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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Past Imperfect: The Tournament We Forgot

Posted by JWeill on March 18th, 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 lost, great 1998 NCAA tournament.

The 1998 NCAA tournament is the most exciting, bracket busting, nerve-wracking, well-played tournament in the modern era. And yet, no one seems to remember it. It’s sandwiched right there between “Simon says, ‘Championship,’” and Khalid El-Amin atop the scorer’s table. Can you see it? Look closely, it’s there. It’s the one with the two weird teams in the Final Four, the North Carolina squad coached by the old guy (no, not Dean Smith, the other old guy) and the first-year black coach at Kentucky. Oh, I know what will help…it’s the one where the coach’s kid hits that shot. Oh, now you remember.

It’s a shame, too, that no one remembers the 1998 tourney in toto. From beginning to end, the tournament was riveting, nip-and-tuck, gut-twisting basketball. And it didn’t take long at all to shake things up. On the first day, before many people were probably even aware that games were afoot, an out-of-the-way locale provided fans with some of the tournament’s most in-your-face moments, courtesy of a few names fans would become very familiar with over the next decade but who at the time were little known outside of the basketball community. But strange things can happen in Boise.

Ben Howland, then coach of the 15th-seeded Northern Arizona Lumberjacks, had his team on the cusp of history, all even at 62 apiece with Bob Huggins’ two-seed Cincinnati with just seconds remaining. Northern Arizona was the nation’s best three-point shooting team that year, so it was doubly cruel when Cincinnati’s D’Juan Baker buried an open three to win the game with just 3.6 seconds left to save the Bearcats’ skin. But Cincinnati’s flirtation with late-game disaster would come back to bite them the next round when, this time against West Virginia, Baker again hit a deep three-pointer to give his team the lead and then strutted down the court, only to watch helplessly as Mountaineers guard Jarrod West – yes, Jarrie West — threw up a prayer that was answered with eight tenths of a second left. West’s tipped three-pointer hit the backboard and went through the net, turning Baker’s sideline strut into a slumped-over disbelief. Live by the buzzer beater, die by the buzzer beater.

Meanwhile, in Sacramento, Tennessee fans got their first glimpse of a coach they’d become all too familiar with in a few years, when Kevin Stallings-coached Illinois State ruined the Volunteers’ sunny trip West on a running layup with 1.8 seconds left in overtime. While the Redbirds would get blasted in the second round, that was small consolation for Tennessee fans. Because just a season later, Stallings would take the job at intra-state rival Vanderbilt.

Valparaiso guard Bryce Drew hit a classic buzzer beater in Round 1.

But the action wasn’t all left to the Left Coast. Back in D.C., President Bill Clinton wasn’t the only one issuing denials. Washington denied Xavier a spot in the second round on a Deon Luton game-winner, while three-seed South Carolina saw B.J. McKie’s last-gasp attempt fall short, keeping the Gamecocks on the outside looking in at upset king Richmond moving on. Oh, and for good measure, Indiana needed extra time to top Oklahoma as well. Had enough? Too bad. Because if Thursday seemed like enough excitement for any single round, things were just getting started.

All across the country, the tense moments and close games continued on Friday. In Lexington, a gruff Syracuse senior from Lithuania named Marius Janulis buried not one but two three-pointers to help the Orange squeak by Iona. Then Chicago turned into Boise, with Detroit Mercy upsetting St. John’s by two and Western Michigan sending Clemson packing by three. Meanwhile, in Atlanta, UCLA outlasted Miami (Fl.) on four straight free throws in the final seconds. And then, it happened.

It would be a shot for all time. It would be replayed so often it has become an indelible part of the very tournament itself. Like Christian Laettner’s turnaround jumper, like Jim Valvano running around looking for someone to hug, the miracle shot by Valparaiso guard, and son of his coach, Bryce Drew was the artistic flourish on a first round of gripping drama. Drew’s deep three, coming on a designed play whereby a half-court pass is touch passed to a streaking Drew, was the most memorable moment on a whole tournament’s worth of memorable moments.

