Past Imperfect: Kentucky-Louisville & the Dream Game

Posted by JWeill on March 28th, 2012

Past Imperfect is a series focusing on the history of the game. Every two weeks, RTC contributor Joshua Lars Weill (@AgonicaBoss|Email) highlights some piece of historical arcana that may (or may not) be relevant to today’s college basketball landscape. This week: the original Dream Game between Louisville and Kentucky.

It was bound to happen someday. Despite Kentucky’s clear antipathy toward playing in-state archrival Louisville, there was going to come a time when it was simply unavoidable. That time finally came, was forced to come actually, on March 26, 1983, in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the Mideast Regional final, with a trip to the Final Four on the line.

No knowing observer was unaware of the possibility of a Bluegrass clash when the brackets were unveiled. Just a year prior, a similar tournament setup had been quashed when Kentucky was upset by Middle Tennessee State. This time around, the Wildcats got through, finishing off Bobby Knight’s Indiana squad, while Louisville was the one in trouble. After trailing significantly, the Cardinals edged Arkansas – coached by fairly-soon-to-be Kentucky coach Eddie Sutton — on a last-second tip-in. With both teams locked in to face each other, the pregame hype and buildup began.

Both teams, and their fans, were amped up for the 1983 Midwest Regional Final.

Media outlets immediately began to call the matchup “The Dream Game” or even, more simply, “The Game.” The players did their best to try and avoid providing any potential bulletin board material, but to limited effect. Wildcats backup forward Bret Bearup acknowledged the “thing that must not be said:” “Anybody on either side who says he hasn’t been thinking about this matchup since the tournament started is just saying what he’s supposed to say so he won’t get in trouble. I say what I’m not supposed to. I’ve been dreaming about this game. This is great stuff. ‘Course now I’m in big trouble.”

But while Louisville entered the game ranked No. 2 to Kentucky’s No. 12, at least one major participant felt that it was the mighty Kentucky program that had more to lose.

“The pressure is on Kentucky,” Louisville coach Denny Crum said in advance of the game, before needling the Big Blue Nation a little bit. “Our record is better the last 10 years. They have a chance to carve into our success.”

By tip-off, all the pregame discussions now past, everyone was ready. Tickets were at a premium and 12,489 showed up at the University of Tennessee’s Stokely Athletics Center for the game. Always eager to join a spectacle, Kentucky governor John Y. Brown wore a unique half-red, half-blue blazer to the affair.

Once the game finally got underway, it was Kentucky that broke quickly from the gate. Led by deft outside shooting by Jim Master and Derrick Hord, who each hit three early shots, the Wildcats raced to an early advantage, reaching a 23-10 lead just 10 minutes into the game. Louisville was playing tight, missing 16 of its first 20 shots.Crum’s roster was stacked, though, and the Cardinals’ talent began to show itself at last. Brothers Rodney and Scooter McCray found space underneath the basket and between them scored 12 of Louisville’s next 16 points. When Charles Jones hit a lay-up just before halftime, the UK lead was down to just seven, 37-30.

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Two Days in the Coliseum: Reflections on the CAA Tourney

Posted by JWeill on March 7th, 2012

Rush the Court contributor Joshua Lars Weill (@AgonicaBoss|Emailreports from Richmond, Va., at the Colonial Athletic Association conference championship.

Richmond Coliseum is not a pretty place. It’s old. The color of the inside can best be described as “concrete.” The rafters are dark and the seats darker. It boasts all the ambiance of an airplane hangar. Each year, at the Colonial Athletic Association conference tournament, the fans grumble about the decrepit surroundings and some columnist writes an article in the local paper talking about how old and lousy the Coliseum is.

And yet, somehow the inferior surroundings make the actual experience of watching the conference tournament there stand out all the more. Without the bells and whistles of a modern, NBA-style arena, you’re left with just the contrasting team colors and the fans that adorn them, the rival pep bands and a sort of pure college basketball that shines plenty all by itself.

This Sunday, the arena is buzzing. Old Dominion, two-time defending champion, is battling this season’s regular-season champion Drexel in the first semifinal. Drexel is the outlier, from far-off Philadelphia, while the other teams in the final four hail from the state of Virginia, including Virginia Commonwealth, which is less than two miles away. VCU will face George Mason in the second game, a rivalry that has already resulted in two hard-fought, borderline acrimonious meetings already this season.

Richmond Coliseum has been the site of the CAA tourney every year since 1990.

The teams here are the best in the CAA, the top four seeds. But they’re also all fundamentally flawed. That’s no damnation, it’s just the way things are. It’s part of what makes college basketball – especially mid-major conference college hoops – irreplaceable, and unmatched in its own specific glory. The Monarchs of ODU feature a player sporting goggles held on with a Croakie and a guy with a knee brace who limps visibly. The players’ names on the Drexel uniforms are comically large, as if designed for AARP approval. VCU’s starting center plays only 15 minutes a game and hasn’t scored more than 10 points in a game all season. One of George Mason’s starting guards shoots under 20% from three. What’s not to love about all that imperfection? In an imperfect world, we can all appreciate some less-than-perfection.

