Jersey Drive

by March 27, 2007

By Ben Osborne

Man, was I feeling smug. Six minutes left in the East Regional Final at the Meadowlands and North Carolina had a 10-point lead on Georgetown. And, considering the way UNC wears down teams with its speed and depth, the lead only figured to grow, likely to finish with something like a 15-point cushion and the Tar Heels returning to the Final Four. Why the smugness? Well, not only had I told anyone who would listen (about three friends on the phone and a few fellow press folks at the game) that I thought Carolina would win going away, but their win would have given me a really nice Final Four. I entered five brackets this year including the Slamonline one and had Carolina/Florida/Ohio State/UCLA in four of them. Even better, I picked that exact Final Four in SLAM 107, still on sale now but with picks turned in way back on January 29 (as did Russ, I must add).

All Carolina had to do was keep pushing the ball, make a couple of shots, and I was looking at a likely first place in one of my pools, decent finishes in the other and a column filled with braggadocio all set. Besides big upping myself, I would have explained how I’d settled on these four teams—basically that they, save for one predictable exception—were the most talented teams in the country and that was going to matter more than ever with NBA-level guys like Kevin Durant, Greg Oden and Brandan Wright playing college ball. In my opinion, the top four teams in talent this season are/were (in order, more or less) Florida, Carolina, Kansas and Ohio State. UCLA is not far behind, which is why it was easy to pick them to beat Kansas, thanks to my theory that with recruiting being by far the biggest key to college coaching (especially with the NBA guys in play), how a coach performs in a game setting can now only hurt his team, not really help it. Hence, a Bill Self team (Self being a gifted recruiter who I’ve sat close enough to during games to say is a horrendous game coach) was likely to struggle with an almost-as-talented UCLA team. But I didn’t think the coaches of the other teams mentioned could hurt their chances.

So, Carolina was be the capper to my picks and I was there to see it. Life was good. And then the shots stopped falling.

Like with Kansas at MSG last season, I was lucky enough yesterday to sit so close to the Georgetown bench that I could hear John Thompson III in action. And, to be honest, there wasn’t much action. “JT3” stayed cool throughout the game (he did get that tech early on, but it must have been for something mumbled under his breath; no one on press row understood what he’d done to get T’d up), calmly offering encouragement and telling his players to stay the course. He did call some very good timeouts about 90 seconds before both the 12- and 8-minute official T.O.’s in the second half that let his guys catch their breath, but for the most part Thompson hardly broke a sweat. And it worked beautifully. The Hoyas—hardly talent-deficient with the likes of Jeff Green, Roy Hibbert, DaJuan Summers, Patrick Ewing Jr and Vernon “Big Ticket” Macklin—kept running their sets, kept defending and kept getting back on defense. On the other hand, down the stretch the Heels forced shots early in the shot clock, stopped penetrating and didn’t have a go-to halfcourt play when they really needed a bucket. When the Hoyas deftly switched from man-to-man to a zone in the last minute, the Heels offense looked even worse. And while I was a good ways from the UNC bench, Roy Williams didn’t do much to stop it. Oh, he called one timeout when his team’s lead had shrunk from 75-65 to 75-72 and the GTown side of the arena was shaking with noise, but it seemed too little, too late. His players had lost their touch and he couldn’t restore it.

Obviously my above description of the game alludes to the player’s role, as well; Georgetown’s executed and made shots, and Carolina’s didn’t (1-of-23 during one stretch!), and that’s on players more than any coach. But at the same time, in a close, intense game like yesterday’s, you sense the impact a coach can have, and in my impression, Thompson was the better one yesterday. Williams is definitely not in the Bill Self camp (he’s as good of a recruiter and boasts multiple Final 4 trips and a title), but it was not a banner performance for Ol’ Roy.

Our site has been practically bursting with game notes columns of late (which I love; thanks to Jake, Mutoni and Toney for posting from all around the Association), but since I took some notes all weekend (I was at the GTown-Vandy/USC-UNC doubleheader Friday night) and my column concept crumbled a bit, I thought I’d finish this post up with some highlights from the Swamp…

-The whole thing about going there for an NCAA event as opposed to the Nets was weird, since so many things were different. Getting to the media parking area was much easier than it is for Net games. For the latter, you have to drive about 340 degrees around the arena, dodging building supplies for the ridiculous Xanadu being built. For this weekend it was a straight shot into the press parking area with no tour of the Meadowlands beforehand. Further enhancements from Net games included carpeting in the press area and the locker rooms. The food—and the staff serving it—was the same as Net games. One big drop off was the internet access; the NCAA charged a whopping $29/day to go online. Net games are free, so that was just straight extortion. Needless to say, these notes got taken in a notebook first.

-Game 1 is Vandy-GTown. Vandy, channeling Matt Frieje in the form of SEC Player of the Year Derrick Byars, plays a nice first half and leads 32-24. Seeing their smart, active style of play, I feel totally foolish for thinking that my alma mater, GW, had a chance to beat them in the opening round. Terrible match-up for us.

-I love that Roy Hibbert wears 55 like Dikembe used to. I also think it’s ballsy of Summers to rock AI’s #3.

-As Georgetown warms up a bit in the second half, they seem like the far better team, but Vandy doesn’t quit.

-GTown’s coaching staff includes Sydney Johnson, former star at Princeton. I learned last week that my friends who played for Brown referred to him as “Roach.”

-The last minute of the game is kind of a foul fest, as this officiating crew is calling contact very closely. Dan Cage makes two FTs with around 20 seconds left to give Vandy a 65-64 lead. GTown ends up calling a timeout and then inbounding with 14.4 seconds left. The ball ends up in the hands of the Hoyas’ star, Green, who makes this funky, possibly-traveling up-and-under shot with 2.5 seconds left to win the game. Considering how the Tourney has gone so far, it always seemed like Georgetown was going to win this game, so it didn’t have the impact of some last-second shots to me.

-Danny Ainge is in the house; looking for Brandan Wright’s mom perhaps?

-Patrick Ewing Sr. is fielding questions from reporters at his seat in the stands. Definitely cool that he’s here. Less cool is the presence of John Thompson II, announcing his own son’s game for national radio?! Not to sound like Phil Mushnick, but this is absurd. After the game I see him hugging people and accepting congratulations on the win. Would it have been that hard for him to tell the Westwood One folks, “I’m going to just go cheer for my son’s team, not collect a check to announce his game to an impartial, national audience when I’ll be cheering on the inside the whole time?”

-You will never hear the phrase “student-athlete” uttered more than at an NCAA press conference that players attend; the press folks must have that often-inaccurate moniker ingrained in their vocabulary after they get hired.

-Hit the Georgetown locker room real quick to holler at Macklin, who I wrote a story on for SLAM last year. The new Big Ticket didn’t play tonight, but he’ll go on to play some important minutes Sunday and he has a bright future ahead of him once Green turns pro.

-Game Two starts and I’m 10 feet from USC coach Tim Floyd. As someone who has followed the Bulls closely for many years, his presence in this spotlight is still disconcerting, especially given his new reputation as some sort of coaching genius. If SC goes to the Final 4 next year (with OJ Mayo, anything is possible), Floyd will start to hear Pete Carroll comparisons in earnest.

-Oddly, the last two times I was at non-Final 4 tournament games were the first and second round games at Nassau Coliseum in 2001 and then the Sweet 16 in Philadelphia a week later—USC was there, too.

-SC’s Nick Young, profiled in the SLAM that will be out this week, has cut his hair since we shot him. Makes us look dated, perhaps, but his athletic and exciting play makes us look good for getting at him in the first place.

-Eric Montross in the building, doing the game for Carolina radio.

-Wright seems to specialize in “garbage” points. Odd-angled putbacks, loose balls that he turns into leaning jumpshots, etc. Of course, they count just the same, so if anything, his knack for scoring unexpected times adds to my respect for him as a player who should make a pretty quick impact in the League (LaMarcus Aldridge-esque?).

-Between Wright, Tyler Hansbrough, Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson, Carolina is dripping with future pros, but the Heels are not clicking in the first half. They’re getting up and down the court pretty well but so far SC is staying with them, and actually leads, 42-33, at the half.

-Like the first game, however, I rarely feel like the higher-seeded team is going to lose this game. Sure enough, UNC uses its depth and cuts into the deficit, taking its first lead at 60-59 inside the seven-minute mark.

-Around now, every one on press row is given a press release stating that Jason Ray, the UNC senior who dresses as mascot Rameses for all Tar Heel games, is in critical condition at a nearby hospital after getting hit by car. As you know by the time you’re reading this, I’m very sad to say that you know this story does not have a happy ending.

-Carolina pretty much runs away with things with an 18-0 stretch, with the only drama in the closing minutes being Floyd’s getting a technical when his center, Taj Gibson (who played great), fouls out. He earned the tech by throwing his note cards onto the playing floor. After the tech, Floyd very audibly says to the ref, “Thanks a lot. Thanks a fucking lot.” As Lang texts to me from his couch, “Tim Floyd looks drunk.” He appears to be a good strategist, but this mental meltdown insured that his Trojans could not come back and win the game. Then again, it can’t be easy to coach against this batch of Tar Heels.

