The NCAA Basketball Tournament

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I got the chance to watch the first weekend in the NCAA basketball tournament for the first time in several years a few  weekends ago. I can’t say it was totally riveting, but it was enjoyable, especially because the competition seems to be wide-open. There’s no overwhelming favorite this year, from what ESPN tells me, and there seem to be a lot of good teams. Maybe not great , but good ones. There were some one-sided games, but a lot of very competitive ones (which is what you want as a viewer), and a number of upsets, which I usually like.

It’s been just about 50 years since I began paying attention to big-time sports. That began with the 1963 World Series, and continued with football, basketball and baseball. Those have been the main sports I’ve followed, plus occasionally hockey and tennis. Golf and racing have never interested me, to say nothing of wrestling and other more recent sports. I haven’t even watched the Olympics that much.

After the Dodgers beat the Yankees in four straight in 1963, to my delight, the Cleveland Browns won their last championship against the Baltimore Colts (this was a LONG time ago). Then John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins beat Michigan in the NCAA title game, with Gail Goodrich getting 42 points. After that came baseball season, and I was hooked.

The last few years I’ve been less hooked. I decided I was paying a lot each month for TV that I didn’t get to watch, so stopped getting it. Since I work nights and weekends I couldn’t watch the sports I was interested in, so this past weekend was the first time in quite awhile that I’ve actually watched sports. I still enjoy it, but don’t find it as absorbing as I once did. I don’t just watch the game. I switch channels, do things on the computer, or read.

But I have some great memories of various games. One was in 1974 when North Carolina State stopped UCLA’s streak of championships, which I loved. I tend not to like sports dynasties, though I’ve made some exceptions–like the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers. North Carolina State was kind of a superstar team, with three players that made the NBA, but only one who had a career of any length.

One of my main memories of the NC State-UCLA game was the contest between Bill Walton and Tom Burleson, the two centers. Walton was the more talented and skilled, but Burleson had about a 5 inch height advantage. When Burleson got the ball he would back Walton down towards the basket. If Walton overplayed him to his right, he would turn into the lane for a layup. If to his left, he would turn baseline for a hookshot. The game was close, 80-77, as NC State repaid a regular season loss by 15 or so points.

The next year Indiana went unbeaten–untill the NCAA semifinals. All played poorly in that game, except center Kent Benson, who scored 33, and Kentucky only beat them by two points, only to be beaten by UCLA in the final for Wooden’s final national championship. UCLA wouldn’t win another for 20 years.

Indiana repeated as an undefeated team the next year. The tournament had expanded, so they found themselves playing their conference rival Michigan, with their outstanding player, Phil Hubbard, in the final. I was watching with a friend, and we were busy getting drunk, so I don’t remember too many details, except that I’d thought Indiana would have to slow the game down, but didn’t. The game was competitive, but Indiana was clearly better, and won. I was delighted.

Not quite a decade later Georgetown was a dominant team, on the order of the earlier UCLA, but not quite as successful. Their star was center Patrick Ewing, who went on to a very successful NBA career. In their first title game, against Dean Smith’s North Carolina, Ewing dominated the early minutes of the game, blocking almost every shot North Carolina put up, uncaring if he was called for goaltending. Years later one player denied that North Carolina had been intimidated. My impression at the time was that they WERE intimidated, except for James Worthy, who went on to a successful NBA career of his own.

Worthy kept them in the game with his quick drives, dunks, and contested jumpers. After those first few mintues North Carolina settled down, and the game became a tough, grind-it-out struggle. The game ended when a Georgetown player made a bad pass with seconds to go, and North Carolina won by a point.

Georgetown played in two more finals during Ewing’s time, one in which they beat Houston (including future NBA stars Akeem Olajuwon and Clyde Dexter). The final score was close, but I never felt Houston had a real chance to win.

Their last final was against Villanova, an unlikely opponent that year. Villanova was a talented and experienced team too, but Georgetown was arguably more talented. Villanova won, though, by playing as close to a perfect game as you can imagine. Particularly in the second half, when they took only 10 shots, but hit nine of them. They ended having shot almost 80% from the floor, as well as the line. Teams occasionally shoot that well, but usually only when the other team is far inferior. This was not the case for Georgetown, who only lost by 2 points. My teacher commented that they’d played well enough to win all three championships: only bad luck had prevented them.

That game was one of the most startling upsets in title game history. Another came only a year or two later. North Carolina State had begun the year with mediocre play, and at one point was only 10-10. But after that they simply refused to lose, scratching and clawing to stay close in each game, then finding a way to win at the end. In this game they played Houston, still with Olajuwon and Dexter, which was certainly the more talented team.

Houston’s coach, Guy Lewis, was a great recruiter, but not in my opinion, a great bench coach. In the waning minutes of the second half, with perhaps 5-7 minutes to go, he tried to protect a small lead by going to the four-corners offense, in which the team with the ball is essentially playing keep-away until such time as it sees a quick and easy opening for a basket. The catch is that this offense requires an outstanding point guard, and Lewis didn’t have one. Had he continued attacking NC State he might arguably have won going away; as it was, he allowed them to creep back into the game. In the last seconds one of NC State’s guards took a very long shot that came up short. But one of their forwards was under the basket, caught the ball, and dunked it in one motion. I had been expecting overtime; suddenly the game was over.

Another memorable game in the tournament were the game between Duke and Kentucky, who matched each other basket for basket in the last minutes, until, in the final seconds, Duke took the ball out of bounds, threw a length-of-the course pass to Christian Laettner, who had just enough time to fake, take the shot and make it before the game ended. I had been rooting for Duke to roll over Kentucky, but got an extremely exciting game instead.

Kentucky had become a power again in the mid-1990s, winning two championships in a row, and reaching the finals a third straight year. I went to work early that night to watch, then had to clock in early in the second half. Arizona went on to win in overtime, and I was disgusted because I couldn’t watch.

I haven’t had the opportunity to watch a lot of the tournament since. I do remember one season when Connecticut was able to beat a heavily-favored Duke team, a year when mid-major and unlikely George Mason reached the Final Four, and mid-major Butler got to the title game twice in a row, only to lose both games.

I think there’s been more drama than usual in this year’s tournament. Lots of close competitive games, a number of upsets. The Final Four are mostly traditional powers, but even they have done the unexpected. Kentucky, talented but low-achieving much of the year seemed to find itself in this tournament and take out talented and more experienced teams. Connecticut, whose head coach is only in his second year there, beating a more established Florida team. Wisconsin, a solid team in the Final Four for the first time, taking on Kentucky. I think I’m going to be watching Monday night.

I’ve always gravitated toward team sports more than individual ones. They can be boring, playing in an uninspired or selfish way, but when they play at a high level, they can be electrifying.

Perhaps this is particularly true of basketball, a generally faster-paced game than either baseball or football, and one in which an individual player can have a disproportionate effect on the game. Michael Jordan could always go out and score 30-50 points a game, and great as he was, I preferred the teams without transcendent stars who worked together to help each other succeed. Jordan, of course, did learn that without his team he could do little but pile up statistics. That’s when they began winning titles.

Most basketball teams have at least one star, but the best ones, I think, are those whose members can ALL score, all play defense, all pass, and all rebound. The game then turns on how well they execute and play together. When a team is really in sync, it doesn’t matter who scores, everybody plays defense, looks for the open man as well as the open shot.

The NCAA tournament brings a variety of teams together with a variety of styles, and the contest in part is a competition as to who can play least selfishly. I think that’s at least part of its appeal. I probably won’t even know who I’m rooting for in the final, at least until after tonight’s game.

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