Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Hawk's Flight Plan

Connie Hawkins’ career arc is unrivalled by any other basketball player. As detailed in David Wolf’s essential biography “Foul,” Hawkins was at turns a New York City schoolyard legend, a prized recruit, a semiliterate college freshman at Iowa, a player wrongly linked to a betting scandal, a nomad in the backwoods of professional basketball, a Globetrotter, an ABA luminary, a successful litigant against the NBA and, finally, a rightful star on equal footing with the best players of his era.

How is it that Hollywood can churn out hoops dreck like “Semi-Pro” and let a compelling story like Hawkins’ go unfilmed?

Fortunately, there is film of Hawkins’ games. A Christmas Day matchup between Hawkins’ Phoenix Suns and the Atlanta Hawks in 1970 provides an interesting parallel to the story of “The Hawk.”

Although listed as the power forward, Hawkins jumped center against the Hawks’ Walt Bellamy instead of Phoenix big man Neal Walk. That was a testament to the physical prowess of Hawkins, who stood 6 feet 8 inches with impossibly long arms. He was a shy and gangly youth in the slums of Bed-Stuy, but grew into his body and became an All-American at Boys High. In the summers, Hawkins would prove his wares on blacktops around New York City, including the early incarnation of the Rucker Tournament that featured the top pros of the day.

Against Atlanta, Hawkins won the tap but little else went right in the first quarter. He picked up three fouls in the first three minutes of the game. Amazingly, Suns coach Cotton Fitzsimmons didn’t give Hawkins the quick hook. He played the whole first quarter but missed all four shots he took, and his already-skeptical defense was reduced to matador-like so he wouldn’t get another foul. Phoenix’s leading scorer was forced to sit the second quarter and watch as another hoops prodigy, Hawks rookie Pete Maravich, keep Atlanta in the game.

Hawkins was used to things unraveling quickly. After he arrived at Iowa in 1960, he was ill-prepared for the rigors of college after being passed through high school strictly on account of his basketball skills. Matters got much worse when Hawkins was implicated in a nationwide gambling probe, mostly on account of a few conversations with Jack Molinas, a nefarious former pro baller-turned-lawyer with deep ties to the underworld. (Again, this isn’t a movie?) Hawkins was scooped up in Iowa by NYPD detectives, warehoused in a fleabag hotel and forced into marathon interrogation sessions.

Under intense pressure, Hawkins admitted to taking a loan from Molinas (true, but the money was paid back in full) and also to introducing players to a key gambler in the point-shaving case (this was not true and stated under coercion). Hawkins, who had to be told by detectives what point shaving was, didn’t face any charges, but the stain would mar his career for eight years. Kicked out of Iowa and blacklisted by the NBA, Hawkins played in the short-lived ABL, then had an unhappy stint with the Harlem Globetrotters. His fortunes started to change when he landed with the Pittsburgh Pipers for the initial season of the ABA in 1967-’68. Hawkins, with the help of some Pittsburgh lawyers, also filed suit against the NBA for blackballing him from the league. Hawkins finally won his case in 1969 and became a 27-year-old rookie with the Phoenix Suns after eight years in exile.

Hawkins finally hit his first shot against the Hawks with eight minutes left in the third quarter to give Phoenix a 69-62 lead. Typically, the late 20s are the prime years of an NBA player, but Hawkins was a hard 28 years old in that second season. Years of abject poverty and malnutrition in his youth, coupled with the pounding of his legs on concrete in street games and the endless barnstorming days with the Globetrotters, had wracked Hawkins’ body. He started having knee problems in the ABA and by common consent was never quite the same player. But he was still crafty with the ball and could score with the best in the game, and he dropped eight points in the third quarter against the Hawks.

Hawkins’ best assets were his abnormally large hands. Wilt Chamberlain said in “Foul” that he and Hawkins were the only players that could completely palm the ball, and indeed the rock looked like a grapefruit in the Hawk’s grasp. That allowed him superior ball control, and on the first possession of the fourth quarter Hawkins swooped in for a three-point play over Bellamy. The rout was on after that, and Hawkins finished with 20 points in the second half of the Suns’ 127-115 victory.

That was the exact average for Hawkins in his second NBA season. He played five more years after that, with dwindling success as his body continued to give up on him. He was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992. Hawkins had made it to the mountaintop, and that tale of perseverance is worthy of Hollywood.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Battle Of Ideas

It’s a basketball tenet as old as the game itself: Force the opponent to play your team’s style. That’s made for some interesting cultural clashes over the years.

The Rick Pitino-helmed Kentucky teams and the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay squads of the early to mid-1990s were known for their distinctive styles, which were at different poles of the tempo spectrum. Pitino’s teams forced the fast pace with quick three-pointers on offense and a frenetic full-court press on defense. Green Bay was known for its physical man-to-man defense and deliberate offensive sets that ate a good chunk out of the shot clock.

