Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Book Ends

The national championship won by Duke on Monday had a feel of wistfulness. Once upon a time, Duke was the up-and-coming college basketball program, looking to break through with its first national title. The break-through happened in 1991, when Duke upended a powerful UNLV team in the semis, and beat traditional power Kansas in the Finals.

This time it was a young Butler team that came out of nowhere to reach Monday night's game. In just seven years Bulldog coach Brad Stevens went from representing Eli Lilly to trading (coaching) punches with a Hall-of-Famer.

But in the end, Coach K won his (and the school's) fourth title, although the current Blue Devils -- with no clear-cut NBA prospects -- are a far cry from the first national title team, which featured three NBA first-round draft choices (Bobby Hurley (#7 overall); Christian Laettner (#3); and Grant Hill (also #3 overall.))

In another way, Monday's game harkened back to that 1991-1992 team. After winning in 1991, the Blue Devils returned all the key pieces, and seemed poised to advance to a third consecutive Final Four. But in the regional final, Duke played Kentucky in what many consider the finest college basketball game ever.

The overtime game ended with a baseball pass from Grant Hill to Christian Laettner, and Laettner's turn-around jumper from 15 feet. By double-teaming Laettner, rather than putting a man on the ball, Kentucky coach Rick Pitino became a cautionary tale for coaches: don't leave the in-bounds passer un-bothered.

Almost twenty years later, Coach K almost became his own cautionary tale. By having center Brian Zoubek intentionally miss the second foul shot with a two-point lead with 3.6 seconds remaining, Coach K risked the unthinkable: Butler's Gordon Hayward would have won the title if his half-court heave had been a quarter-of-an-inch lower on the backboard.

This morning, Coach K went on the radio and defended his decision, saying that Duke's foul situation meant that overtime was "not an alternative."

Apparently Duke's Lance Thomas and Zoubek were much more valuable in Coach K's mind than they appeared on the floor: while they both had 4 fouls, no other Blue Devil had more than 3. Butler, in contrast, had both of its centers with four fouls, with C Matt Howard being hampered by foul trouble all night.

A better test: see how many college coaches instruct their players to miss foul shots intentionally next year.

The guess here: about as many as will allow a passer to be un-guarded.

No comments: