Last night was one to put the remote to heavy use. There was all sorts of college basketball going on, not to mention the Islanders absolutely smoking the once-vaunted Detroit Red Wings. I can’t wait to talk to Matt Rennie (aka Mr. Detroit who is my editor at The Post) this morning. Rennie is apt to duck my call after that performance.
The college hoops I saw had a myriad of story lines. Purdue lost for a second straight game—at home no less—blowing a late 13-point lead to Ohio State. What does this prove? Nothing we don’t already know: once you get in to conference play no one is going to win every night. Texas is going to lose at some point and so is Kentucky although it is impossible not to be impressed with the Wildcats. I made my first trip ever to Florida’s O’Connell Center last year and it is a VERY tough place to play. Kentucky made it look easy, taking the lead midway in the first half and looking to be in control from that point on.
The other game that caught my eye was North Carolina State winning at Florida State. It’s the road wins you notice this time of year. Wake Forest escaping Maryland in overtime only means the Deacons held serve and Maryland missed a chance for a bonus victory. Baylor losing at Colorado is the same thing. Teams lose on the road. When you win on the road, especially against a ranked team or even a good unranked team, that’s something to hang your hat on.
There may not have been a team or a coach more in need of a win than N.C. State and Sidney Lowe. Two Sundays ago, the Wolfpack had Florida beaten until a 70-foot shot at the buzzer went in and the Gators won by one. Because I always connect Billy Donovan in my mind to Rick Pitino (since he played for him at Providence and coached under him at Kentucky) I remembered a game years ago in Hawaii when a Kentucky player grabbed a rebound in the final seconds, went the length of the court and scored to beat Arizona at the buzzer.
“We call that play explosion,” Pitino said after the game. Back then Rick always had to take a bow. Now I think he would just say, “the kid made a hell of a play.” Donovan simply said his kid hit an amazing shot and left it at that.
After that brutal loss, State beat Holy Cross (yawn) but then blew a nine point lead last Saturday AT HOME to Virginia, which is still learning how to play Tony Bennett slow-ball. So to go TO Florida State and win was a very big deal.
Lowe will always be a hero at N.C. State for his role in the 1983 national championship. He was a superb point guard on that team. One of my favorite (among many) Jim Valvano stories is about Lowe dribbling the clock down late in a game (there was no shot clock). He came over near the bench and said, “Coach, I need a blow.”
Valvano nodded and said, “You’ll get one Sidney—just as soon as your eligibility is used up.”
This is Lowe’s fourth year at State and he hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament yet. He had an unlikely run to the ACC Tournament final his first season but that’s been about it for excitement. State fans more or less ran Herb Sendek out of town even though he had gotten State into the tournament five years in a row and reached the sweet sixteen. Sendek didn’t beat Duke or North Carolina enough and his dry personality wasn’t enough to overcome that defect. Lowe has plenty of personality and that State pedigree but he hasn’t beaten State or Carolina very much and hasn’t won nearly as much as Sendek did. It seems unlikely he’d get run off after four years but we live in an era where Ivy League coaches are getting jettisoned (two of them now—Glenn Miller at Penn, Terry Dunn at Dartmouth) in midseason. So nothing is a certain in coaching.
Ask the Tennessee fans who spent the last year learning to love Lane Kiffin.
Kentucky’s continuing success is going to continue to raise the issue of John Calipari’s move to UK from Memphis; the players he ran off and his history at Memphis and Massachusetts. Everyone knows the Kentucky people could care less about Calipari’s past, they care only about his present and future. They may already be erecting a statue to him by now.
In a very real sense they are no different than other fans—only there are more of them and they do tend to go a little bit nuts in both directions. I still remember being in a car during Tubby Smith’s first season at the school (which ended in a national title) and hearing a fan call into his show. “Coach,” he said, “I just want you to know I haven’t given up on this team yet.”
Kentucky was 25-4 at that moment.
One coach I know who knows Calipari well and has recruited against him for years said this about him: “He’s the most dangerous guy in the game right now. Why? Because he’s a good coach and a good guy and people like him. But he’s going to do whatever it takes to win—whatever it takes. You think it’s a coincidence he’s had two Final Fours vacated? Sure and Mark McGwire took steroids because of injuries.”
That sums up the way a lot of coaches feel about Calipari. Some of that is jealousy but some of that IS his past. I fall into the category of people who like John. I first met him in 1984 when he was a 25-year-old assistant coach at Kansas and was working at The Five Star camp. We were close in age and hit it off right away. John liked to talk. My job is to listen.
Ten years later, when John had taken U-Mass from nowhere to a No. 1 ranking, Peter Teeley—who had been Bush 1’s speechwriter when he was vice president—came to me and asked if I could help him put together a charity basketball tournament in Washington. Gary Williams said yes right away on behalf of Maryland; John Thompson said no right away on behalf of Georgetown. We needed a glamour team to come in and play Maryland the first year. I called John. “Let me see if I can move some things on my schedule,” he said. He did and the U-Mass-Maryland game gave the event credibility that has helped carry it through 15 successful years.
(Note to Georgetown fans who keep asking me why we have “kept Georgetown out,” of the event. Nothing could be further from the truth. We’ve negotiated with Craig Esherick, with John Thompson III and with Bernie Muir and Adam Brick when they were AD’s and gotten nowhere. I still believe Big John Thompson is pulling that string).
So it is hard for me to not like Calipari for a number of reasons. But there’s no doubt the more his team, built in large part around two kids he brought with him when he left Memphis who are likely to be one-and-outs, will continue to be a source of controversy as it continues to win.
Tonight, I’ll be I Charlottesville for my first in-person look at both Georgia Tech and Virginia, with new coach Tony Bennett. UVA had a good win on Saturday when it won at N.C. State but tonight will be a much bigger test against a Tech team with one of the better young frontcourts in the country.
Remarkably, this will be my first game at The John Paul Jones Arena. I’ve seen it because Craig Littlepage gave me a tour a couple years ago when I went down to speak to some UVA students, but haven’t been there for a game. I know it is a marked upgrade for Virginia over creaky old University Hall, but I for one will miss the old place. Not only did it have excellent press seating it had the best media parking—like 10 yards from the back door to the building—in the country. If you think that’s not a big deal to someone like me you’re wrong. Parking, especially in winter, is always key for me. My guess is I’ll spend a lot of time moaning tonight about the good old days. But getting to have dinner at The Aberdeen Barn with a bunch of my old friends in the UVA media will make it worth the trip. Oh, and the game should be good too.
I have to admit I was surprised yesterday that some posters and e-mailers seemed to think I let Mark McGwire off the hook. I admitted up front that I liked him. Then I went on to say he clearly hadn’t told the entire truth when he claimed he only used steroids to deal with injuries and to stay on the field. I also said he did not belong in the Hall of Fame and that I wouldn’t vote for him if I had a vote. I don’t think that’s letting him off the hook. I would have said the exact same thing about Barry Bonds—who I can’t stand.
Oh well, can’t please everyone.