Game 014:Central Connecticut State 60, at LaSalle 48 Wednesday, December 8, 2004 Tom Gola Arena - Philadelphia, PA
The Jimmy V Classic, a doubleheader of high-profile games designed to be shown on a certain national sports television outlet, was held the other day up at Madison Square Garden. Unfortunately, the famous award-show speech given by its late, great namesake has been diluted and deadened by endless looped repetition, but the annual New York event is always a good time for the people who knew Coach V to haul out their stories.
My favorite Jim Valvano anecdote is the one Digger Phelps likes to tell. In 1991, about a year before he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Jimmy led his Wolfpack into battle against ACC rival Clemson. The Tigers had future NBA star Dale Davis, and he was absolutely tearing N.C. State to shreds that night. Out of a time out early in the second half, Coach V decided to try a different defensive scheme in an attempt to contain Davis: a box and one.
But this wasn't any ordinary B+1 - the "one" was six-foot tall Chris Corchianni. While the other four guys set up in a zone, Corchianni ran around the floor like a maniac, covering a guy who had almost a foot's worth of height on him. And would you believe that it worked? N.C. State slowly crawled back into the game, and ended up winning.
When I saw Central Connecticut State for the first time last season, it was on a cold January night in the toasty, cozy confines of Monmouth's Boylan Gym. The Blue Devils had come into the season as Northeast Conference favorites, but the team was quickly unraveling. They'd lost four in a row and were frustratedly spiralling towards the league's basement, and the players were bickering amongst themselves. I was close enough to the bench that night that I could hear go-to guy Ron Robinson scream at his teammates, "Why can't you motherfuckas get me the damn ball?"
Even if they were able to, it wouldn't have mattered. Monmouth drove through CCSU's confused and tattered defense for layup after easy layup, and the Hawks won going away, 78-61. Coach Howie Dickerman set up a 6 a.m. practice the next morning as punishment.
When next I saw Central play, it was at the NEC tournament hosted by Wagner College. The team had picked up the pieces with eight February victories (including a return spank job on Monmouth five days after the Jersey shore debacle), and had snuck in as a seven-seed. Robinson was presented with the conference player-of-the-year award before the quarterfinal tilt against St. Francis (NY), and the Devils proceeded to thrash the two-seed to a jaunty 81-68 tune. They did it with balanced scoring and a focused defensive effort that targeted SFNY's leading scorer John Quintana - he ended up with 25 points, but he needed 20 shots to get them. Quintana had fallen victim to the box and one.
CCSU went on to beat the third-seeded Fairleigh-Dickinson Knights as well, but their luck ran out in the conference title game - once again held at Monmouth. Dickerman's Devils finished 14-14 on the year, but had resuscitated what had looked like a lost season in that very same building just over a month before. Well, you know what Coach V said about never, ever giving up and all that.
Robinson graduated and earned himself a pro contract playing for a first-division club team in Belgium, so this year's CCSU squad is a bunch of Men Without Stars. They were 1-3 going into last night's road game with LaSalle, their only embarrassing loss coming against Niagara. Just like the team I saw rocking the NEC tournament, they Do It With Defense, and they gave the Explorers their first cruel taste of what their Atlantic 10 season has in store.
LaSalle's hoops program, as has been previously mentioned here, has been torn asunder by scandal and various types of forced retirements. But there had been a warming glimmer of hope in their home upset against Southern California, a game that wound up costing Trojan coach Henry Bibby his job. They have a big-time player in muscular and athletic Steven Smith, who dropped 27 on USC and had given Penn all the bust-a-move action they could handle at Philly's Big Five Classic just four days previous.
Stopping Smith was CCSU's focus this night, and they fashioned a perfect plan to do so. Their zone didn't try to disrupt passing lanes and keep him from getting the ball, but big trouble arrived when he did receive the rock. When the guards got him the ball down low, the zone collapsed into a stiff-backed 1-1-3 that left him with a man to beat even if he got past the initial double-team. And when he tried to show versatility with perimeter play, then out came the box.
And would you believe that it worked? Smith, who had averaged 24 points a game over LaSalle's first four contests, was only able to muster eight lousy shots. And he connected on only two of them. If this was a dance party (and for a while during halftime, it was), then I'd have to say that he got served.
When you set up four players in a square around the key and have one guy running around playing hitman, you leave yourself vulnerable - to somebody else getting hot popping jumpers, or to a mobile big guy driving the lane a lot and shredding the undermanned zone like toilet paper. Due to LaSalle's unsophisticated single-pronged attack, no such quibbling issues presented themselves. The garbage time started early, and the game itself was completed in a crisp and efficient hour-and-thirty-five.
For some reason, the Tom Gola Arena had run out of programs before I arrived, so I was unable to tell the new CCSU contributors apart in their blue nameless jerseys. On the offensive end, they appeared as like jackrabbits on trampolines, small men jumping high to nail jumper after jumper (69% shooting in the first half), and the boxscore tells me that Obie Nwadike led all scorers with 17.
The Explorers, for their part, only hit 17 field goals (10 of them three-bombs over the zone). It's also worth noting that the outsized Devils outrebounded their larger opposition by a whopping 33-22 margin - an extra-sweet bonus benefit resulting from the Explorers' vain attempts to stretch the zone with excess spacing.
There were few people left in the stands at game's end, certainly not enough to give the Explorers a proper Philadelphian round of boos. The players shuffled listlessly off the court, their shoulders drooped and gazes fixed to the floor. The book on how to defeat them had been written and published. Any and all optimism from the USC win had evaporated, and the cruel reality of their fate was setting in. LaSalle's near-term destiny is to be beat, and beat badly, and it will likely happen over and over again before the current campaign is through.
But the season is long, they don't play the games on paper, and you never know what can or will happen during any given forty minutes of basketball... perhaps even a miracle or two. No season is truly lost until it's over - just look at the 2003-04 CCSU Blue Devils, who went from last place to a single game away from NCAA Tournament glory in just five short weeks.
Pessimism is an inhibiting force, and it can be defeated. It's like Jimmy V always used to say: "If you don't know how to dream, you're dead."