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Past Imperfect: When the Fab Five Changed the World

Posted by JWeill on March 11th, 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: Michigan’s revolutionary Fab Five.

We fear change. Change can be unannounced, even unwelcome. Or, sure, sometimes we may ask for it, beg for it, look to the heavens for it. But however it comes, when it actually does come, change straight freaks us out. Whether it’s something as small as a job change, as defining as a new child or as big as the first black president, change is maybe the most aggravating salvation there is. Because we curse and are disappointed by that which we once sought and rue the day we begged for what we now fear. So we then ask for change from our change.

In 1991, college basketball was ascendant. Fans were tuning into the annual tournament in record numbers, new modes of media were creating a whole new spectacle out of the Final Four and it was a age before the annual exodus of underclassmen to the pros. This meant that teams were both NBA talented and upperclassmen experienced, and the play on the floor showed that. The tournaments in the last half-decade of the 1980s seemed ever-increasingly better. It was a Golden Age for college hoops. No one was particularly asking for things to get shuffled around.

But you can’t always predict when things will change. And in the fall of 1991, change came to college basketball in the form of five supremely talented freshmen. In particular, five supremely talented freshmen came to the same place at the same time. And with them came change without ever being asked for. Or, rather, it snuck up on everyone. All Michigan coach Steve Fisher was looking for was a change in the fortunes of his basketball team. Two years removed from redefining “interim coach” by winning six straight games and the 1989 national title, Fisher’s team had struggled its way to a losing mark, lacking star power. Michigan needed players, so Fisher went out and got the five best he could get. They just so happened to also be five of the best in the whole country.

Chris Webber was the jewel of the golden ’91 Fab Five class.

Two of them were no brainers, local wunderkinds Fisher  — or whomever would have been the Michigan coach — had to lock in. Chris Webber was the nation’s best high school senior: the MVP of the McDonald’s All-American game and a three-time Michigan state champion at Detroit Country Day. Webber was the biggest of the big-time. Michigan had to make sure he was heading to Michigan. There was nothing wrong with Webber; he was the kid everyone wanted. You don’t touch that kid’s game, you just turn him loose and watch.

Jalen Rose was also playing in Fisher’s backyard. Himself a Burger Boy All-American at Southwestern High in Detroit, Rose was as loquacious as Webber was brooding. Rose would be Fisher’s floor general, a tall Magic-like playmaker with moxie coming out his ears. Rose had bloodlines, too, being the kid of Jimmy Walker, a former #1 pick. But Rose didn’t know his father, and besides, Rose wasn’t going to be just someone’s kid. He wouldn’t play in anyone’s shadow, and he wasn’t going to change for anyone. No, you’ll be the one to adapt to him. He was the kind of kid who’d tell you that straight up. Proof? When he was being recruited by Temple he asked John Chaney to change the time of Chaney’s notorious 5 a.m. practices. Chaney, unsurprisingly, said no. Rose ended up at Michigan.

But recruiting kids in your neighborhood, even the ones everyone else is recruiting, is one thing. Going into other people’s territory and landing big fish is a real task. And diving into Chicago to nab the best player there, too? Well, that was quite a feat indeed. But that’s what Fisher and his staff did when they got Juwan Howard, a 6’9” beast with quick feet, soft hands and a sharp mind. Howard was everyone’s top target, particularly Illinois, who had grabbed four of the last five Chicago Players of the Year. But Howard had other plans. His main rival, the one he measured himself against, was now Illinois’ star freshman Deon Thomas, a year older than Howard. Going head-to-head with Thomas twice a year was how Howard would show everyone that he was the best player to come out of Chicago in years, not Thomas. Howard was going to change the way people thought about him. And he was going to do that at Michigan.

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Past Imperfect: Chris Jackson and the Fallacy of Normal

Posted by JWeill on March 3rd, 2011

Past Imperfect is a series focusing on the history of the game. Every Thursday, 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: reliving LSU’s phenomenal Chris Jackson.

How often do you think about what’s normal in your life? Do you ever have to stop and define just what normal is or is normal the very essence of not having to define it? Is it what comes naturally, just something you do without thinking about it? Normal, for most people, is … just what is.

Culturally, we tend to make noise about the things that are not normal – on our best days, that which is better than normal; on our worst, laughing at what passes for normal for others. It’s understandable, really. Who bothers to take note of something that everyone sees as mundane, common, ordinary?

But what about those folks for whom normal is different? For those folks to whom it means not being able to do those mundane things that other people do without thinking. Or maybe it means, in certain cases, people who do things in their own way, with their own quirks, and do them fabulously.

Chris Jackson could do anything he wanted in basketball, only better than the ordinary. When you’re like Jackson, normal just isn’t part of the plan. It’s not even on the blueprints. For Jackson, normal was impossible, at least by the standards the rest of us consider, well, normal. Because no one who looks like and is Chris Jackson should have been able to do the things he could do. To this day, no one has done the things he’s already done.

But it’s not as if no one knew what he was capable of, at least in the abstract. Jackson was, after all, a two-time Mississippi High School Player of the Year, and a McDonald’s All-American, at Gulfport High. He was the jewel of legendary Louisiana State coach Dale Brown’s 1988 recruiting class. But it’s unlikely anyone, not even Brown and probably not anyone outside of Jackson himself, thought that a 6’1 string bean like Jackson was capable of dominating a college basketball game like he did for two years. If you’re just learning about it now, watching grainy clips on Youtube, it seems comical, video game-like. If you were around then to witness it, you didn’t believe it even as it was happening. The whole thing seemed, well, abnormal. Super-normal. Extra-ordinary.

Chris Jackson was already an SI cover boy during his remarkable freshman season.

Jackson arrived at LSU in the fall of 1988 a kid of circumstances. In a poor town, Jackson was raised by his single mom. Jackson never knew his father. He spent hours and hours at local courts, shooting and shooting until the shot felt perfect off his hand, off his fingertips. He practiced free throws until he didn’t miss them. He once made 283 in a row in high school. But it wasn’t just some sort of overcharged work ethic at play. Jackson was afflicted with Tourette’s syndrome, a neuropsychiatric disorder that causes tics, grunts and uncontrollable spasms and outbursts in those who possess it.

It can, and certainly did in Jackson, also manifest itself as an obsessive perfectionism, effectively convincing the brain that the afflicted cannot stop until perfection has been achieved. This means he cannot stop for exhaustion, cannot stop for dehydration, cannot stop for anything. So what made Jackson lie in bed at night shedding tears of frustration was also what helped make him into an unstoppable offensive force. It wasn’t until 1987, on the cusp of graduating to LSU, that Jackson finally got diagnosed with and got treatment for Tourette’s. Before that? He was just the weird kid that made the crazy noises and movements. He was just the kid down the street who was not normal.

Still, despite his remarkable abilities, as a small and reedy combo guard, few could have imagined how devastatingly good Jackson would be. He had always been able to score, and to shoot – thanks to natural talent and, yes, that neuro-perfectionism. But somehow, without appearing to exert much extra effort, Jackson showed up as ready for college basketball as anyone had ever been as a freshman. More ready, even. In his third game as a collegian, Jackson posted 48 points. In his fifth? 53. How about an NCAA freshman record 55 against Ole Miss? To this day, no one has ever scored more points as a freshman than Chris Jackson did in 1988-89. Not Kenny Anderson, not Jay Williams, not Kevin Durant and not John Wall. No one.

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Past Imperfect: The Best Temple Team There Ever Was

Posted by JWeill on February 25th, 2011

Past Imperfect is a series focusing on the history of the game. Every Thursday, 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: what could have been for the 1987-88 Temple Owls.