So tempo was to be the watchword when the teams met in an odd non-conference game at Rupp Arena on Dec. 6, 1995. It was the home opener for the Wildcats, who had the perfect storm of players for Pitino’s hellish attack. A remarkable nine players on that Kentucky team would eventually log time in the NBA. Green Bay was coached by Mike Heideman, but the Phoenix still bore the indelible imprint of former coach Dick Bennett, who had moved on to the University of Wisconsin after the previous season.

Given the talent disparity, it was incredible that Green Bay would grab control of the pace at the beginning of the game. The Phoenix’s defense suffocated the Wildcats on the first possession, forcing a skinny Antoine Walker to miss a jumper with the shot clock running low. Then on offense, Green Bay worked the ball around and freed sharpshooter Jeff Nordgaard off a screen for a wide open 20-footer and a 2-0 lead against one of the top teams in the nation.

This wasn’t the kind of game Pitino envisioned, and Tony Delk responded to the Phoenix’s shot across the bow by fast-forwarding down the court and launching a three-pointer.

That was all it took for the game to turn on a dime. After Delk’s shot went in, Kentucky was able to set up that back-breaking press. The result was two straight turnovers for the Phoenix and an 8-2 lead for the Wildcats.

A three-pointer and dunk by Nordgaard kept Green Bay close at 10-7, but that press soon overwhelmed the Phoenix. The turnovers kept coming and soon Kentucky was holding a 22-point lead. If Bennett was still coaching the Phoenix, his head might have spontaneously combusted.

Green Bay collected itself with a few minutes to spare in the second half, leading to a mini-run that made it 38-24 at halftime. The Wildcats had forced the possession-obsessed Phoenix into 15 turnovers in the first 20 minutes.

The Phoenix had to get back to comfortable ground. Green Bay was fortunate to have the ball to start the second half, and again worked the shot clock down before Matt Hill sank a jumper. Kentucky was forced into a turnover and couldn’t set up its press, and another Hill jumper got the Phoenix within 38-28.

But Delk turned the tide again for the Wildcats. Another three-pointer by “Tony Buckets” set up a run by Kentucky that built its lead back up to 18. It was a vicious cycle against the Wildcats: turnovers begat Kentucky points that begat the press that begat more points and around again.

This was a tough, veteran-laded Green Bay team that had been in two consecutive NCAA tournaments. Some key pieces were still around from the team that upset Jason Kidd and California in 1994, including Nordgaard, who looked like the best player on the floor. The power forward, who later had a cup of java with the Milwaukee Bucks, hit 7 of 8 shots in the second half, finished with a game-high 29 points, helped handle the ball against the press and banged down low against Walker and Walter McCarty.

Nordgaard helped get the pesky Phoenix back in the game at 70-60, but Anthony Epps hit a back-breaking three and Kentucky was able to win, 74-62. The Wildcats’ overwhelming talent allowed them to quicken the tempo and put together enough runs to stave off the Phoenix.

Kentucky would lose one time the rest of the season (to Mississippi State in the SEC championship game). The Wildcats then rolled to the NCAA title and laid claim to being one of the best teams in recent memory. Green Bay, secure that they could at least hang with elite teams, would win their next 23 games and reach the AP Top 25 for the first time in school history. However, high expectations for the Phoenix were deflated in the post-season, with losses to Detroit in the MCC tournament and Virginia Tech in the first round of the NCAA.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Doubting Thomas

Athletes, especially professional basketball players, are known to use any perceived slight, however minor, as motivation for a run-of-the mill game. Michael Jordan is famously the game’s most frequent practitioner of this logic.

But what happens when there is actual, blatant disrespect to a great player? Probably the best example of this came on Nov. 15, 1991, when Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons hosted John Stockton and the Utah Jazz at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

Two months earlier, the first 10 roster spots to the U.S. Olympic Team had been named. For the first time in Olympics history NBA players would be allowed to participate, and a squad that featured Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson was quickly dubbed “The Dream Team.” Two spots on the roster still were open, but at least one was reserved for a college player.

Stockton made the list. But the most conspicuous absence was Thomas, who had been voted to every All-Star Game since 1982 and was a three-time member of the first-team All-NBA. Thomas’ own coach with the Pistons, Chuck Daly, was charged with overseeing the collection of talent. It was an out-and-out slap in the face to Thomas, but the snub couldn’t have been seen as completely unexpected.

Thomas had issues with the three most famous faces of the Dream Team. There were rumors, still unconfirmed, that Thomas had led an offensive “freeze out” of a then-rookie Jordan at the 1985 All-Star Game. In 1987, Thomas caused a media furor when he stated that if Bird were black he would be just another above-average player and not a superstar. Johnson was vociferously against putting Thomas on the Olympic team after Magic’s former close friend questioned Johnson’s sexuality in the wake of the star’s announcement that he was HIV-positive.

