But if I don’t get these quick thoughts down, I probably won’t ever do it.
It’s always difficult to write stories like this one. It has been, by any measure, one of the better basketball seasons in U of L history. But it ended on as flat a note as anyone could have imagined. As such, my story depicted some pretty hard reality. Or as hard a reality as basketball can bring you.
It was, I think, Rick Pitino’s worst NCAA loss as a coach. He had a No. 1 seed at Kentucky lose to North Carolina in the regional by 13 points, in a game in which the Wildcats completely abandoned the team concept and went completely one-on-one and jacked up a ridiculous number of three-pointers. Pitino said just this week that it was the most disappointing NCAA loss he’s had.
But even that loss was to a North Carolina team that had players like Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace, who would go on to become regular NBA All-Stars. This loss? To Goran Suton. With a team ranked No. 1, and with the No. 1 overall seed. An experienced team that had come one step away a year ago. A team with two-thirds of the 36,000-plus crowd in Indianapolis, less than 150 miles from Louisville, primed and loud.
It was, as I say in the first paragraph of my Monday column, as hard a fall as perhaps any U of L team has ever had.
Reading back over the story in the office, I wish two things. First, that I’d included one more sentence to talk about the outstanding job Pitino did this season as coach. He truly was the Big East Conference coach of the year, if you reckon conference accomplishment as the true measure, and wasn’t honored as such.
And the second thing is that I wish I’d remembered one detail. My job in this column was to describe the magnitude of the loss, but also to get, briefly, into what happened. One of the most telling moments came in the game’s first television timeout. Pitino had called a timeout just moments before. The game had started slowly. The score was only 4-2 with 4:31 having gone by.
And midway through that timeout, Pitino slammed his clipboard to the ground. I immediately got up and went to Rick Bozich, who was sitting a row in front of me, and asked him, “Did you see that?”
Something wasn’t right, with Pitino that upset that early in what was still a brand new game. I meant to get that nugget into my column, and didn’t. Sometimes you get so focused on what happens late in a game and afterward and the early stuff falls by the wayside.
Something wasn’t right with this team all night. After the game, we heard talk about some sharp exchanges between Terrence Williams and Pitino, which perhaps resulted in Williams spending the final five minutes of the first half on the bench. The longest stretch of down time for the All-American since very early in the season. Pitino downplayed it after the game. Players acknowledged it to a point, but would not speak about it. Rick Bozich’s column tomorrow gets into it as much as he could, while examining Williams’ overall game.
Tom Izzo should get a great deal of credit for this win. He attacked U of L’s zone like it hadn’t been all season. The key? It was easy to see. Getting Suton the ball in the high post. But that wouldn’t have worked if not for one other thing. Seeing that U of L’s 2-3 zone functions like a man-to-man defense on top, he made sure that his guards were way up high on the court when they entered the ball to Supon. As a result, there was open space for Suton, and no way for U of L’s guards to retreat back and harrass him with the ball.
Izzo also had two press attacks. His first-half press break was conservative, using forwards and guards to get the ball over and into the half-court offense. But in the second half, at least three times Michigan State got the ball out of the net and rifled down the court for two easy layups and a transition three. They lulled U of L’s press to sleep with their first half conservatism, then burned it for points in the second. Michigan State’s guards didn’t commit a single turnover against the press, and the Spartans had only one press turnover as a team.
That, again, points to something being wrong. Maybe Michigan State deserves most of the credit for that. Probably, it does. (A little note being added to the Rick Pitino-Tom Crean lore. Crean visited the Michigan State team hotel Saturday night. Whether he and Izzo talked strategy, you can decide. But interestingly, Michigan State players said Izzo came to the morning shootaround with a different game plan for the press than he’d originally planned. Izzo spent a lot of the night up watching tapes, and said he found a couple that gave him his idea for the attack he eventually used against the press).
In all, it wasn’t a pretty afternoon for the Cardinals. And that usually means that the day-after analysis isn’t pretty, either.