It wasn’t as if they needed that much help. After all, they’d won 32 games the previous season. The Temple Owls had three senior co-captains and a junior starter. And of course they still had Coach, whose no-nonsense basketball lessons made magic, even as they frustrated opponents and occasionally his own players alike. But when a player possessing such rare gifts as Mark Macon does comes along, you don’t say no, and you don’t toss him on the bench. Macon was a breakthrough recruit for John Chaney – the crusty, controlled Temple head coach – who knew by the time Macon showed up on campus what he had been sent, and he rightly treated the freshman accordingly.

“People ask why we allow Mark to do so much,” Chaney told Sports Illustrated in 1988. “No one asked why Kansas threw the ball to Wilt the minute he stepped off the plane. Mark’s our breakdown guy. He can beat you creating, with the dribble or the pass. He knows the game. He’s simply the best at his age I’ve ever seen.”

For a man whose idea of compliments means letting you only run gym stairs and not wind sprints, this was glowing praise indeed. But the kid deserved it. You’d never think a 32-win team would have a missing piece, but Macon was that piece. His scoring, his quickness, his levelheaded production, was what turned a good Temple Owls team into the best team in America for most of the 1987-88 season.

But he was also, when the end came, even as a freshman, the one on whose shoulders fell the blame, if not from his team and his coach, then from the assembled masses watching in the arena and at home on TV. Fair? No. But as Chaney, or Macon, will tell you, life isn’t about fair. It’s about work.

Mark Macon was an immediate star as a freshman at Temple.

No one gave John Chaney much of anything; he took it or worked for it. Some of that was just his personality, but much of it was growing up at a time when young black men weren’t given anything but grief and a whole lot of ‘No.’ That’s what Chaney found out when his family moved to Philadelphia when he was just 14. Quiet and scared, embarrassed about his clothes and his Florida drawl, Chaney was just another poor black kid with no confidence and no future in a sea of such struggles, and with a home life that left him questioning everything. But Chaney was lucky in that he found something to believe in, and more importantly, to make him believe in himself. And it wasn’t a woman and it wasn’t a job and it wasn’t a favor. It was basketball.

Basketball made Chaney a man because Chaney made basketball a war: with himself and with whoever tried to take it from him. As many stories abound about Chaney’s temper and anger as do about his immense ability to play and coach the game. There’s the one about him literally tackling someone who beat him twice with the same move. There’s the one about him spinning a tray of glasses of water on one hand while dribbling with the other. The one about how he broke someone’s ankle who tried to swipe the ball from him. And the one where he threatened to kill an opposing coach. OK, the last one we all saw. But the others: Tall tales? Hard to say now, because there are nuggets of truth in them. Then, too, there are some facts: Philadelphia Public League MVP; 2,000-point collegiate scorer; NAIA All-American; Eastern Basketball Pro League MVP; Division II national championship-winning coach. And then these facts, too: no scholarship offers from the Big 5; No NBA interest after college; No Division I coaching jobs until 1982.

But Chaney never bowed, maybe because despite the hard luck, the bad politics, the injustice, how he took it was that nothing less than perfection would be acceptable, whatever the reason. He took all those hard lessons he learned and put them squarely in his heart. And now he would do the same for kids at Temple, for kids – often black, poor, fatherless, scared like he was once – who needed some lessons in what was going to be given and what was not.

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Past Imperfect: Kicking in the Door

Posted by JWeill on February 17th, 2011

Past Imperfect is a series focusing on the history of the game. Every Thursday, 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 swift rise and fall of Cleveland State’s Kevin Mackey.

The question is deceptively simple: how much is too much too fast? For Kevin Mackey, the answers to these and other questions came too late – years and years too late – to save him, and his program, from himself. For the coach of the outlaws, the misfits, the ones no one wanted, the coach with all the answers to basketball questions, there were no answers to the questions about life, about how to handle it all after you’ve tasted the big time, after you’re somebody.