Each of the last four teams sees this event as its only sure path to the NCAA tournament. Only Drexel and VCU offer possible at large candidacies, and neither is overwhelmingly strong. For Drexel’s coach, Bruiser Flint, an NCAA bid would bring some much-needed legitimacy to his program. Old Dominion has been there before.

The opening semifinal starts with lots of intensity and not many shots made. The Dragons manage an early lead. ODU’s bench uses flash cards to call its plays, thus assuring that the players have no answer to the coach’s inevitable question of, “Why the hell did you do that?!”

A fan in the lower bowl holds up a homemade sign, simple scribbled words on a half-still-rolled white poster board that reads, “ODU SUCKS!!”It’s unclear to whom the fan’s allegiances are to, though not who they are against, apparently.

Sucking or not, Old Dominion works its way back into the game methodically, tightening the defense on one end and earning extra scoring chances with offensive rebounds on the other. But the Old Dominion crowd, once boisterous, is subdued by the deficit and their team’s inability to get into any sort of offensive rhythm. At a timeout, Big Blue, ODU’s lion mascot, who inexplicably wears a T-shirt under a jersey, tries to raise the spirits of the Monarchs fans. He fails. Drexel’s Dragon mascot is more cartoonish and more entertaining, a look of forever confusion molded onto his face. But neither has the sheer oddity of the VCU ram, Rodney, which looks a great deal more like a dog with horns attached than a ram.

Drexel’s big men Daryl McCoy and Samme Givens are built in a typically mid-major fashion, beefy and strong but not tall and long as their counterparts at Kentucky or Kansas or North Carolina. They create space with muscle and hustle, not with genes. Givens yells at Damion Lee, his teammate, “SCREEN, DAMION!” as an ODU defender rushes to set a pick on his blind left side. Lee doesn’t turn or acknowledge Givens, but as the pick is set he glides just outside it, sensing the body near him.

Thirty-two minutes in Monarchs star forward Kent Bazemore finally gets going, snaring a rebound above the rim and finding a teammate for a basket and foul that cuts the lead to 10 points for the first time in what seems like ages. As the teams go to a scheduled timeout, Bazemore appeals to the suddenly awakened ODU crowd with grand waves of his long, spindly arms. Drexel, as it has all season, finds a way to match the run, breaking a trapping press three straight times for easy baskets. Bazemore’s response is woefully short, and he grimaces at his own airballed three as it bounces meekly out of bounds. Read the rest of this entry »

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Past Imperfect: Rodrick Rhodes — Untouchable Cats’ Unwanted Man

Posted by JWeill on February 22nd, 2012

Past Imperfect is a series focusing on the history of the game. Every two weeks, RTC contributor Joshua Lars Weill (@AgonicaBoss|Email) highlights some piece of historical arcana that may (or may not) be relevant to today’s college basketball landscape. This week: the dominance of Kentucky’s 1996 ‘Untouchables,’ and the banishment of Rodrick Rhodes.

Rodrick Rhodes was a very good college basketball player. He was versatile, athletic, long and skilled. He was good enough as a teenager that most folks who knew of him figured he wouldn’t be in college very long, that one or maybe two seasons at Kentucky, his college choice, would be all that was necessary for Rhodes to showcase the game that would make him an instant NBA millionaire. A month into his freshman season, it looked like those lofty expectations were spot on. The Jersey City, NJ, native wowed national audiences, had ESPN’s Dick Vitale preaching his impending stardom and was set up neatly to slide in as the Wildcats’ next mega-star, following in the imposing footsteps of another former New York City-area prep star, Jamal Mashburn.

But Rhodes wasn’t Mashburn, either in internal strength or in shooting touch, and somewhere along the way to getting his name in the rafters, something changed. Rhodes showed some flaws, and by the end of his sophomore season, Kentucky coach Rick Pitino seemed to sour on Rhodes and on dealing with Rhodes’ older brother, Reggie, who Pitino felt was whispering NBA dreams nonstop into his brother’s ear.

Before Kentucky's run to the title, Pitino parted ways with Rod Rhodes.

Finally, following a series of disappointing showings by Rhodes in his junior season, including a miserable game in UK’s Elite Eight loss to North Carolina, Pitino had had enough. After the enigmatic junior forward opted to enter his name into the NBA Draft pool, Pitino moved on. When Rhodes bombed an audition for pro scouts and decided he wanted to return for his final season at Kentucky, Pitino reportedly told Rhodes he could redshirt if he wanted to return, but whether out of pride or exhaustion with his situation, Rhodes demurred and instead asked for his release to transfer. Pitino obliged and Rhodes the next great Kentucky star became the Rhodes the ex-great Kentucky recruit.

Pitino’s replaced Rhodes with Ron Mercer, a five-star small forward from Nashville who arrived in Lexington as the anti-Rhodes, preaching a willingness to play whatever role the team needed, never gripe about playing time and learn from his more seasoned teammates. The addition of Mercer and fellow recruit Wayne Turner completed Kentucky’s 1995-96 roster, which was built around senior All-America candidates Tony Delk and Walter McCarty, junior Derek Anderson and sophomore Antoine Walker.

