The Final Four Experience

Just a few odds and ends from covering the Final Four . . .

My seat for the first night was just beyond the end of the Butler-West Virginia bench. I saw Butler coach Brad Stevens get on the refs three times. The first time, on a call he didn’t like, I’m not kidding, he said, “Oh come ON!” He’s as calm as advertised. In the one timeout that I could see into the huddle, he spent about half the time talking and even appeared to ask the players questions and they spent a good bit of the time talking.

I predicted the Butler-Duke final on my weekly video webcast with Rick Bozich, and also predicted a Butler victory. (Clearing throat, I believe my actual quote was, “If Duke gets the same looks against West Virginia that Kentucky got, they’ll win by 20.” I also had Georgetown going to the Elite Eight.)

As I type this, I’m watching ESPN’s SportsReporters turn Butler into a big underdog. Don’t believe it. I think Butler’s more athletic than Duke. They’re as good a shooting team as Duke. They’re BETTER defensively than Duke, and much better than West Virginia. Butler’s Gordon Hayward will be the highest NBA Draft pick on the court. My call on this one? Butler wins it by 5.

Anyway, the Bob Huggins-West Virginia experience was much different. And I suppose this is the place to say that in both cases last night, the losing team at some point looked as if it was demoralized and/or taken out of its game by the officiating.

I’m not saying the games were poorly officiated. I am saying that the losing teams were affected by what they perceived as officiating slights. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo admitted it.

I think we had like five fouls in the first couple minutes of the second half. It just seemed like, you know, got to all of us a little bit. That’s immaturity on my part, to be very blunt about it.

I think a couple players really let it get to them. Raymar did. He really let it get to him early. And that’s not good. So that’s something I’ll learn from. We’re going to do a better job next year. You think our war drill is something now. Next year it’s going to be fistfighting because I’m going to make sure my guys are never, ever, ever, ever physically beaten out of a game again. And I thought tonight we were.

I’ve heard from a lot of people who said their view of Bob Huggins has been forever altered by the way he cradled Da’Sean Butler’s head and talked to his player while Butler writhed in pain on the court. Just before that happened, Huggins looked over at official Tim Higgins and said, “They never foul, do they Tim? There’s an All-American on the ground here, but they never foul.”

West Virginia still was numerically in the game at that point, but the Mountaineers were finished. The frustrated looks were tell-tale. And once Butler left, they were a ghost of a team. During timeouts, players kept looking back up the tunnel where Butler had been taken.

When they brought Butler off the court, they sat him down right in front of me and Jim Gray, who was working the game for radio. One of the most painful things I’ve witnessed on a basketball court up close, because not only was he in a lot of physical pain, you could tell he was feeling it, the end of his college basketball career, the disappointment of not getting to the title game, the pain of losing. Tough.

They also sat Butler’s Matt Howard down in front of me after he got his bell rung in the second half against Michigan State. Though he couldn’t play, I thought it was funny that he was the guy that reached back to get the little stools for the players to sit on during timeouts.

Other sights and sounds …

Got a chuckle when I passed by John Feinstein needling a North Carolina guy, asking him if they were going to raise an NIT runner-up banner in the Dean Dome.

Good to see Tim Ethridge of the Evansville Courier & Press. He gave me my first full-time reporting job at The Evansville Press after I’d been answering phones and covering high school games at The C-J.

Interesting that most of the big-name writers, like Bob Ryan of The Boston Globe, who are at the Final Four will stay for the championship game Monday night instead of traveling to Augusta for Tiger Woods’ Monday news conference.

— Interesting fact: CBS’ Clark Kellogg watches the game on a screen while calling the action, instead of keeping his eyes on the court. I had to do the same thing yesterday. I had a good seat, but because of the severe angle, and the raised court, and players standing up on the bench in front of me, I watched far more on the Lucas Oil Stadium’s high-definition jumbotrons.

— It was embarrassing for the NCAA to honor Jim Harrick at halftime of the first game. Harrick’s NCAA violations ranged from disregard for amateurism to academic fraud. Ridiculous.

— The drill during Final Fours, which The Courier-Journal has been double-staffing regardless of participants for two decades, is for Bozich and I to both write on each game, a column and a game story. It may not make for the best writing, but it is kind of a fun exercise. Don’t know how much fun we’ll have with a 9:20 tipoff for the title game though!

— Several people have written to ask why coaches are sitting on those benches. The court in Lucas Oil Stadium sits about five feet off the ground, and is actually at about eye level for players on the bench (and media at courtside). They just put the stools up there so the coach can sit on the court, not below it, and have a bit better view. I’m amazed that nobody has ever run off the edge of one of those elevated courts.

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