Tag Archives: UCLA

Above the Rim

Basketball is beautiful. It really is. Even the crummy WNBA ad campaign from a few years ago centering on that concept didn’t take away the simplistic yet resonant meaning of those three words. BASKETBALL IS BEAUTFIUL.

Rustin Dodd recently listed it as the most artistic game, more aesthetically pleasing than soccer and even tennis, a game, to me, defined by the unparalleled grace of its greatest champion, Roger Federer. But Rustin is right, and I fully understood why on Thursday.

I was watching the KU-UCLA game. All my life, I’ve loved Kansas basketball. That should come as no surprise to the 13 readers of this blog. The roots of my love are superficial at best, maybe embarrassing at worst. I began loving Kansas because of the colors. My parents, Debbie and Paul Dent, introduced the concept of colleges when I couldn’t have been more than four or five years old. Kansas wore red and blue. Kansas State wore purple. Red and blue was cool. And purple sucked. I was a Jayhawk.

Not long after, I began watching the basketball games because my dad viewed every one of them (and still does) like every member of the Jayhawk family, with religious fervor. I watched Steve Woodberry and Patrick Ritchie, then Jacque Vaughn and Ryan Robertson, then Jeff Boschee and Kenny Gregory, then Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison, and then in the most recent times I watched Russell Robinson and Brandon Rush. Then I stopped.

I haven’t watched much KU basketball this year, nor did I watch much last year. That is what happens when you live in a city located far away from Lawrence. There are bars to watch it here in Dallas and ESPN3 is a God-send and good Samaritans illegally stream games on Justin.TV, but the games have tumbled down my list of priorities. The euphoria present with every dribble in Lawrence-KC fades away when you leave the city limits. Even when I watch the games, I am not watching them the same way I do at Allen Fieldhouse or in a Johnson County family room. I am watching them detached from what makes the games special.

But I did watch on Thursday. I was into the game more than most I see because it was a tight game. I even got a little angry at the missed free throws and when Tyrel Reed threw away the basketball with 13 seconds left. Then Tyler Honeycutt squared up, then the entire game depended on his shooting stroke, then it hit me.

Basketball is beautiful.

I prayed he would make it. I wanted to see the union of ball and net. I realized I love KU, but I love basketball more. Basketball is improvisational art. It is spontaneous, and the performances last for two hours, longer if we’re lucky. No single team or player can transcend the joy provided by the actual game; they only contribute to it. That is what happened when Marcus Morris lofted a Todd Reesing pass in transition to Markieff Morris, and it is what happened when Honeycutt pulled up six feet behind the three-point line with a hand in his face and made the shot all of us knew he would make and the shot I wanted him to make so he could prolong the masterpiece he had composed over the last 39 minutes and 50 seconds.

Of course, had the refs not interfered with art, I also wanted Kansas to destroy UCLA in overtime.

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Lavin is perfect for the Storm

Imagine Alumni Hall for just a minute. It’s a Friday afternoon, shortly after lunch time, and the place, situated on the aptly named Utopia Parkway, is packed. A smattering of students mill about the court, bricking three-pointers and lazily checking the man they’re supposed to guard.

This is the rec center, and it is also the same cramped gymnasium where guys like Ron Artest, Eric Barkley and Lavor Postell not only practiced but played a few Big East basketball games.

I love this about St. John’s. It’s small time, only it’s big time. The names – Lou Carnesecca, Chris Mullin, Artest – and the numbers – only six schools have more all-time victories – prove that. Really, St. John’s is Big East basketball, more so than Georgetown, Syracuse, Villanova, Connecticut, any of those schools. There’s more history at St. John’s, more pride.

I started watching the Red Storm when Artest and Barkley played. Later, Postell took over, then Marcus Hatten. He would lead them to the NIT Championship one year and the NCAA Tournament the next. That was 2002, and the Red Storm hasn’t been back since.