Mercer’s attitude was just what Pitino needed for this, his best chance to win a national championship. Always an ace recruiter and at the time arguably the best cultivator of professional-grade basketball talent in the college game, Pitino had assembled a team for the ages, one whose dominance would be matched only by its remarkable cohesion, especially on the defensive end. The Wildcats would work with a rotation of about 10 players, most nearly interchangeable in their ability to shoot, run and press their opponent and in their unmistakable talent.

“I’ve never had 10 players so close in ability,” Pitino said at the time.

The result of all that ability was an onslaught of skill and length that observers and pundits touted before the season as among the best ever assembled at a college program. There appeared to be no flaws. The Cats had shooters and big men and length and coaching. How fascinating, then, when just two weeks into Kentucky’s season this supposedly unbeatable basketball machine in blue would go down in defeat at the hands of a Massachusetts squad in many ways Kentucky’s mirror opposite: slow where UK was fast, frontcourt heavy where UK was not, reliant on a short rotation where Kentucky featured depth. It was an unlikely rivalry that would continue the entire season to college hoops fans’ delight.

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Past Imperfect: Parrish Casebier Was All Wrong

Posted by JWeill on February 9th, 2012

Past Imperfect is a series focusing on the history of the game. Every two weeks, RTC contributor Joshua Lars Weill (@AgonicaBoss|Email) highlights some piece of historical arcana that may (or may not) be relevant to today’s college basketball landscape. This week: the forgotten rise and fall of Evansville’s Parrish Casebier.

Things were never quite right with Parrish Casebier. Born in Owensboro, Kentucky to unmarried black parents, he was adopted at age two by a white family and brought across the Ohio River to live in tiny Rockport, Indiana, where he spent his youth struggling with being different. His younger sister was later adopted by the same family, and together they endured the taunts and bitter looks that came from neighbors, other kids and even some family.

Though he became a basketball standout at South Spencer High School, where he was the state’s second-leading scorer as a senior, even his own coach didn’t always like him. And at 6’3”, stocky, with short arms and little lift, Casebier was built all wrong for big-time college basketball. He was a forward with a guard’s size and a guard with a forward’s handle. In the world of Indiana high school basketball, Casebier’s muscle and will made him a star. But college coaches were mostly unimpressed.

Though Casebier could fill up the net, once scoring 49 points in a game two times in a mere two weeks, there was just something off. He talked back to coaches and got in fights almost daily. He skipped classes and all but dared the school to take away the one thing that made Casebier not just different but better. While further upstate Indiana-bound legend Damon Bailey was wrapping up his storybook prep career before heading off to play for Bob Knight at Indiana, Casebier was trying to earn a place on the state all-star roster or working out for mid-major college coaches.

Some of that lack of interest was due to Casebier’s size and lack of athleticism, but some of it, too, was an unspoken reputation for being a difficult kid, a kid with issues. But college coaches, especially at the lower levels, still take talent, even troubled talent, and Casebier clearly was one. So he picked the school that had first offered him a scholarship, the University of Evansville, over Western Kentucky and Indiana State. Schools like Evansville live off of under-recruited kids who don’t fit the profile that major colleges have for what a player is ‘supposed to be.’ And 6’3” power forwards are not supposed to be successful at the college level. The coach of the Purple Aces, Jim Crews, had been a longtime Knight assistant and he knew he was getting in Casebier a volume scorer who he would have to manage off the court. And for much of the time Casebier played in Evansville, things went fine, on the court.

Casebier was a star at South Spencer High School in Indiana.

Being different was something Casebier had adapted to, even if he hadn’t always done it willingly. Hardly an athletic marvel, Casebier instead relied on craftiness and shot fakes, often pumping three or even four times before shooting. The result was a school record for free throws attempted. There was some precedent for a game like Casebier’s. With his build, he offered a similar skill set to that of NBA star Charles Barkley, who was a capable but uncommon shooter from distance, and whose bulk belied his quickness and grit. But Casebier lacked Barkley’s otherworldly athleticism. And also his sense of self.

“He causes a lot of matchup problems,” Loyola of Chicago head coach Will Rey once said, “because he posts up. He scores on putbacks. He can shoot threes.”

As a freshman, Casebier averaged 15 points and 7.2 rebounds a game, not bad for an introduction to college ball, even in an off-the-radar conference nationally. The team was mediocre, but young, and the future looked bright indeed.

But before his sophomore campaign, the other side of Parrish Casebier also began to show itself. Before the season began, Casebier was one of several Evansville students caught in a textbook-selling scam and the soon-to-be basketball star was forced to sit out the first five games of the season. It was a trend of on-court/off-court swings that would manifest itself multiple times over the years, as was his generally dismissive response to being caught. It was, he told everyone, no big deal. They had singled him out because of his status. Read the rest of this entry »

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Past Imperfect: The Ballad of Fire & Ice

Posted by JWeill on January 26th, 2012

Past Imperfect is a series focusing on the history of the game. Every two weeks, RTC contributor Joshua Lars Weill (@AgonicaBoss|Email) highlights some piece of historical arcana that may (or may not) be relevant to today’s college basketball landscape. This week: the dynamic duo of  Chris Corchiani and Rodney Monroe.

Clearly, NC State coach Jimmy Valvano loved nicknames. He reveled in being “Jimmy V”. He started referring to his erratic star big man Charles Shackleford as “Shack” long before Shaq was Shaq. So it’s not surprising two star freshmen in 1987 would eventually get their own aliases.

