NCAA Regional Diary From New OrleansPosted by rtmsf on March 29th, 2011
After another weekend of scintillating and shocking NCAA Tournament results, it’s time to check back in with our various correspondents who were in Anaheim, San Antonio, New Orleans and Newark reporting on the games this weekend.
Location: New Orleans, LA
Round: Regional Final
Teams: Florida, Butler
Date: 26 March 2011
Correspondent: John Stevens
To read all the diaries throughout the NCAA Tournament, click here.
There are only two possible options, and either one makes Brad Stevens look like a genius.
Here’s the situation. There are nine and a half minutes left in the Butler/Florida game and the Gators are starting to separate themselves a little. The Butler faithful — many of whom comprise the entire section behind the Bulldogs’ bench and have stood far more than they’ve sat in their seats during the game — haven’t been up for a while, and they’re starting to squirm in those chairs because they can feel it getting out of hand. So naturally, if you’re Brad Stevens, this is the time you saunter down to the end of the bench and put in — who else? — a kid who had scored a grand total of 29 points all season, had only played in 19 of the team’s games, and who averaged less than half an assist. If the sarcasm isn’t coming through, here, what we really mean to say is…are you kidding with this? And yet, what did Crishawn Hopkins do when Stevens tapped him with this most improbable of opportunities? Hit a cutting Matt Howard down the middle for a beautiful assist — immediately contributing more than twice his average in that category — and then hit a huge three, raising his yearly scoring output to 32 points. Sure, he committed a turnover moments later, and he was subbed out, but he changed everything. He provided that lift that comes when a kid who you never expected to come through ends up playing well; when that happens, the crowd gets back into the game and teammates who play the majority of minutes start playing with higher confidence. So, hands up, who predicted Crishawn Hopkins would turn out to be one of the most important players of the NCAA Tournament? When Hopkins sat down after being subbed out, he received a pretty loud ovation from the crowd. In fact, there was only one other player in this region who enjoyed a similar applause when he was removed from his game. It was Jimmer Fredette ending his career.
As for those two options I mentioned above, I’m talking about what Brad Stevens was thinking at the moment he even considered putting in Hopkins. The first option is that Stevens had been intentionally hoarding the guy and keeping him as a secret weapon until such a time in the post-season as Stevens would need him (as Luke Winn writes in his amazing story from Saturday which centers around this whole scenario, Hopkins wasn’t even mentioned in the Gators’ scouting report), or Stevens, after Florida assumed that 51-40 lead with 9:25 to go, had an instinct. Something inside of him — call it instinct, a gut feeling, whatever — convinced him that Crishawn Hopkins was exactly what was needed there. Please understand, we haven’t lost our minds. We’re not really proffering that first item as a real option, asking you to even consider that Stevens or any other coach would intentionally not play a deserving player so he could keep him a secret and then spring him when necessary. We’re going with the only true option, and that’s to believe that some voice in Stevens’ head apparently told him, “There’s little reason to think that this gamble would pay off, it’s a completely illogical move. And everything inside me tells me that it’s the right thing to do.” Because it’s an instinct, it can’t be learned, it’s innate. Thank goodness Stevens got out of the pharmaceutical business, because what you’re seeing when you watch Brad Stevens coach is a man who is doing exactly what he should be doing in life. That’s what Brad Stevens does, though, right? With two Final Fours in his four years as a head coach, he’s made the impossible look as commonplace as the fluer-de-lis in the town from which his team just took the nets.
Of course, after making such a coaching move in such a huge game, here’s what Stevens says in his opening statement in the post-game press conference: “I’m incredibly proud of these guys. They carried their coach in a big way. I got out-coached big time. But our assistants did a great job and our players did a great job.” In other words, give the credit to everyone else. After taking a school with anywhere from one half to one tenth the budget for men’s basketball as many Big Six conference members have to a second consecutive Final Four and doing it by getting his players to — well, “buy in,” doesn’t seem strong or descriptive enough, since Stevens’ players don’t buy in as much as they totally pledge allegiance, it seems — after earning such loyalty and doing things like confounding us, his opponents, most fans and everyone but himself with surreal coaching instincts, here is this man, saying he got outcoached and taking almost none of the credit. This isn’t lip service from Stevens. He really believes this, and considers it part of the job and even part of a lifestyle that’s inherent in coaching at Butler and being part of that community. When we interviewed him last summer, our first question to him was to define this thing called the Butler Way. He said, “I don’t think it has anything to do with basketball, technically, first of all. I think it’s just about embracing a culture of unselfishness and accountability.” Not to be cynical, but there are a lot of coaches and players who may say things like this in interviews and press conferences but obviously don’t really think it when the recording devices are turned off. As basketball fans we’re all very fortunate that what fits very neatly into the Butler Way is the Stevens Way — do the hard work, achieve the unbelievable (twice), inspire countless people with your handling of it…then give the credit to everyone else and wonder how you got so doggone lucky. It’s something to see, friends. This is really something.