Indiana had no answers for Mackey and his boys that night, that’s for sure. But that was by design. Mackey knew from experience that no one who’s anyone answers the polite knock at the door. They either don’t hear you or act like they don’t. They’ll look out the window and see you standing there with your hair all wrong and your clothes all wrong and your everything all wrong, and they’ll just shut the shades and stay quiet. Don’t let him in. He’s trouble.

So that’s why you don’t knock politely on the door. You kick the door down and tell them, show them, that what matters isn’t your hair or your clothes or anything you can see but that you are capable of kicking the door down. That’s what they pay attention to.

Kevin Mackey had been kicking doors down for a long time before he got noticed. First as a high school coach back in Boston, where he kicked to the tune of three straight championship seasons at Don Bosco. Then, level mastered, he moved on to Boston College, where scouring the dark corners of the Northeast for hidden gems he helped Tom Davis and then Gary Williams rattle some folks, too. B.C. is where Mackey showed he could bring in the kids no one else could, the Michael Adamses and John Bagleys.

Boston College can be a tough place to get noticed. Despite being a cradle of future winning coaches, it was always a place you had to scrap and claw and kick to get noticed. That was just fine for a guy like Mackey. The harder, the better. And every year they took another step. Had to overcome Rick Kuhn and Henry Hill and all that point shaving business and just kept fighting for everything they got. And because they fought a lot, they got a lot. Like a Big East regular-season title in ’81. Like the NCAA Sweet 16 the same year. With Mackey still bringing in the tough kids, the kids with nothing to lose, and Dr. Tom still coaching them, the Chestnut Hill gang almost made it all the way to the Final Four in ‘82, shocking Depaul and Kansas State and nearly taking out Houston. Williams came in and, with Mackey, kept the whole thing going forward. B.C. finished first in the Big East again. Only a man as big as Ralph Sampson could end the run, which Virginia did in the second round of the ’83 NCAA tournament.

Having been passed over for the B.C. job, now it was time for Mackey to knock down his own doors. He knew what he wanted to do, now he just needed a where to do it. How about Cleveland? Another place you have to make a lot of noise to get noticed. When Mackey took over the Cleveland State basketball program, it had never before won 20 games in a season. Came close a few times, but this just wasn’t the place you go to win 20 games in a season. Mackey the coach knew this, but he also knew exactly what he wanted to do. He wanted to run, and trap, and kick those barriers to the big time down. And he knew how’d he’d get there – the same way he’d gotten this far: by getting the guys with nothing to lose, making them believe they could kick through a wall and then letting them loose on all the walls of the world. So that’s exactly what Mackey did. He brought in kids who had less than nothing to lose.

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Past Imperfect: The Boy From Bedford

Posted by JWeill on February 10th, 2011

Past Imperfect is a series focusing on the history of the game. Every Thursday, RTC contributor JL 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 boy wonder Damon Bailey.

It doesn’t seem odd to us these days to see kids touched by the grace of the basketball Gods at 14 and 15 years old, kids deemed saviors by followers of the game and coaches, too. Oh, sure, we act aghast that a coach would offer a scholarship to a 14-year-old, then we applaud and massively reward coaches who reel in the top talent, the very kids who have generally been courted since they were in junior high. But years ago, this still seemed something beyond the game. In an era where going pro early meant leaving as a junior, identifying and — more so — publicizing the exploits of a pre-high school-age player came across as crass, perhaps even unethical. My how times change.

Ignoring for the moment a decade in which high school kids were handed the keys to the NBA castle, we have become so inured to the phenomenon of the phenom, so accustomed to the custom of the precocious freshman, we no longer think it all that strange that kids are being identified and categorized and ranked and evaluated at an early age. It seems, well, normal. And why shouldn’t it? Last season, two freshmen were named first-team All-America, and this season many feel another freshman, Jared Sullinger, could be Player of the Year. That’s not a problem. That’s just the way it is.

Two decades ago, freshmen were certainly scrutinized, and plenty saw of minutes. The Fab Five entered college in the fall of 1991 and changed the way freshmen were regarded forever. But even then, in the pre-dawn of the age of the freshman, tapping a kid as a star before he has even settled on a high school seemed somehow too much. And then there was Damon Bailey.