But taking a glance at the pasty white point guard from Florida and his reed-thin fellow freshman from Maryland, would anyone have ever come up with the monikers “Fire” and “Ice”? Perhaps not at first. But it didn’t take long for Chris “Fire” Corchiani and Rodney “Ice” Monroe to earn their nicknames, and much more.

Rodney Monroe and Chris Corchiani made up one of the NCAA's all-time great backcourts.

Corchiani meshed well with the fiery (and proudly, even comically, Italian-American) Valvano right off the bat. A Florida prep legend that was named Florida’s Mr. Basketball in 1986 and again in 1987, Corchiani was a passionate and talkative pass-first point guard, a coach’s son who loved winning basketball games even more intensely than he hated to lose them. By the time he left for Raleigh, Corchiani had set Florida prep marks for both career points and career assists.

Monroe had also had a record-breaking high school career, establishing a Maryland state high school record for scoring with over 3,000 points. Coming out of Baltimore’s tough Catholic league, Monroe had his pick of programs, but ultimately chose the Wolfpack over his home state school. This was due in part to the departure of popular Terrapins coach Lefty Dreisell, but had more to do with the chance to play alongside Corchiani, whom Monroe had first met at a high school camp a year before. As any good scorer knows, playing with someone who can get you the ball means more chances to shoot. Both had been point guards in high school, but Valvano knew what he wanted.

“[Corchiani] was a point [guard] who thought pass first and shoot second. That’s why it was a joy to play with him because I thought shoot first. We really had a great combination,” Monroe said later.

Coach Jim Valvano was always close with his fiery point guard.

With future pros Chucky Brown, Vinny Del Negro, and Shackleford already in the fold, Monroe’s immediate role would be as instant offense off the bench, and that’s just what he was. Corchiani, meanwhile, moved seamlessly into the starting lineup and racked up 235 assists as a freshman. Valvano’s motion offense meant lots of looks for Del Negro and Brown, and lots of cleanup for Shackleford. Monroe came in launching as the team’s sixth man. After a 24-win campaign, however, NC State was shocked by Murray State in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the beginning of a pattern of NCAA struggles that would haunt this vaunted duo.

It would be as sophomores that the Fire and Ice duo would more fully gain national attention. With Del Negro gone to the NBA, Monroe got his shot, and shoot he would. Playing the game with a quiet intensity, and never afraid to hoist up a deep one, Monroe was the icy compliment to Corchiani’s fiery temperament. Riding Monroe’s three-point bombs, Brown’s interior brawn and Corchiani’s total floor game, NC State won 22 games in 1988-89 and earned a 5-seed in the NCAA tournament, where it dispatched South Carolina and Iowa easily.

The Wolfpack’s run would be stopped, however, on a questionable traveling call on Corchiani that negated a potential game-tying bucket with under two minutes to do. With Alonzo Mourning doing damage inside (12 points, 12 rebounds, and 7 blocks), Georgetown would go on to beat NC State, 69-61. Still, the season had been a good one, with the Wolfpack finishing the regular season as ACC champions and reaching the Sweet 16. Hopes were high for the next year, with Fire and Ice returning as upperclassmen and talented young big man Tom Gugliotta joining the starting lineup.

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Past Imperfect: Big Dog Robinson’s Beastly Growl

Posted by JWeill on January 11th, 2012

Past Imperfect is a series focusing on the history of the game. Every two weeks, RTC contributor Joshua Lars Weill (@AgonicaBoss|Email) highlights some piece of historical arcana that may (or may not) be relevant to today’s college basketball landscape. This week: the marvelous dominance of  Glenn Robinson.

The Big Dog was shy. You wouldn’t believe someone with a nickname like that would be quiet, reserved and sensitive. But then again you wouldn’t believe a lot of things about Glenn Robinson, Jr.

To believe just how dominant — how beautiful to watch — the man known as Big Dog was in his two seasons in West Lafayette, Indiana, you first have to understand it takes more than talent to make a great basketball player. Every year, millions of kids start high school hoops with dreams of being the next big thing. Many have more innate talent than all but a small fraction of their peers. But whether it’s lack of focus or work ethic, lousy coaching or just lacking the will, the vast majority of those talented kids will never be better than average at basketball.

But those select few whose ability to do whatever they want on a basketball court – the capability to dominate every game — these are your superstars. And to be one of those, a player has to possess more than just athleticism, talent and more than just focus.  These players must have something deep in their psyche that compels them, that propels them, beyond the abilities of normal athletes. And this brings us back to the Big Dog.

Glenn Robinson sat out a Prop 48 year, then dominated the college ranks for two seasons.

In the early 1990s, college basketball was changing. Gone were the behemoths that had dominated the college ranks for a decade. With the exodus to the NBA of Shaquille O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning in 1992, and the new prevalence of coaches running full-court, trapping defenses, a new need for versatility and ball-handling skills at nearly all five positions emerged. Suddenly, the demand for plodding centers was replaced by a demand for frontcourt players with backcourt skills.

