That was a long night.
It wasn’t just that the best games were in Salt Lake City and the two games in Syracuse had little suspense down the stretch. I have no complaint at all with the Kentucky-Cornell game or, for that matter, West Virginia-Washington which was best summed up by WVU assistant coach Billy Hahn: “We play ugly don’t we?” he said when it was over.
Maybe. But as I pointed out to Billy, they’re still playing and right now that’s all that matters.
The Cornell kids, after jumping to an adrenaline-rush 10-2 lead looked overwhelmed by Kentucky for the rest of the first half, outscored 30-6 the last 14 minutes. At halftime there was a lot of, “men against boys,” talk which, to be honest, I couldn’t really rebut at the time. But somehow, Cornell didn’t go away. The Big Red got Kentucky to settle for jump shots against their zone—which was their only chance—and they stopped turning the ball over which had led to a Kentucky dunk/layup fest in the first half.
When Louis Dale, who was Cornell’s best player on the night with 17 points and only two turnovers against Kentucky’s pressure, buried a three to make it 40-34 with 5:42, The Carrier Dome was rocking and everyone was looking at one another as if to say, “could it be possible…”
I was sitting between Bob Huggins—who may be the last big time coach who actually scouts opponents himself; I can’t think of another off the top of my head—and Hahn and they both glanced at each other for a moment as if this thought had crossed their minds: Play Cornell to go to The Final Four?”
No. Kentucky wouldn’t let it happen. The Wildcats scored the next six points to make it 46-34 and even though Cornell hung around, still trailing 54-45 with 1:11 to go, Kentucky was going to win the game. The Wildcats, who can miss free throws, made them all in the last minute and the margin (with apologies to my friend Hoops Weiss) was a deceiving 62-45.
I apologize to Hoops because he’s a long time friend of John Calipari and gets a bit defensive when people rip Calipari or don’t give him his due as a coach. As I’ve said before, I like Calipari too and I’ve known him since I met him at Five-Star in 1984 when he was an assistant to Larry Brown at Kansas. But he does come with some baggage when he pulls into town.
After the game, while we were waiting ENDLESSLY for the NCAA to bring coaches and players in for a game that ended at 12:15 a.m. Hoops and I had the following conversation.
Me: “You know they (Cornell) hung in there, gave everyone a little bit of a thrill at 40-34.”
Hoops: “They were never winning the game.”
Me: “I didn’t say that, but it was closer than a lot of people thought it was going to be.”
Hoops: “The story of this game was 32-16 at halftime.”
Me: “Hoops, the game is 40 minutes long. You can’t say the second half didn’t count.”
Hoops: “Okay then, what was the margin after 40 minutes—17, right?”
He had me there because Kentucky did bloat the margin a little by making its late free throws. Still, it was clear he was sensitive to the fact that people were going to somehow question Kentucky and Calipari because the margin had melted to six and was still only nine with 71 seconds to play. Actually what really matters is simple: Kentucky, like West Virginia, is still playing. And, if there is one area where I think the Cornell kids and Hoops are in 100 percent agreement it is this: The Sweet 16, at least right afterwards, isn’t about moral victories or getting the margin to six.
“We didn’t come in here just to play a good game or keep it close,” Cornell center Jeff Foote said. “There was no doubt in our minds we could play with them or anyone in the country. They were better than us and that’s all that matters.”
Or, as Jim Valvano famously said all those years ago, “survive and advance.”
West Virginia and Kentucky both did that and their game Saturday should be wildly competitive. Perhaps not pretty but very competitive.
Obviously I did not get to see the games at Salt Lake City but Brad Greenberg, the coach at Radford sent me a post-midnight e-mail during the second overtime of Kansas State-Xavier that simply said: “I’m not sure I can remember the last time I saw clutch shooting like this.”
Clearly that was a great game. I wish Xavier had won because that would have guaranteed at least one team from a non-major conference making The Final Four. What’s more, Xavier and Butler played one of the best and most controversial games of the season early on, Butler winning on a Gordon Hayward bucket after a 10 minute delay for the officials to figure out what had happened because of a clock malfunction. I’m not sure they’ve figured it out yet.
Syracuse losing, as you might expect, took a lot of life out of The Carrier Dome. The upper deck was surprisingly full at the start of Washington-West Virginia. There had been some fear the game would be played with almost no one in the building because Syracuse was on TV at the same time but the real fans—not the rich guys downstairs—showed up for the tipoff. That made me feel good about Syracuse as a basketball town. I know how big The Orange are up here—walking around yesterday I was convinced there was a city ordinance requiring that everyone wear a Syracuse sweatshirt and/or cap—but these are clearly BASKETBALL fans not just bandwagon fans like so many fans of so many teams are. For example, there was almost no one in Kentucky blue in the place when game 1 started.
One other little bit of inside baseball: For about the one-thousandth time the NCAA’s wireless system didn’t work. The NCAA Tournament is about the only sports event that I cover—and I’m told by colleagues this is a universal—where you have to pay for wireless ($16.50 per day) and then it almost never works. There’s always a different excuse, including last year at The Final Four in Detroit when it went down allegedly because of the placement of some CBS camera. Last night it was supposed to be three computers on press row sending out some kind of wrong signal plus overload on capacity.
What, they didn’t know there would be a lot of media there? It wasn’t until almost the end of game one with people frantic because it was 10 o’clock and everyone was on deadline or past deadline, that they got press row hard-wired so people could file.
Last year in Detroit when I asked during a meeting with the basketball committee why in the world we were still getting charged for a system that DIDN’T work the answer was, “well we have this contract…”
Fine. You guys are about to re-open your TV contract so you can make a couple billion more dollars. How about re-opening your wireless contract and find a company that’s competent enough to figure out how to make the system work. I’d say this isn’t rocket science but apparently it is.