-Post-game is uneventful. Roy charms the reporters with his best homespun accent, while Floyd, at least by the time he faces the media, is totally composed. “I can’t comment on the foul that led to the technical,” Floyd says. “Or his fourth foul. I can just exercise my frustration, and that’s what I did.”

-I finally head home from the Swamp around 1 AM late Friday night, and return about 33 hours later for the Regional Final. A classic matchup between Georgetown and North Carolina, almost exactly 25 years since the two schools met for the ’82 title.

-There’s a tremendous buzz in the building. I’m in the last row of press, which kind of blends into the first row of Georgetown fans. And don’t get it twisted—these fans are fired up (including the young ones who like to screech. Another reason to root for UNC.

-Hansbrough scores 8 early points as UNC takes a 13-11 lead into the first T.O.

-Thompson gets the aforementioned tech nearly halfway through the first half. The two FTs as a result make the score 22-all.

-Jay Williams (Duke) is at the game and sitting amongst Georgetown fans. I never see him straight stand up and cheer, but his smirks whenever something goes against NC are noticeable. Like Will Blythe says, obviously that hate lasts well beyond graduation.

-Georgetown’s band gets props from me for playing “Seven Nation Army.” Better than the standard college band fare, I’d say.

-During timeouts, I can see Patrick Ewing Jr. making eye contact with his pops in the stands, who is mouthing advice to him. I feel old.

-NC us up 40-30 with 5:08 to go in the half, and in the bonus already. “This game is theirs,” I write in my notebook. GTown, calm as ever, doesn’t have the same thoughts, and scrap the deficit down to six (50-44) by the half. Still, there’s no way I think they can keep playing at this pace.

-Second half starts the same way, with the Heels—led by electric PG Lawson—pushing the ball relentlessly, heading up court in their proper lanes like running the 100-meter dash. An Ellington three makes it 59-51 and I still can’t see how the tide could turn. Georgetown prevents a blowout by continuing to score, often on pretty backdoor cuts that must make Pete Carril very proud.

-With six-plus minutes left, the score is 75-65, and this is what I write: “No quite in GTown, but still, 10 points is 10 points.”

-And then things finally do start to change. The Hoyas—led by Jeff Green—continue to get their buckets in the halfcourt. But the Heels let the pace slow, and when they do shoot, it’s often unadvisable long jumpers. Hansbrough makes a tough move inside with about two minutes left to give NC a little breathing room, at 81-78, but after each team misses on its next possession, Wallace drills a three with 34 seconds left to finally tie the game. The GTown fans explode.

-UNC inbounds and then calls time with 24.4 seconds left. I think the Heels are still in great position. Go to the basket, draw a foul or score, and the game belongs to them. Instead, they have a terrible possession that just leads to an off-balance three from Ellington, who, while smooth, shoots just 2-of-11 for the game. What’s up, Roy?

-GTown misses a last-second heave and we go to overtime. The hopeful gambler in me is saying UNC still has a chance, but I should know better as I see Thompson greet his players coming to the bench after regulation. “This is what we want,” he tells them passionately.

-Sure enough, overtime is a joke, a five-minute celebration of Hoya basketball as UNC can do nothing to stop them. The final is 95-84. Unbelievable. This is Georgetown’s first Final Four since ’85 (this fact also makes me feel old), and the fans are understandably going nuts. Thompson seeks out his wife for a hug. Ewing Sr. climbs down onto the floor to celebrate. If I didn’t pick UNC and go to GW (where we wish we could call the Hoyas “rivals”), I’d really enjoy this scene.

-The All-Regional Team: Jeff Green (MOP), Roy Hibbert, DaJuan Summers, Tyler Hansbrough, Brandan Wright. All deserving of it.

-I take a quick trip to the media bathroom, where male TV reporters are applying makeup like this is America’s Next Top Model. I feel grateful I’m a writer.

-I survey the scene a little more and then head for the exits, amazed by what I have seen.

From the Elite 8 to those who will be playing in it next season; I head to Louisville tomorrow for the McDonald’s Game. Probably won’t put much about it on the website but I’ll have a full recap in SLAM #110, on sale in about five weeks. Check for it.

And, finally, let me take a new chance at getting some picks right: OSU over Georgetown, Florida over UCLA and then Florida beats OSU for the repeat. Enjoy the games!