After Hatten, Elijah Ingram, a McDonald’s All-American took over as the lead guard. Losses piled, Ingram was charged with a crime and then dismissed from the team, coach Mike Jarvis would lose his job, more losses piled, Norm Roberts was hired, New York ties were supposedly reintroduced, more losses piled; and now when the Red Storm gets brought up in conversation, it’s more likely to get mentioned with South Florida than Georgetown.

***
Who has the hardest job in America?

I began the first journalism assignment of high school with that question. Keep in mind, we didn’t actually learn anything about journalism – i.e. reporting or structure or writing or anything of that nature. So this first assignment was basically a column. It was a column about UCLA coach Steve Lavin.

At first I couldn’t stand Lavin. His slick hair and scratchy weasel voice made John Calipari seem wholesome. He only got the UCLA job because it fell to him after Jim Harrick was charged with NCAA violations and other top assistants like Lorenzo Romar had already found head coaching jobs elsewhere.

Then players from Kansas City started going out west. Lavin recruited JaRon Rush, and one of my all-time favorites, Earl Watson, and I began watching UCLA.

Every year followed the same structure. Lavin’s teams would begin the year with high expectations, a top 25 ranking and a tough schedule. They would slump in the middle before gaining ground at the end and qualifying for the NCAA Tournament, even if it was because they got the Pac-10s automatic berth.

Anyone who watched this season after season could form one of two opinions, the first being that Lavin disappointed. He twice brought the consensus No. 1 recruiting classes to Westwood and never put together a complete season.

The second opinion differs greatly from the first, penciling Lavin as a good coach who couldn’t meet wild expectations. I agreed with this one.

After all, Lavin did his best in the NCAA tourney. His teams advanced to the Sweet 16 five times in six seasons, most of the time upsetting higher seeds along the way. Only Mike Kryszewski and Duke made the same number of Sweet 16s in that stretch.

Of course, this wasn’t enough. John Wooden coached the Bruins, and we all know how he did. Nothing short of Final Fours and national championships wins goodwill from UCLA fans.

So no matter what Lavin did, UCLA wouldn’t accept it. Everyone called him a great recruiter and a terrible coach. He could bring in the talent and then let it lay dormant until it moved on to the NBA.

The placing of his name onto the so-called hot seat became a midseason tradition, a tradition that always ended with those Sweet 16 runs and thus the inability to fire him. I admired how he dealt with the unfairness, persevered, struggled a while again, and then still found some way to bring it all together.

Then came his final year – 2003. The Bruins never had that middle of the year run, and his firing was inevitable. Lavin spoke in the past tense about his time in Westwood. He knew he was finished, and he had no problem admitting it, even embracing it.

But then something strange happened, although with Lavin nothing was entirely strange. UCLA defeated Arizona, the top seed, in the first round of the Pac-10 tournament. Would the Bruins mount another tournament run? It sure looked that way.

In the second round, UCLA held a big lead against Oregon. It was happening again, all the late season theatrics and victories that certainly incensed athletic officials and boosters. Somehow Lavin would save his job.

But that’s not how it worked. UCLA coughed up that lead, and Oregon won 75-74. The Bruins finished the year 10-19. Finally Steve Lavin could be fired.

***
Nobody can win at St. John’s. That’s the sentiment circling around right now; it has been since Mike Jarvis left, a cloud of controversy staying there behind him. Yep, no one can win there. No one can win at Rutgers or Seton Hall either. Schools like them, schools like St. John’s, they’re urban schools.

On the surface, coaching St. John’s would seem like an easy job. You’re based in New York. You’re based in the Mecca of college basketball.

About 20 million people live in that Mecca. Plenty of them grow up playing rec ball in cramped CYO gyms in the winter before bringing the game outside to the famous playgrounds in the summer. The smaller ones become pass-first point guards, and the taller ones develop mean streaks; they become the type of player no one wants to drive against in a game. Yes, the talent is there, but mining it is the hard part.