This new breed of inside-outside forwards was led by a cadre of beefy but agile college big men, guys like Kentucky’s Jamal Mashburn, Wake Forest’s Rodney Rogers and Vin Baker of Hartford. Each of these players was an All-American, a top draft pick and an electrifying blend of power and finesse. But the best of that era’s “swing-bigs” was without question Purdue’s Glenn Robinson.

But what made Robinson so good was actually not even basketball-related. Raised on the rough streets of Gary, Indiana, the reserved Robinson was instilled early with an inner and outer toughness that took his already otherworldly hoops talents to a different level. Combining his immense physical gifts with a hunger for success and perseverance that can be borne only of struggle, Robinson reached that rare transcendence in sports that cannot be created solely by training and talent alone. Isiah Thomas had it. So did Larry Bird. And Glenn Robinson certainly did. His came from a natural place – his mother.

Robinson’s father was in and out of jail throughout his life. The elder Robinson left Christine Bridgeman when both were teenagers, and like too many inner city girls in similar situations, Bridgeman was left to fend for herself with a newborn. But Robinson Jr.’s mother had that steely resolve – the same resolve that would later show up so many nights in her son on the court – that wouldn’t allow failure. Like the time Glenn was struggling with his high school grades, and Christine marched into the coach’s office with her boy and informed the coach his star wouldn’t be on the team unless his grades improved. And guess what? They did.

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Past Imperfect: Richie Parker’s 15 Minutes of Infamy

Posted by JWeill on December 29th, 2011

Past Imperfect is a series focusing on the history of the game. Every two weeks, RTC contributor Joshua Lars Weill (@AgonicaBoss|Email) highlights some piece of historical arcana that may (or may not) be relevant to today’s college basketball landscape. This week: the saga of New York City prep star and convicted felon Richie Parker.

There was never any middle ground when it came to Richie Parker. Either he was a criminal, a thug who represented everything wrong with the college game – that “win at all costs” mentality – or he was a kid who made a mistake he was overpaying for, a victim of a system rigged to punish and punish again a repentant man, no, a kid because of intense media pressure and political pressure and just flat out pressure.

So which was it? Was he trouble, a felon who shouldn’t be given chances that wouldn’t have been afforded a kid who couldn’t run, dunk and shoot a basketball like he could, or was he the quiet kid without a speck of bad behavior before who lost his senses for fifteen minutes on Jan. 13, 1995, in a high school stairwell when he and a friend intimidated a freshman classmate into performing oral sex?

Or could he be both? Or neither? Everyone had an opinion.

Parker's saga was a Sports Illustrated cover story in 1996.

Tabloids put the story on the cover and sports talk shows had a field day. Women penned editorials detailing their own stories of rape and abuse to show that no matter how repentant Parker was he would never have to suffer the lifelong fate of his victim. Some spoke movingly of second chances and of the mistakes they’d made. Women’s groups around the country mobilized. The victim’s family eventually publicly forgave him. Everyone had a stake, and everyone had firm convictions. And caught in the middle was Parker: 6’5”, athletic, shy, the eye of a storm all about him.

In June, Parker apologized to his victim, pleaded guilty to felony sexual abuse and was sentenced to five years probation and counseling, but that did nothing to quell the furor. Far from it. Now he was officially a felon. The school he’d accepted a scholarship promise from, Seton Hall, reneged on its offer under pressure. Wouldn’t be the right message to send, its president said. George Washington University, whose progressive and creative president offered a scholarship to both Parker and the victim, eventually also caved to intense dissatisfaction from alumni, trustees and student groups outraged by the possibility of a sex offender gaining admittance to their institution. Utah and Oral Roberts and Fresno State and Southern Cal backed off even sooner, the moment administration officials were tipped off of their coaches’ interest in Parker, usually by tabloid reporters like Barry Baum of the New York Post, who made his name breaking Parker stories that year. People lost jobs over Richie Parker.

Ultimately, there were no basketball options left for him after his plea deal. No administration was willing to have its reputation sullied in the press for admitting the radioactive Parker. And the press kept finding out who was interested and with a single phone call would end that interest immediately: ‘Did you know your coaches are recruiting a sex felon?’ Parker’s mother, Rosita, suffered chest pains from all the stress. Parker simply kept staring at his shoes, his once bright future vanishing before him because of those impulsive, those irrational, 15 minutes in the stairwell, a quiet kid now retreating further into his shell.

Rob Standifer, the coach at Mesa Community College in Arizona, took a chance on Parker. But while Parker flew out west, Mesa athletic department and  administration officials learned about him at the last minute and balked. Standifer was forced to resign. The school did allow Parker to matriculate but he couldn’t play ball. But after everything he’d been through, that was OK with Parker. Out there, far away from the turmoil of the city he’d been a basketball star in, he could work on his grades and keep in shape, all with the faint hope that someday he would get the chance to play college basketball, other than the NBA the only thing he’d ever really wanted.

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Past Imperfect: The Wild Ride of Jimmy V

Posted by JWeill on December 8th, 2011

Past Imperfect is a series focusing on the history of the game. Every two weeks, RTC contributor Joshua Lars Weill (@AgonicaBoss|Email) highlights some piece of historical arcana that may (or may not) be relevant to today’s college basketball landscape. This week: the ups and downs of famed coach Jim Valvano.

Jimmy V, Looking For a Hug Back in 1983...

