he’s once again seen as the experienced veteran on a squad of relative newbies.
From the jump it was run-and-gun all over again, only these two teams aren’t so twitchy. I was immediately impressed by OSU’s big freshman in the middle, Kosta Koufos, ripping down an offensive rebound and then turning around on the defensive end and tossing Dwayne Curtis’s shot out of bounds. At seven feet and 260 pounds he’s a definitive presence inside. Definitely not as definitive as Greg Oden but he posed enough of a defensive presence to be a gigantic roadblock for the speedy Chris Warren who darted in and out OSU’s zone only to crib a couple of lay-ups and seemingly easy put backs for the Rebels.
Offensively though, Koufos is much more impressive than Oden was with his grace and agility. A few minutes into the game he took a rebound and sprinted up the floor to beat his man for an easy lay-up. A couple minutes later he flashed across the lane and canned a jumper from the top of the key. Still, later on, he got the ball on the block double pivoted out of a double-team a la KG and ducked under for the easy lay-in and a familiar theme started to emerge as the Buckeyes raced to an early double-digit lead. Halfway through the first it started to get ridiculous as the Bucks increased the lead to seventeen off the strong play of Koufos, Lighty, Butler and Turner. Together they were too fast and too big for the Rebels who were getting killed on the boards by Koufos and Dallas Lauderdale who both had three on the offensive end. Plus Lighty and Turner forced about a dozen turnovers. By the end of the half the Bucks were up by 24, the Garden was virtually empty, and my colleagues and me were thinking it was definitely a wash as we headed back to the pressroom in search of more pasta and caffeine.
But then at the start of the second half a funny thing happened on the way back out to the…uh…Garden. A virtual repeat of the earlier game where the team’s that hot (or relatively hot) in the first half goes stone-cold as the cold team starts to heat up and come alive. But not exactly. The Rebels took a lot longer than the Minutemen to come out of their coma. Well past the halfway mark of the second half when the Bucks got lulled into a false sense of security and started working the ball around and launching shots just before the shot clock expired and most of us in the press section (there were only four or five of us left by that point) had clocked out and switched our attention to the Rutgers-UConn thriller that looked like it was about to go down to the wire. The three-quarter-court press from Ole Miss started to finally pay off causing the Bucks to get more frenetic and jittery which lead to more turnovers and suddenly the lead was down to 11 off the penetrating play of Warren and David Huertas, among others. That woke the Ole Miss contingent up and to their feet and suddenly it seemed like a game again until Lighty, Turner and Koufos settled down and started to connect from inside-out with nickel-and-dime put backs to put the lead back up to about fifteen. Then for some reason that’s still unclear to me the Bucks stopped going inside to Koufos (he only missed 5 out of 13 shots), settling on a two-man game between Butler and Turner who turned the ball over three consecutive times to allow the Rebels back in the game. At this point, with about a few minutes left, Warren went insane and connected on a couple of deep (from like outer space!) treys to finally bring the Rebs to within the sort of digits you could count on one hand. That’s when Jamar Butler took over on an isolation call off of a time-out (one of many called back-to-back in the span of a couple minutes that nearly drove me into the sort of rage I experienced during the UNC-Louisville game when Rich Pitino tried to micromanage the inevitable collapse of his team!) and a collective sigh of relief washed over the crowd of OSU fans who still remained and me and my colleagues nodded like we knew what time it was and headed for the exits commenting on how the Bucks, notwithstanding this near collapse, could be the team to watch in the very near future.