Down 68-65 with 1:16 left in regulation of a second round NCAA game at Providence's Dunkin' Donuts Center, Villanova called time out. We'll never really know exactly what was drawn up in that huddle, but what emerged was a play that only a team full of McDonald's All-Americans could ever execute.
A thin blue wall of Saint Mary's defense faced the Wildcat guards. As they flung the ball around the perimeter, draining the clock down, each player took the ball in hand and freed a pivot foot. The calculations were written in each of their faces, you could see it. For each of them, for those few seconds, the scoreboard and the situation and their teammates and the coach fell away... each was trying to map a path to the basket, figuring out how they were going to be the hero, imagining how their SportsCenter highlight would look that night. A face-up three, or an explosive and-one?
But the possession ended emphatically 35 seconds after it began; Villanova's hubris and selfishness were punished accordingly. An awkward Reggie Redding jumper was stuffed by the Gaels' not-so-gentle giant, 6-11 senior Omar Samhan. This No. 2-vs.-10 contest was the early Saturday broadcast on CBS, and as such was the only game on, viewed by an entire nation. "Samhan," on the strength of 32 points and 13-for-16 floor shooting, became a trending topic on Twitter. America had a new larger-than-life March basketball hero, another Bryce Drew, Jermaine Wallace, or Harold Arceneaux.
It is the pattern and custom of the modern American sports press to locate superstars, lift them up for public consumption. But there are many undercurrents of discussion in Our Game, like the language of the basketball lifer; it's far more arcane and difficult to communicate on television. In the media dining area after the Gaels' first-round game against Richmond, I came across a collection of older gentlemen in logo sweatsuits excitedly chattering, one scribbling on a napkin. They were trying to diagram a play Saint Mary's had run, and disagreeing on the spacing.
At halftime of the Villanova game, I saw Ted "WOW"
Sarandis, a longtime Boston radio host, current BC voice and former Celtics announcer who's spent much of his career selling the city on the excitement of college sports.
"This is a very, very special team, Kyle," he said, his voice charged with emotion, his eyes moistening a bit as he spoke. "I haven't seen a team at the college level in 50 years that can run offense so well without putting the ball on the floor."
Watching Saint Mary's is indeed a lot like watching those old Celtics teams, the ones we grew up with in the Northeast, with five players blending their talents perfectly. It's also like watching those late-night Euroleague games, the system-ball that looks so elegant even in watery 480p. It's like watching the Olympic tournament; because of that famous Australian Institute of Sport pipeline
that dates back to the Daniel Kickert era, that's not a stretch. What the Gaels are putting out there can't be measured by sportzwriting, or efficiency numbers, or the 1,000-word web missive. This Saint Mary's team is so good, it's liable to make grown men cry.
"Euroball," with its premium on flowing weaves and double screens, was highly effective against the me-first American version for an entire generation -- that is, until two years ago in Beijing, when Coach K and an NBA All-Star team pummeled it into the ground with sheer same-page athleticism. There's still a lot of resentment towards the foreign game; some call it "Pussyball" for its reliance on basket-facing big men with finesse post moves. There are a few mid-major teams who've tried the foreign way, but when you can't get the players to properly run it, it's a real good way for a coach to get fired.
Randy Bennett has done very well with its Aussie shooters, hanging with Gonzaga at the top of the West Coast Conference for the last few years. But it's the extra layer of American-style post play that has made these recent versions great. The hybrid. Last year, Samhan and Diamon Simpson combined to create the best frontcourt tandem in mid-majordom
. But that 2008-09 team never clicked on all its available cylinders. We never wish to speak ill of absent friends, especially ones who were so kind to us, but the star-driven media had this one wrong. You can't have the Beautiful Game when one guy
is taking 16 shots a game, jacking eight three attempts every time out, shooting just 39 percent, and turning in a raft of games with flat assist-to-turnover ratios. Nobody else is going to say it out loud, but this team is better without Patty Mills.
But all year, Saint Mary's has been defined by what they lost, not what they are. There are seven freshmen on this roster. And they've had their youthful struggles. When I went out west in February, I saw the Gaels rattled to the core by a Gonzaga run out of halftime, then mentally destroyed by a red-clad student section hungry for basketball blood after camping out all week for tickets. That 19-point blowout
carried through to a wide loss to Portland two nights later. Since a team meeting where everybody agreed to trust in the system, they haven't lost -- and four of those seven were elimination games.
And that system is beautiful -- the ball flowing from hand to hand, players moving without the ball in perfect time. It's a system with dynamism and different looks; Bennett can load the floor with shooters like Matthew Dellavedova (with his messy hair and mouthguard) and deadeye Mickey McConnell, or play twin-towers with Samhan and classic world-style big Ben Allen. He has an array of interesting chess pieces like mid-sized Clint Steindl and Mitchell Young. I can't take my eyes off of this team, and I don't fully understand all of this positioning and spacing myself, and that's why I followed Saint Mary's to Houston.
On Thursday, the team ran through a breezy practice in the huge American-Style Football stadium that will host the 2011 Final Four. Just checking the sightlines. Samhan, who has been enjoying every second of this week, jumped off the floor to a cluster of reporters. (Which I'm still getting used to -- in my trips to Moraga over the past few years, he'd always impressed me as a big angry guy.) NCAA representatives rushed over to break up the impromptu interview -- that's what the official press conference is for, guys. Up on the raised court, the 6-4 Dellavedova did his best Omar "The Beast" impression -- arms outstretched, lifting his legs demonstratively as he walked -- while his teammates doubled over laughing. Rawwwr!
The five teams from our side of the Red Line all reached the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 because they've found their own solutions to a difficult problem: how to compete with schools and programs with far more available resources. How to do more with less. Northern Iowa
uses unshakable calm that serves them well during both humdrum mid-season moments and the grinding crucible of the Big Dance. Cornell's
run was pure coincidence and magic, the right time and the right place. Butler
, the first team from the Horizon League ever to reach the Elite 8, does so by handing its tradition to the next generation of Bulldogs, over and over. And Xavier
cracked the code: spend 30 percent of a limited budget on men's basketball, and success will surely follow. (The other programs at the school will reap the benefits too.
Saint Mary's has chosen a foreign style and a link to Down Under, and has reached its highest heights with a dangerous hybrid of the American and the Elsewhere. But there are 242 teams from our side of the financial Red Line that didn't make it this far, who were the victims of statistics when they took their own shots against the big boys (the richest eight conferences still win 83 percent of Line-crosser games). They have work to do in solving the puzzle.
And it's true that circumstances are changing, and that the door is open for more upsets, more chances, more glory. It's getting harder for the richest teams to maintain their traditions, because selfishness is undercutting any chance for Butler-like continuity. We've seen this coming since Season 2.
"The gap has closed in college basketball, it's been closing," Bennett said at Thursday's press conference. "The NBA All-Stars, the starters in the pros, those guys get plucked out of college pretty quick... you don't see teams that have James Worthy, Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins as juniors or seniors anymore. That is how the mid-majors are closing the gap on the high-majors. The highest of the high-majors can still get the McDonald's All-Americans... Villanova had six of them, and we don't have one."
And which one of those two teams is still playing?Top photo: AP