All the best players from the NYC area generally want to get out of the five boroughs. They don’t want to live in Jamaica, Queens. And outside of the NYC metro, no one has heard of St. John’s or cares about St. John’s. They don’t want to live in Jamaica, Queens, either.

The Red Storm’s last coach, Norm Roberts, knew New York as well as anyone. He was the man who first convinced Russell Robinson to leave the City and come to Kansas. He had connections. He could recruit the public and private schools of New York.
Roberts lasted for six seasons. He never made the NCAA Tournament.

And now here comes Lavin. He probably doesn’t have enough connections to reserve a table at a restaurant in New York City, let alone enough to gain favor among the area high schools.

Most people say this is a problem. How can the coach of a basketball team in New York City survive without any connections? How can a laid-back San Francisco guy inspire the gritty players of the Northeast to come play for him?

Here’s how. Lavin won’t. He won’t get the best players from New York City. He won’t establish deep connections with the city’s high schools. He won’t have to. And he shouldn’t try to.

St. John’s has been milking the New York City route for too long, and it’s a pointless endeavor. All the great connections of Jarvis and Roberts have gotten the Red Storm nowhere except the bottom of the Big East for the last several years.

New York City boys don’t respect St. John’s like they used to. They’ve moved on. St. John’s needs to do the same, and finally did so by hiring Lavin.

Like he did at UCLA, Lavin will recruit from all over the country and probably still largely on the West Coast. There’s no question it will be tougher. This will be a challenge.

But, remember, Lavin once held the hardest job in America. His new job fits into that same category, and there are few others more prepared for such a challenge.

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Finally Four…

So here it is, Saturday night of the Final Four. Four teams. Two games. Two spots in the national title game on Monday night.

There are those who love the Super Bowl. There are those who worship Sunday at the Masters. There are those who would pick the Kentucky Derby or the World Series or the NBA Finals.

But for me, this is the best sports day of the year.

What other day gives you TWO games in the same venue. Four legions of fans, all in the same building. Close to five hours of college basketball at the highest level.

I love everything about the Final Four. I love the storylines and the cheesy music and Jim Nantz on the microphone.

And I love all the stories that come out of the ultimate hoops festival.

Love the fact that you might step into an elevator with David Robinson. Love the fact that you might see legendary Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan strolling around a hotel lobby at 8:30 in the morning, looking like an old man trying to get an early start on his day of sightseeing.

Love the fact that you might randomly walk past a restaurant patio as former UCLA star Ed O’Bannon takes his seat (and a group of UCLA fans begins an impromptu chant of “EDDIE-O, EDDIE-O, EDDIE-O”).

Love the fact that you might randomly see former Wisconsin center Brian Butch walking down the street by himself and think — hey, it’s Brian Butch.

Love the college three-point and dunk contests that take place during Final Four weekend.*

*The following exchange took place during the college dunk contest at this year’s Final Four in Indianapolis.

Chris Roberts, who was a senior at Bradley this past season, had just thrown down a sick dunk and ESPN reporter Holly Rowe was waiting on the sidelines to interview him.

Rowe: So, Chris, what do you have to do to win this thing?
Roberts: Just go out, and keep making dunks

Well, sure… makes sense.

And lastly, I love the fact that you might accidentally pick a fight with a player from one of the Final Four teams just hours before the games begin.*

*All these things happened to me while I was at the 2008 Final Four in San Antonio, but the last one was the best. I was walking around the Riverwalk with Mark Dent and Daily Kansan photographer Jon Goering, and we stopped outside in a small patio area.

Of course, the talk turned to KU’s game against North Carolina, which would take place later on that night. We were half-heartedly breaking down North Carolina’s team, and Mark and I came to the consensus that the Tar Heels’ Danny Green was ridiculously overrated.

Then, as Mark blurted aloud that he thought Green more or less sucked, we turned around and saw Green standing just 10 feet away from us with a kid who looked like his younger brother.