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The story came straight out of the big screen: Once upon a time in Indiana, a blond-haired kid with a square jaw and a jump shot is called one of the best basketball players in America. He outmuscles bigger players and out-quicks smaller ones. He can pass, he can score. He is tough-nosed and plays aggressive face-up defense and knows how to win. In fact, his team is undefeated two years in a row. A legendary college coach comes to watch him work. Of course, the star of this story has never played a minute of high school basketball. This is because he is still in the eighth grade.

The classic basketball film Hoosiers came out in 1986. A year later, Damon Bailey echoed the ethos of that iconic movie when he arrived on the basketball scene with a flourish, thanks to a writer and a Hall of Fame coach. That Bailey had little in particular to do with his fame is a story in and of itself – a script within a script.

This script shows Indiana University head coach Bob Knight – by that time a three time national champion and the physical embodiment of Hoosier basketball – coming to see this 14-year-old kid play, standing at the door with his arms folded as commotion abounds due to his very presence. Afterwards, Knight, in a bit of Knightian hyperbole, states to his coaches that the kid is better than the guards Indiana has at the time. Then the writer reports it, and the legend begins.

Damon Bailey had fame thrust on him when his name was part of a bestselling book.

In an era before the Internet, before fans could see clips of high school stars  — heck, junior high stars – dunking and juking and sweet shooting past and over outclassed opponents, it took a lot to get noticed by the national sports media. Yes, there were Five-Star Camps and recruit ranking services and nationally recognized recruiting analysts. It’s big-time basketball, so of course there was. But it wasn’t quite yet the sport unto itself it is now, and, more importantly, it wasn’t something readily accessible to the general college basketball fan, save possibly a back-page mention in a Street & Smith’s or Blue Ribbon preseason magazine.

But Damon Bailey got noticed. That’s what Bobby Knight coming to your junior high game can do for you. It’s also because Bailey’s presence (and Knight’s) was featured prominently in John Feinstein’s bestselling yearlong excursion into an Indiana Hoosiers season, A Season on the Brink. That’s where the story of Knight’s visit to the tiny gym in Shawswick first came to light.

And it’s also because Bailey was very, very good at basketball. But if the story of Damon Bailey was just making itself known to fans of the college game outside Indiana, the legend of Damon Bailey was already well under way in Hoosier-land.

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Bedford, Indiana, is not a big place. Just 14,000 people or so. It’s the kind of place where being a good basketball player is a big deal. And it’s the kind of place where being a basketball legend is the biggest deal there can be. Damon Bailey was as big a deal as Bedford had ever produced. In November of 1986, no less than Sports Illustrated tabbed Bailey the country’s best ninth-grade hoopster. Add this to the praise afforded him by Coach Knight, and you can imagine that it would be tough for any kid to live up to that kind of hype. And it was, and it is. But that’s what Bailey did, beginning right away as a high school freshman.

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Past Imperfect: The Reign of Doughnut Man

Posted by JWeill on February 3rd, 2011

Past Imperfect is a new series focusing on the history of the game. Every Thursday, RTC contributor JL Weill (@AgonicaBoss) highlights some piece of historical arcana that may (or may not) be relevant to today’s college basketball landscape. This week: the sine-wave career arc of Doughnut Man.

It’s still one of the NCAA tournament’s most indelible moments: disheveled Princeton coach Pete Carril grinning in disbelief moments after his backdoor-cutting Tigers stunned defending national champion UCLA in the first round of the 1996 NCAA tournament. Replayed over and over through the years, the moment resonates because it captures the essence of what college basketball’s great March tradition is all about: little guy beats big guy, Cinderella at the dance, etc. But lost in all those good vibes for the white-haired coaching legend is that the other side in that game, the losing coach seen congratulating Carril on his career-defining victory, in its own way represents college basketball, too. In many ways, perhaps more so.

