by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

INDIANAPOLIS — The game had the awkwardness of a teenager learning to dance, the stickiness of wet paint, the color of an unripe banana. Whacks, pokes, dumb passes, ill-advised shots. It simply was not polished basketball
— the inevitable problem with inexperienced feet being asked to walk the highest rope.

And yet . . .

And yet, when a title is on the line, even mistakes, bumbled shots and dribbles off the knee take on a furious importance, and you find yourself pacing, shivering, pushing your hands on your thighs, inhaling through your teeth, waiting, like everyone else, to see who has the last laugh in the Big Dance.

Bad basketball. Great drama. And in the end, it was the challenger, not the champion, that staggered across the line, holding the crown, in front of 47,028 exhausted onlookers.

“This is one tough group of cats,” said a relieved Lute Olson, after his Arizona Wildcats completed an unlikely string of upsets, finally knocking off the defending champions from Kentucky in overtime, 84-79, to capture the national championship. “I told my guys in the locker room, the toughest team is going to win this game.”

Hmm. Did you need to be tough, or have an iron stomach? Arizona won while shooting 38 percent, and turning the ball over 18 times. The game’s Most Outstanding Player was a junior guard named Miles Simon — named for Miles Davis, the jazz trumpet player — which was appropriate, since you had to improvise in a war-zone game such as this.

Simon improvised almost every time he had the ball, ducking, twisting, spinning, dipping, running down the lane for one-handed tosses that fell through the net with the ease of an executive tossing paper wads at a trash can.

“I always dreamed of this, and I think we just wanted it more!” Simon gushed afterward. He had the look — and the game — of a guy named Jalen Rose. Only, unlike Rose, Simon turned his unexpected Final Four appearance into a championship cap that now sat on his shaved head.

He finished with 30 points, most of them creative drives. He also made 14 free throws. And at the buzzer, he fell to the floor, cradling the ball. Over the years, he had come to six Final Fours, just to see how it all worked. Maybe he learned that the team that wins is usually the one that keeps its head.

It wasn’t easy in this game.

Why, in the overtime period alone, Arizona’s top scorer for the season was on the bench, the star player for Kentucky fouled out, the first five free throws clanked, there wasn’t a basket in the first three minutes, and on a single play, Arizona threw up an air ball and followed with a heave to beat the shot clock. Neither shot hit the rim.

And they won!

It was every up-and-down pickup game you’ve ever seen, only it was for the national title. Which may tell you where we are with this game.

Different, yet similar

Now, most Final Four championships create a clash of opposites, and Monday night was supposed to be no different. Oh, sure, they were both called Wildcats. But the clear favorite was Kentucky, the defending champion, No. 1-seeded team that was threatening to become the closest thing to a dynasty that college basketball sees these days. The underdog was Arizona, a 15th-ranked, fourth-seeded, loser-of-nine-games team with an ugly habit, before this year, of exiting the tournament before its band arrived.

Champ on one side, challenger on the other, easy to tell the difference, right?

Maybe not. The fact is both teams were very fast. Both relied on young players to complement the older ones. Both knew how to intimidate with swatting defense.

And so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that it was Arizona — not Kentucky — that made the first and second steals of the game. And that it was Arizona — not Kentucky — that moved faster up the floor. And that it was Arizona — not Kentucky — that seemed loose, almost too loose, despite the fact that this was the first championship game for any of them.

“Honestly, we didn’t think we had a great chance coming in,” said Mike Bibby, who epitomized the makeshift nature of this game, grabbing loose balls and throwing them up for baskets. “We were more geared for getting here next year. But we had nothing to lose.”

Kentucky did. And by the second half, it began to crumble. The Wildcats weren’t shooting the way they usually do. Their famous press wasn’t rattling Arizona. Their starters were less effective than the bench players. And Ron Mercer, their star, was clearly slowed by something — perhaps the cramps he suffered in Saturday’s semifinals — and he made just five baskets all night. Gradually, the Kentucky players began heading for the bench with foul trouble
(four would foul out.)

The last gasp of glory for Rick Pitino’s team was Anthony Epps’ three-pointer at the end of regulation, which sent the game to overtime. But Kentucky was dragging, and it showed. It never really threatened after that.

“Hey, I’d like to win the damn thing every year,” said Rick Pitino, “but they just played better than we did in the overtime. And if it couldn’t be us, I’m happy for a peer like Lute Olson. This is good for him to win.”

You could say that again. Olson, a button-down guy, had several opportunities to take the Kentucky job himself over the years, but stayed in Arizona because of family. He suffered a reputation as a guy who wasted great regular seasons with terrible first-round losses in the tournament. Of course, Olson’s three first-round exits were trumpeted far more than his three Final Four appearances, or his 13 straight Big Dance invitations.

“He was bound to win one,” said Bibby, his freshman point guard, “and I’m so happy we won for him in my first year.”

“I know I’ll probably go to my grave with people talking about the losses,” Olson said. “I still have difficulty believing this has happened.”

No wonder. He beat three No. 1 seeds to take this crown — upsetting Kansas, everyone’s favorite, then North Carolina and finally, Kentucky. That should silence his critics.

Top Cats.

All’s not well

And yet, the Wildcats’ impressive run doesn’t take away from the problems the game is facing. It’s been a strange time for college basketball. The excitement seems to be tilted more than ever toward the last weekend of the season, with everything that comes before — the regular season, the conference tournaments, even the first four rounds of the tournament — no longer providing the unflappable interest it once did.

Make no mistake, the TV networks still try to play the Big Dance as Camelot. They have Dick Vitale and Digger Phelps and Billy Packer screaming as if their paychecks depend on it, which of course they do. But there’s a difference between making a lot of noise and having something to say.

All you need to know about the eroding face of college basketball was out there Monday night in the form of Mercer, Kentucky’s sophomore forward. Mercer was the only player on the floor this year who scored in last year’s championship game — and that was a game he didn’t even start.

Yet by last month, Mercer, 20, had announced his planned departure from Kentucky. Departure? He hadn’t even played a full season as a starter. It wasn’t even the end of the year. Yet he was leaving. With his coach’s blessing. With his fans resigned to such announcements.

And on Monday night, the announcers spoke about him going out with a bang in his final college game -as if this was ripened end to a long, prosperous career. He’s only a sophomore! And nobody seems to find that unusual anymore!

Is it any wonder that the championship was plagued by bad shots, fundamental mistakes, overaggressive shooting, players leaving the floor before making a pass, throwing the ball away, hacking, falling, flailing? Sure, some of that is nerves and style. But if you ask me, it’s more about trying to build a system when players keep leaving every couple of years. Add to that the problem of coaches jumping jobs, and players who treat academics as something to be endured, not absorbed — even Simon, the MVP, missed the first 11 games of the year because he was academically ineligible — and, well, you can’t really describe this as a healthy sport. No matter how much yelling Billy Packer does.

“It wasn’t a classic game,” Olson admitted, “but for excitement, effort, defense — for the kind of game it was — I may be a little biased, but it seemed like it had everything you could ask for.”

That it did. From great shots and great rebounds to whacks, pokes, grabs, shoves, bumps, slips and steals. In a battle between two teams called Wildcats, you expect scratches and cuts. And in a year in which the college game seems to be drying up, maybe it’s not a shock that the champion comes from the desert.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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