Two things crossed my mind:

1. I really hope Danny Green didn’t hear us.
2. What the hell is Green doing here? KU plays North Carolina in like five hours.

But there’s still one thing that gives the Final Four its soul. And it’s the players.

You probably know that Kansas’ Cole Aldrich is leaving school early to enter the NBA Draft.

He announced his decision earlier this week at a press conference in Lawrence.

Aldrich had a pretty remarkable career at Kansas. He had a triple-double against Dayton in the 2009 NCAA Tournament. He never lost a game at Allen Fieldhouse. And he was a third-team All-American as a junior.

Still, as Aldrich reflected on three years at Kansas during his “I’m going to the NBA” press conference, I wonder if he thought about the night he went from little-used freshman to Kansas legend. The night he stepped off the bench and outplayed North Carolina’s national player of the year, Tyler Hansbrough, in front of the entire nation.

I can still remember the look on Aldrich face after Kansas took down Hansbrough and Roy Williams and the rest of the Tar Heels.

…The look on his face as he was asked about ripping a rebound from the clutches of Hansbrough.

It was a mix of pride and satisfaction and joy.

And that’s the Final Four. I can’t wait.

(Editor’s Note – Here is what I wrote about Aldrich on the night oh his coming-out party against North Carolina)

*****

SAN ANTONIO | Once upon a time, Cole Aldrich was an afterthought, the fourth big man off the bench — just another big body at Kansas’ coach Bill Self’s disposal.

On Saturday night against North Carolina, Aldrich etched his name onto the list of greatest relief performances in Kansas basketball history.

Kansas’ freshman center scored eight points and grabbed seven rebounds off the bench in Kansas’ 84-66 victory against North Carolina, including one board which Aldrich snatched from the clutches of North Carolina All-American Tyler Hansbrough.

“I wasn’t gonna let go,” Aldrich said.

Aldrich’s supporting performance may go down in Kansas lore if the Jayhawks follow up their Saturday night victory with a victory and a national title on Monday.

And oddly enough, Self saw it coming.

Earlier this week Self corrected a reporter who had asked how important Darnell Jackson, Sasha Kaun and Darrell Arthur would be in Kansas’ attempt to contain North Carolina forward Tyler Hansbrough. Don’t forget about Cole, Self reminded.

Self’s prophecy came true.

“He may have won the game for us tonight as much as anybody,” Self said.

With seniors Sasha Kaun and Darnell Jackson both committing two early fouls, Bill Self faced a coaching calamity. Send Cole Aldrich, who averaged 8.1 minutes per game during the regular season, on to the floor to guard Hansbrough, the Tar Heels leading scorer and the AP National Player of the Year.

No sweat.

Aldrich responded with 13 first half minutes played, six points during Kansas’ fun-n-gun first half, and one rebound that Aldrich couldn’t help by smile about.

With 10 minutes left in the first half, and Kansas leading 31-10, Aldrich sprung from floor and ripped the ball away from a bewildered Hansbrough.

“Tyler usually outworks someone, but tonight, he got outworked,” Rush said.

Aldrich, along with help from Kaun, Jackson and Arthur held Hansbrough to 17 point and nine rebounds, a shade below his usual averages of 23.7 points and 11.5 rebounds per game.

“I don’t think he was quite used to four guys that can hold their own,” Aldrich said.

The Kansas frontcourt also controlled the glass, shouldering a 42-33 rebound advantage against their frontcourt foes from North Carolina.

“We knew we had to keep them off the glass to win the game,” Aldrich said.

Aldrich’s 6-foot-10 frame stood tall in Kansas’ victorious locker room, searching for words to describe his nation-wide coming-out party.

Aldrich finally settled on calling it,”…a blast.”

Kansas junior Matt Kleinnmann, sitting 35 feet to Aldrich’s left, had his own take on Aldrich’s first Final Four performance.

“He played like a man tonight,” Kleinnmann said.

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