Few coaches in college basketball history have attained the sport’s highest levels of achievement and personal recognition. To do that, a coach must not only be dominant on the court, likely a national champion, but must also show both a sustaining level of that dominance and a personal magnetism that transcends on-court excellence. For those coaches who reach such lofty heights, there’s not much that a man can’t see within his grasp. Fortune and fame, even celebrity if so desired. A career choice originally based on a simple and single-minded goal – to be a major college head coach – can one day lead to possibilities never previously imagined: corporate pitchman, TV star, a brand unto oneself.

For James Thomas Anthony Valvano, the fame and attention he garnered for his team’s improbable victory in the 1983 NCAA title game was an elixir too potent to be sipped and appreciated. To the contrary, Valvano drank fully and became addicted: to the lifestyle, to the accolades, to the fame, to the next opportunity. For ‘Jimmy V,’ as he was known to most, there was, after years of toil in a cut-throat business, all of a sudden everything and anything possible. And Valvano, a boundless personality, a real talker, chomped at the bit to have it all.

The phrase “larger than life” gets used a lot, far too often on folks who simply aren’t. It’s as cliché as cliché comes, an almost meaningless term due to its over- and wrong-use. And yet, when applied correctly, it can be apt. Valvano certainly was someone it applied to. Despite losing his battle with cancer in 1993, Valvano is still very much alive. He lives on through the charitable foundation that bears his nickname, as well as the college basketball events that raise money for them. He lives on too in his much-revered and much-replayed speech at the 1993 ESPYs. You probably saw it recently, and you’ll see it again.

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Past Imperfect: The L Train Rolls On…

Posted by JWeill on November 23rd, 2011

Past Imperfect is a series focusing on the history of the game. Every two weeks, RTC contributor Joshua Lars Weill (@AgonicaBoss|Email) highlights some piece of historical arcana that may (or may not) be relevant to today’s college basketball landscape. This week: the forgotten greatness of La Salle’s Lionel Simmons.

We all want to be remembered. We slog through our days hoping we can create something lasting, something that will point back to our time here and show we were worthy, that we made something of ourselves. Competitive athletes have even more impetus to do so, as it’s a big stitch in the very fabric of what they do. You win to be acknowledged. You win to gain affection. You win, quite honestly, to be remembered.

But what does it take to be remembered? It isn’t enough just to accomplish great things. It’s something more than that. Lots of players reach the pinnacle of the sport but remain afterthoughts once the bright lights are turned off. Too many times, players are remembered solely for the one big thing they did, right or wrong. Maybe it’s the game-winner at the buzzer, or the brain freeze that cost the team at the wrong time. Whole careers of effort are forgotten in lieu of the one big thing.

The 1989-90 NCAA basketball season was chock full of big things, stars and teams who made that season one that elicits a whoosh of nostalgia and basketball awe: powerful UNLV with Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Tark “The Shark”; Georgia Tech’s “Lethal Weapon Three” of Kenny Anderson, Brian Oliver and Dennis Scott; Arkansas’ “40 Minutes of Hell” powered by Todd Day and Lee Mayberry; Duke’s choir boys Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley and the boss choir boy himself, Coach K; LSU’s Chris Jackson and Shaq; and many more.

What most people recall about 1990 is the “Loyola Marymount” story. And indeed it was that season’s NCAA Tournament that immediately followed All-American Hank Gathers’ collapse and death, the event rendering Gathers’ All-American year almost a tragic footnote. Each spring you’ll see at least one clip of Gathers’ childhood friend from Philadelphia and college teammate Bo Kimble bravely playing on, shooting free throws left-handed to honor his fallen comrade. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Goofball Goliath Arrives: Shaq’s Freshman Season at LSU

Posted by JWeill on November 9th, 2011

Past Imperfect is a series focusing on the history of the game. Every two weeks, RTC contributor Joshua Lars Weill (@AgonicaBoss|Email) highlights some piece of historical arcana that may (or may not) be relevant to today’s college basketball landscape. This week: the arrival of Shaquille O’Neal in college basketball.

Quick: What’s the biggest thing you’ve ever seen right in front of you? Was it’s a skyscraper, or maybe a mountain? Or maybe it was a waterfall or an ancient castle? But what if it was an 18-year-old kid in sneakers wearing a wide, toothy grin?

That’s what a lot of folks around the SEC saw back in 1989 when this… kid showed up. He wasn’t just big, he was huge. Never mind that he couldn’t yet spin in the lane like he eventually would or that his shot from more than four feet was not going to go in. He didn’t have to be there yet. LSU had other guys for that stuff, especially All-Everything guard Chris Jackson. Instead, the huge kid with the weird name was just supposed to do exactly what he did do: absolutely terrify opposing coaches away from the paint.

Shaq at 17 Was a Manchild

What kind of name was ‘Shaquille’ anyway? (Muslim, actually, for ‘little one’ … wait, little?). And where did he come from? (San Antonio, actually, well, by way of Germany, by way of New Jersey by… well, it doesn’t even really matter.) All those details, they didn’t help you shoot over him or grab a rebound when he was anywhere near the rim. That you knew who he was or where he was from didn’t make you any more likely to move him out of the paint.  Most likely, nothing would have.

That Shaquille Rashaun O’Neal ended up arriving on campus at Baton Rouge is a fantastic story unto itself and, like everything with the kid who would soon go by ‘Shack,’ it’s ultimately a tale of the tape.

It was 1985 – smack dab in the center of the great era of college basketball big men. Patrick Ewing dominated college ball at Georgetown. Ralph Sampson was a four-time college All-American. Hakeem Olajuwon redefined the position at Houston. As LSU coach Dale Brown has told it many hundreds of times, he was a world away from all that, wrapping up a basketball clinic at a military base in West Germany in a town called Wildflecken, when this lean 6’8” guy in a white polo shirt, khakis and sneakers came up to ask Brown some advice on improving his conditioning.

“How long you been in the service, son?” Brown asked him.

He replied, “I’m too young for the service, sir. I’m only 13.”

Working his best poker face, Brown answered famously, “So you’re 13. I’d sure like to meet your dad.” Which the overwhelmed and giddy Brown eventually did.

But being 6’8” at 13 isn’t easy. There’s a reason even a basketball coach would do a triple-take. His lack of motor coordination at that age got O’Neal got cut from the basketball team his freshman year; told, in fact, that he might consider being a goalie in soccer as a better option. O’Neal instead pressed on. That is why he was asking this coach he didn’t know how to get stronger in his lower body. Which is how Dale Brown, coach of the LSU Tigers about to be on his way back from Germany, happened to meet the future face of his program by absolute happenstance.

Which isn’t to say that it was ever that easy. Maybe Brown had the first contact, but he still had to stay in touch regularly because O’Neal didn’t stay a secret stashed away in Germany for long. When his stepfather, the man O’Neal considered his real father, a military man, a drill instructor named Phillip Harrison, was re-assigned to Ft. Sam Houston in Texas, Shaquille and his family settled into San Antonio. By now, the big kid was even bigger – 6’10” and still growing. His shoes could just about hold a toddler each. He enrolled at Cole High School. One can only imagine the heart-stopping joy that Cole High School’s unsuspecting coach Ken Kuwamura must have felt the day the Goliath fall into his lap.

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Past Imperfect: Y2K Chaos hits NCAAs

Posted by JWeill on March 31st, 2011

Past Imperfect is a series focusing on the history of the game. Each week, RTC contributor JL Weill (@AgonicaBossEmail) highlights some piece of historical arcana that may (or may not) be relevant to today’s college basketball landscape. This week: the random, whacked-out, weirdo 2000 NCAA Final Four.

One Final Four team shouldn’t even be in the tournament. Another surprise team plays a grind-it-out style with no star power. A third team is a batch of mostly young kids who needed a buzzer beater to even get out of the first round. The last team at the Final Four – call it the favorite — is powered by a short point guard and a slasher who seems to be getting better by the game and a bunch of spare parts.

2011? Nope. Try 11 years earlier, when a bunch of random happened to college basketball.

It was a watershed moment for the sport. Or so we thought, anyway. Everything had changed, forever. It was the era of parity, the New World Order for basketball. There would be no kings anymore. Fear the Tulsas and the Wisconsins and the Iowa States from here on out. But other than that wacky March and early April of 2000, for the most part the college basketball world has actually been a pretty normal place ever since. Yes, there have been a few Final Four interlopers in the interim: George Mason, Indiana, Georgia Tech. But mostly it’s been a whole bunch of Duke and Florida and North Carolina and, well, Duke. But forgive yourselves if you weren’t able to accurately predict the future way back then. After all, this was right after all the world’s computers should have melted down, wreaking untold havoc on all humanity, wasn’t it?

Havoc was exactly what it looked like, though, in bracket pools everywhere in the Spring of 2000, thanks to a motley crew assembled in Indianapolis for the 2000 NCAA Final Four that was about as unpredictable as they come. Of the quartet, only Michigan State was “supposed” to be there, the only No. 1 (or 2 or 3 or even 4, for that matter) seed to even make it past the Sweet 16. The combined seeds of the four teams to reach the RCA Dome came to an astounding 22, far surpassing the total for any other single Final Four. Well, until 2011, that is.

Dick Bennett masterminded the slow-down style that Wisconsin used to reach the 2000 Final Four.

The Spartans were familiar with the Final Four, having made the tournament’s last weekend the season before only to lose to Duke. After that game, seniors-to-be Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson determined they would not be denied a second time. Of course, that’s always easier to say than it is to do. Michigan State trailed in the second half of three of its tournament games before reaching the semifinals. But each time the Spartans’ blend of experience, talent and football toughness – intentionally bred by their football-loving coach Tom Izzo – proved enough to overcome both deficit and, eventually, the opponent.

This was, in fact, the team that defined Izzo’s tenure at Michigan State. After so many Final Four appearances and so many wins, fans and pundits have come to expect Izzo’s teams to play that Izzo style of gritty bruiser ballet. But while the 1999 Spartans did leap past Kentucky and into the Final Four, it was this group in 2000 that established the base line for all the Michigan State units that followed.

But even if Michigan State was the prohibitive favorite on Final Four weekend, the underdog has upset the status quo enough times that there was no reason to take for granted the Big Ten champions would waltz to the crown.  First standing in their way was a familiar Big Ten foe in an unfamiliar place.