Pete Carril and Sydney Johnson celebrate the win over UCLA.

No one fathomed at the time that the upset loss would be Jim Harrick’s last as head coach of the UCLA Bruins. A year removed from the school’s first national title in two decades, flush with a contract extension, with a bevy of blue chip recruits on the verge of replenishing his team’s talent level for years to come, Harrick looked to have it all working. Then, in the course of a few months, it was all over. Harrick was out. Assistant Steve Lavin, with no head coaching experience at all, was in as interim coach.

How did it all go south so quickly? The answer is a tale of two coaches, of lies and deception, of risks taken and undying myths writ large. It’s an ugly story, without much grace and lacking humility. It is, in short, the story of college basketball at the highest levels.

*      *      *

It is amusing now to go back and look at statements of outrage former coach Jim Harrick made about his abrupt dismissal by UCLA in 1996. At the time, Harrick was the man who’d brought UCLA back from the ether. The West Virginian had been all smiles hoisting the national championship trophy along with Ed O’Bannon, Tyus Edney and the victorious Bruins. And rightfully so. Harrick had taken a job a slew of previous coaches had tried to tame and done the only thing he’d been hired to do: win a national title again. Favorite sons Walt Hazzard, Gary Cunningham and Larry Farmer didn’t do it. Future coaching legends Gene Bartow and Larry Brown couldn’t do it, either. But the onetime UCLA assistant – the guy who never even played college basketball – did it. And he did it his own way, with style.

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Past Imperfect: The Long Road To Humility

Posted by JWeill on January 27th, 2011

Past Imperfect is a new series focusing on the history of the game. Every Thursday, RTC contributor JL Weill (@AgonicaBoss) highlights some piece of historical arcana that may (or may not) be relevant to today’s college basketball landscape.  This week: in a week BYU and San Diego State meet for a top 10 matchup, a look at two key figures in each school’s basketball history.

It’s June 1991, and Steve Fisher is in a good mood, a really good mood. It may seem odd, given he’s just emerged from coaching Michigan to a 14-15 record, his first losing season in his brief stint as a head coach. To add to it, he’s just graduated his leading scorer and captain. And yet, here is Fisher, serene and smiling in his bespectacled, professorial way. If it looks as if he knows something the rest of us don’t, that’s because he does.

What Fisher knows is that he’s just signed the best freshman class in school history – maybe in NCAA history. Combined, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Ray Jackson and Jimmy King will go on to win 97 games for the Wolverines, coming within reach of back-to-back national titles. It’s also a crew that will have most of its wins expunged. But Fisher doesn’t know any of that yet. All he knows right now is that after a trying season, the cavalry is coming in baggy shorts and tall black socks, a group of young men who will change college basketball and the coach who brought them together. Forever.

* * *

It’s July 1991, and a 7-foot-6 Mormon basketball player – one of the tallest men on the planet, probably the world’s tallest Mormon — is giving up the game that is going to make him a millionaire someday. Well, maybe not exactly giving up, because what Shawn Bradley is really doing is taking a break to spread the word of God. For two years.

That he’s just finished an All-American freshman season in which he set an all-time record for blocks in a game is immaterial right now. The game-changing giant is heading to Australia to take a break, not knowing if he’ll ever play the game he’s loved his whole life again. It will be a confusing, often frustrating time, but one that will change him. Forever.

* * *

In many ways, Fisher is an unlikely spark for the basketball revolution that’s coming. A former high school coach in Park Forest, Ill., Fisher was on the slow track. For 10 years an assistant coach, Fisher was never the lead guy. Like all college assistants, he was the brains and hard work behind the scenes. He went on recruiting trips, sure, but the glory, and of course the headaches, ultimately went to the man in the seat beside him.

Interim coach Steve Fisher led Michigan to the 1989 championship.