Location: New Orleans, LA
Round: Regional Semifinals
Teams: Florida, BYU, Butler, Wisconsin
Date: 24 March 2011
- He’s given us so many moments this year. He’s done so much for BYU over his whole career, let alone during this, his senior campaign. He (with the help of Seth Davis’ coinage of the term) became one of the few celebrities — that’s right, I said celebrities — in recent memory with a “The” in front of his name…and it worked. Who else can you think of? U2 guitarist The Edge? The Situation? In short, he was a phenomenon all season long. The deep shots, the small-town boyish charm, the strange (dare I say it) mysticism that comes with attending and playing for BYU with it’s honor codes and localized belief system. But the era of The Jimmer (32/5 asst on 11-29, 3-15 from three)…is over. And on this particular night, even though he was the one who played BYU back into their game against Florida when the Cougars got down early, for my money he was also the one who played them out of it when it meant the most. Fredette started the overtime with a missed three and a turnover. After a pair of timeouts, he repeated that. His OT line: 0-2 (both threes), no points, two turnovers, one foul, one assist. He forced shots throughout the night, but it was particularly injurious in the overtime, especially when you note that Florida started the extra five minutes by hitting three of their first four shots. So let’s be clear on this: we love the guy. We’ve enjoyed watching him the last couple of years. He’s a sensational player, and we look forward to seeing if an NBA team can find a spot for a guy like him. But too many times tonight the BYU offense was Jimmer Fredette taking the out-of-bounds pass, dribbling down the floor, working through a couple of screens, splitting defenders, and throwing up a contested shot, usually from three-point range. He obviously can’t do it all — but was it necessary for him to try? A couple of minutes into the overtime, after an offensive trip like the one I just described, I saw something incredibly telling — a BYU player (I will not name him) slumped, turned, and as he made his way back to play defense…he rolled his eyes in resignation.
- As you’d expect, in the postgame press conference Billy Donovan was respectful of Fredette and his abilities. But he also gave us an “emperor has no clothes” moment when he pointed out something on the stat sheet that has really been glossed over much of the season whenever Fredette was the topic of conversation: “He’s going to take a lot of shots, and the thing you want him to do is take a lot of shots, and you hope that you’re not in a situation where he scores 52. But he almost took as many shots (29) as points he made (32). When I look at the stat sheet the 32 points is misleading because of the number of shots it took him to get to 32.” To his credit, Fredette admitted as much in his post-game statements: “I didn’t shoot the ball great, but credit to their defense.”
- Tell me that when Fredette pulled up with that three-pointer FROM THE RIBBON LOGO — which was a good 2-3 feet BEHIND the hash mark — that you didn’t come out of your seat. Then tell me that you didn’t fall back into it in disbelief when it went through the net. We’ve been lucky enough to sit on media row for a few years, now, at games around the country. The #1 rule on press row is absolute neutrality, as it should be. When Jimmer drilled that shot, I saw several media members stand in amazement. They weren’t applauding, they weren’t cheering…they just stood there as if to say, “Did that just happen?” Some of them even asked that very question a moment later — as soon as they could be heard over the stunned and cheering crowd.
- Lost in all the Fredette talk is what Florida did right. In the first half, the Gators came out and got into the lane with relative ease and scored quick buckets inside. BYU called time out and switched to a zone, which I think everyone knew was coming. BYU would send their defender on the box up and out to the wing to guard any Florida shooters who happened to be floating out there; the players defending the middle cheated toward the strong side, and BYU left both of their guards at home on either elbow to guard the perimeter. That left the opposite corner wide open, and Florida exploited it. The Florida player who did it the best and became the key component in this win was Alex Tyus (19/17 on 8-9). When he got the ball in the post or slightly extended, the first thing he did was look to that opposite corner. If he had a good shot, he’d try a move and take it, but when he hit the opposite corner with a lightning pass, BYU was forced to scramble to rotate back and cover the shooter. If the BYU defender successfully closed out, UF would whip it around the perimeter quickly and have the BYU players on a string like a tennis player hitting the corners. Florida hit their first couple of threes in this scheme, then they went cold, but even when they missed, they were doing damage. After the game, Fredette noted that, “[Fredette and Jackson Emery] played the whole game, and I was a little bit tired.” The whole team looked fatigued in the overtime, and I think it was in no small part to the way the Florida offense attacked the zone — drawing them in with penetration or a dump down to Tyus who made them scramble with a skip pass, followed by the Gators zipping the ball around the perimeter and making the BYU players have to sprint to close out on the long-range bombers. In the second half, Florida eschewed the three more than in the first half and wisely used the gaps created to get Tyus, Chandler Parsons (16/9), and Vernon Macklin (9 points on 4-5) some activity in the middle, and it helped them weather a segment of the game in which BYU was playing well and hitting threes. Great game preparation by Billy Donovan, and superb execution by his players in carrying out the mission.