Today, Wisconsin is a well-known basketball school. Under coach Bo Ryan, the Badgers have competed in 10 straight NCAA tournaments and finished in the top half of the Big Ten each of those seasons. But it wasn’t always this way. It took a decidedly unconventional coach to lay the groundwork for the annual Big Ten contender we see now. Before Dick Bennett took over the reins of the Badger basketball program in 1995, it had been to one NCAA tournament since 1947. One. The markedly unflashy Bennett came to Madison, Wisc., with a record of consistent, slow-building success at Wisconsin-Green Bay. Taking over a program where basketball mostly seemed like what happened between hockey season and spring football practice,. Bennett started from scratch and built a team that might not always look pretty but whose toughness and spine would please any hockey or football fan. And most importantly, the Badgers began to win.

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Past Imperfect: The NCAA’s Greatest Weekend

Posted by JWeill on March 24th, 2011

Past Imperfect is a series focusing on the history of the game. Each week, RTC contributor JL Weill (@AgonicaBossEmail) highlights some piece of historical arcana that may (or may not) be relevant to today’s college basketball landscape. This week: the greatest Sweet 16 and Elite Eight ever, the 1990 NCAA Tournament.

By the time the 1990 NCAA Tournament hit its second weekend, fans had already been treated to quite a show: 16th-seeded Murray State pushing top seed Michigan State to the wire; Loyola Marymount’s emotional return to the court following the tragic passing of All-American teammate Hank Gathers and stunning rout of defending champion Michigan; upsets by Ball State, Dayton and Northern Iowa; surprise takedowns of high seeds Kansas, Purdue and No. 1 Oklahoma.

But as much as the results, 1990 in many ways represented a modern apogee for college basketball – a natural peak that was a nexus of upperclassman experience, elite talent and athleticism and a growing American obsession with this quirky college tournament cum mega-event. As television numbers soared and a new generation of basketball fans came of age, interest in the NCAA Tournament was at an all-time high, and the product on the court was worthy of it.

Basketball is a game that has weathered changes in style, scandals of all levels and cycles of roster attrition, any of which might have crippled a less beloved sport. But while there have always been flaws, much of the negativity and cynicism that has since widened the gap between fans of the college game and fans of the modern NBA at the end of the 1980s had yet to be amplified by the combination of youthful revolt, unmitigated marketing and an ever-present media lens that we accept as the norm today. Likewise, at the time the 1990 tourney tipped, ESPN had yet to dominate the sports broadcast market the way it does now and, while viewership of cable television was certainly widespread, Americans were still mostly attuned to a tradition of watching major sporting events like the NCAA Tournament on network, and even more so, local television. And, certainly not to be ignored, this was long before the Internet changed forever the way fans consumed, discussed and dissected the sports the watched.

NBA talents with years of college experience like Michigan State’s Steve Smith made the 1990 NCAA special.

But if in these many ways the beginning of the 1990s was a more innocent time for fans, it was a more experienced and developed time for college basketball. Since Magic Johnson had been drafted No. 1 overall as a sophomore in the 1979 NBA Draft, only 12 underclassmen had been selected in the draft to that point, and of those, none had been freshmen from Division I colleges. There was a fundamental agreement that freshmen were not physically ready to play with grown men in the NBA, and despite the Spencer Haywood decision of the early 1970s granting high school players the right to be drafted, only three high school players had opted to skip college entirely: Moses Malone, Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby.

The result was that coaches continued to build teams around star players who they knew were not only talented, but also would be around long enough to accrue the experience that came with having played at least two years in college already. Any fan of college basketball knows that while added playing experience is certainly no guarantee of success at the college level, it sure does help.

So came the 1990 tournament, flush with future pros, plus Hall of Fame and soon-to-be-household-name up-and-comer coaches, too. There were blueblood programs and upstarts alike. And the opening weekend of the tournament was a fantastic one. But if the first two rounds had produced great games and standout individual performances, it was only a prelude to the grand waltz of the weekend ahead. From March 22-25, 1990, college basketball showed, on its grandest stage, all of the best things its season-ending tournament had to offer: emotion, drama, intrigue, and controversy – not to mention collegiate athletics played at the highest level.

It all began with a bang. Two years before a miracle full-court pass and shot at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J., would become one of the most replayed and remembered moments in NCAA Tournament history, another, different but equally improbable full-court catch and shoot would captivate college basketball fans’ imaginations … for all of two days.

Few people remember now that when coach Jim Calhoun took over the University of Connecticut program it was arguably the worst in Division I. Now, in just his fourth year, Calhoun had the Huskies as the East Region’s No. 1 seed, facing a talented fifth-seeded Clemson in the Sweet 16. Strong and oozing confidence, UConn opened a 19-point lead. But in the second half, Clemson went on a 25-8 run to cut the lead to two with just over three-and-a-half minutes left. With only 12 seconds remaining in the game, Clemson sophomore David Young hit a three-pointer to give the Tigers their first lead since early in the first half. UConn point guard Tate George missed a jump shot with four seconds left, Clemson rebounded and was fouled. But after forward Sean Tyson missed the free throw, UConn collected the rebound and called time out. One second remained on the game clock.

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