Then came March 1989, and the man in the seat beside him, Bill Frieder, was fired for taking another job before Michigan’s season has come to an end. The NCAA tournament is one day away and now Fisher is the one responsible for wins or losses. Of course he is nervous. So what does the accidental head coach go out and do? He wins the whole damn thing. In a matter of three weeks, there’s more glory than Steve Fisher ever imagined, and all after just six games. It’s a story too remarkable to be believable, but believable because it is true. Six games and Fisher had just reached the pinnacle of the job he’d only just joined by accident. Six games and a mountain of glory you can only tumble down from.

Because what can Steve Fisher do to follow up six-and-oh my God?

* * *

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Past Imperfect: Major Losses, Mixed Results

Posted by JWeill on January 20th, 2011

Past Imperfect is a new series focusing on the history of the game. Every Thursday, RTC contributor JL Weill (@AgonicaBoss) highlights some piece of historical arcana that may (or may not) be relevant to today’s college basketball landscape.  This week: How teams over college basketball history have dealt with seemingly devastating injuries to star players.  The answer? It depends …

When freshman Duke point guard Kyrie Irving came down awkwardly in a game against Butler with what was a then-seemingly innocuous injury to his toe, the entire landscape of this college hoops season was altered, perhaps irrevocably.  Up to that point, there was little disputing who was the 2010-11 college basketball favorite. Not only was Duke the defending NCAA champion, it also returned most of the firepower from that title-winning side as well as adding the nation’s top point guard prospect in New Jersey’s Irving, at a position that was previously the only real soft spot on the Blue Devils roster.  With Irving out indefinitely, gone was the swagger of invincibility Duke had in droves in the early weeks of the season. Gone, too, was the sheer talent and ability of Irving, who had earned his accolades and then some with his performance in the season’s first eight games. Irving had saved Duke with 31 points in a win over Michigan State at Cameron Indoor and had reached double figures in points in all of his few games as a collegian.  Of course, Purdue would have gladly taken even eight games from its star, Robbie Hummel. Already rehabbing a rebuilt knee from an injury last season, Hummel lasted all of a practice and a half before coming down in a heap after blowing out the same knee. A trendy preseason Final Four pick, Purdue was left without its senior leader and second-leading returning scorer before the season had really even begun.

Kyrie Irving's Loss May Not Kill Duke's Chances in March

It remains to be seen whether Duke will shake off the likely loss of Irving’s freshman season and make a run to a second straight title or whether Purdue can find among the guys remaining the makings of a Final Four contender. Both teams have talent on the roster, if not replacements exactly. Teams in the situation Duke and Purdue find themselves in have historically had mixed results recovering. For every championship-caliber team to overcome a major personnel loss to injury there is one for whom the absence of a star player was devastating to its long-term NCAA hopes.  Much of that, it turns out upon review, is related to the timing of the injury, as well as just how crucial a role the injured player played on his team. For some squads, losing a player at midseason turned out to be, while never preferred, preferable to losing him just before or during March. For others, losing an on-court presence isn’t as much an issue as losing the club’s emotional leader.

In February of 1997, Rick Pitino’s defending national champion Kentucky Wildcats were ranked fifth in the nation, riding the stellar play of dynamic scoring wings Ron Mercer and Derek Anderson to a 15-2 record heading into a seemingly innocuous game against an overmatched Auburn team at Rupp Arena. At the time, Mercer and Anderson were the most explosive 1-2 combination in America. Then, during the game, Anderson twisted his knee awkwardly on a break and tore his ACL, effectively ending his career as a Wildcat.  “It’s like it’s October 15 again as far as our offensive execution is concerned,” Pitino said a few weeks later.  But partly because of roster depth and partly because they had time to work around Anderson’s absence, the Wildcats regrouped and managed only three more losses the rest of the season, the final one coming in a classic overtime NCAA championship game vs. Arizona. Anderson returned for just one brief moment, sinking a pair of free throws in zero minutes played in a Final Four win over Minnesota. Kentucky fans still maintain that had Pitino played Anderson even a few minutes in the final, the Wildcats would have taken the title.

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