- For both games, I was lucky to sit next to John Adams, the Coordinator for NCAA officiating. Not only was he a heck of a lot of fun to sit and watch games with, but he also gave me some fantastic tidbits about things like strange and obscure rules, what goes through the mind of a referee who’s doing a game, and a few snippets about certain personalities in the sport and their interactions with referees. He had positive things to say about many personalities within the game, but because one or two of his tales were more on the, er, humorous side when describing certain coaches or players, he asked that I keep those secret, and you better believe that’s what I’m going to do. Not only would I be pretty low-down to just go off and tell tales out of school like that when I know he prefers that conversation to remain between us, but he was far too cool of a guy to ever consider betraying, even if someone had removed my backbone.
- Butler’s performance against Wisconsin wasn’t just a defensive gem, it was a mandate. From the opening tip, the Bulldogs adopted a “cut the head, body will follow” philosophy against Jordan Taylor and the Badgers. Butler switched up defenders in front of Taylor all night — Shawn Vanzant, Shelvin Mack, the underappreciated Ronald Nored — all with one goal: fever-inducing ball pressure. Taylor was frustrated all night by tight defense that didn’t just hinder him getting good looks for scoring opportunities, but also thwarted his ability to distribute. Taylor ended the game with a mere two assists and a rather loud four turnovers, a number that the Badgers as a team sometimes stay close to for a game. He ended with 22 points on 6-19 shooting, but a lot of that came late when Butler’s defense, which had been vice-like all game long, began to sag and unintentionally give Taylor room to manoeuver.
- In the post-game, Pete Thamel of the New York Times asked Brad Stevens where he was eleven years ago when Florida beat Butler in the Tournament’s first round on that Mike Miller shot. Stevens: “I was driving to Buffalo, New York to watch a friend of mine play for Indiana in the NCAA Tournament, and we pulled over to the side because we had whatever radio station it was on broadcasting that game, and we were screaming in hopes that Butler would win. I was not part of that team, but I know guys who were really hurt by it.” Also in the car on that trip? “I guess it was my girlfriend, now my wife, Tracy.”
- I really felt for the Wisconsin kids who came out for the post-game presser, namely Jon Leuer, Jordan Taylor, and Keaton Nankivil. Leuer and Nankvil are seniors and it will be strange to see a Wisconsin team next year without them in uniform. There’s a lot of talk about Jordan Taylor leaving for the NBA, but I think most of that is from Wisconsin fans and it’s based in fear. Taylor is listed as a late-second round pick in NBA Draft.net‘s 2012 mock draft and isn’t even mentioned in the draft that happens this summer. As they sat up on the stage, though, those weren’t just the faces of three kids whose seasons (and possibly careers) had just ended. With eyes still as red as the numbers and trim on their uniforms, all three looked like they had JUST managed to compose themselves as they walked out to face questions. Leuer (3 points, 6 rebounds) was the most crestfallen — understandable, given that against the Bulldogs on Thursday he played 15 points and a rebound below his season average. Bo Ryan was a little truculent in dealing with the media, and that obviously comes from his anger at losing and his season ending, but we thought his assessment of Jon Leuer’s play was both incredibly honest and still a bit inappropriate. He was in disbelief regarding Leuer, saying, “I mean, you’ve got Jon Leuer one for 12? He’s a good player, a very good player, and he works hard. There wasn’t anything about some of those shots, though, whew…he hit his first one and then had some of the most WIDE open threes. Maybe he needed to be guarded a little closer? But yeah, our guys were finding him in a good place to catch and shoot. But hey, he also had it in the post and he couldn’t score there, either.” After Ryan’s comment, I asked a couple of media folks beside me if he threw Leuer under the bus a little, there, just to make sure I wasn’t reading anything into that statement. They were in just as much shock as I was. Was what he Ryan said true? Sure. But did he need to put it like that mere minutes after Leuer just had what was possibly the most disappointing game of his career?
- At tipoff of the first game yesterday, New Orleans Arena was MAYBE 40% full. That’s a friendly estimate. There were huge gaps of open seats in the lower arena across from where I was sitting. The upper arena wasn’t touched until deep into the first half of BYU vs Florida and never filled beyond the first two rows, and not even the FIRST row in many places. Keep in mind, here, we’re not in the Superdome. We’re across the street where the Hornets play. It seats 18,500 for basketball. Last night’s announced attendance at the end of the Wisconsin vs Butler game…was 12,320. I know this town has basketball fans. Where are they?