Thomas was stung and embarrassed by the exclusion, and took it out on the Jazz and Stockton. The Pistons guard began the eighth game of his 11th season with the energy of an undrafted free agent.

On the Jazz’s first possession, Thomas hungrily chased Stockton around a maze of screens until Stockton drained a 16-footer as the shot clock wound down. Thomas was visibly upset that he let Stockton score, and from that point on Isiah seemed to steel his resolve to show up the USA Basketball selection committee.

Thomas missed his first shot — an 18-foot jumper on the baseline — but on the Pistons’ next offensive possession, Thomas got a pick from Bill Laimbeer and blew by Jazz center Mark Eaton before making a twisting layup around Jeff Malone.

The basket was wide open for Thomas after that. His next points came on a long jumper where a wide-open Thomas actually waited for Stockton so he could drain it over one of the game’s best defensive guards. Thomas had nine points in the first period, and also a couple of turnovers in trying to force a spectacular pass. Joe Dumars even ran the point for the Pistons on several possessions so Thomas could look for a shot.

Thomas took an extended rest in the second quarter, but scored six points in the final three minutes before halftime. The game really heated up in the third quarter, when the teams combined for 77 points. There was no mistaking that Thomas was looking to embarrass Stockton. Thomas scored 16 points in the quarter, making all seven of his field-goal attempts as the Pistons took an 87-82 lead into the final quarter.

Thomas never seemed to say anything or bring attention to the fact that he was torching Stockton. Isiah had Dennis Rodman for that. Stockton and Rodman got tangled up on a screen, with the notoriously dirty Stockton tripping Rodman on the roll. Rodman grabbed Stockton on the way down, then the pair exchanged elbows on the court. That ignited a classic NBA scrum with players milling about and threatening each other with half-hearted pushes. Jazz coach Jerry Sloan had to be restrained from going after Rodman, who was ejected after making one free throw then pointing at Sloan.

Stockton was spurred on by all the emotion in this game. He scored 10 points in the fourth quarter, including a three-pointer that cut the Pistons’ lead to 110-104. But with 1:40 left in the game, Thomas cleared the right side of the court to go one-on-one with Stockton. After employing some nasty shake-and-bake moves, Thomas sank a long jumper over Stockton to give Detroit a 114-107 lead.

The Pistons held on for a 123-115 victory, and Thomas added two free throws to finish with 44 points, three shy of his career high set in 1983 during the NBA’s highest-scoring game. Stockton had 20 points and 13 assists.

Of course, after the game there were the usual platitudes by the Pistons that this was just another game. Thomas took 22 shots, well above his average that season of 16 FGA per game, and also got to the line for 16 free throws.

This was not just another game, and the Jazz certainly remembered it. One month later, the Jazz’s Karl Malone, another Dream Teamer, fouled Thomas hard on a layup, resulting in 40 stitches. The Pistons crowed that it was retribution for Thomas embarrassing Stockton.

Thomas might have proven his point that he was still among the game’s elite, but the manner he went about it was consistent with his contentious personality. Thomas’ conflictive nature kept him from being one of the first 10 players named to the Dream Team, so it wasn’t a surprise that the final two spots went to Clyde Drexler and Duke’s Christian Laettner.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Before The Madness

Stephon Marbury and Allen Iverson are the kind of players that are intensely loved and defended by one set of basketball fans, and loathed and derided by another.

Sadly, the two former all-stars’ NBA careers have seemingly ended in precipitous falls from grace. Marbury is playing in the Chinese Basketball Association, and his last few years Stateside are remembered mostly for his contentious tenure with the Knicks and bizarre Internet videos that showed him eating Vaseline and crying while listening to a Kirk Franklin song.

Iverson had a short-lived retirement before a return to the Philadelphia 76ers. However, he lasted only 25 games before personal issues ended his season. One of the toughest players in basketball history is dealing with his daughter’s serious illness, a looming divorce, and alleged gambling and alcohol addictions.

In more innocent days when they seemed to be the future of the game, Iverson and Marbury played against each other once in college —in a Preseason NIT semifinal on Nov. 2, 1995, at Madison Square Garden.

This was a homecoming game for Marbury, the Coney Island prodigy and heralded freshman who was the latest in a premier line of point guards at Georgia Tech (Mark Price, Kenny Anderson, Travis Best). But it wouldn’t be a cakewalk for Marbury against Iverson, the sophomore who came back to Georgetown after being named the Big East’s top freshman and defensive player of the year.

This was the kind of game where reputations are cemented, and the two players went at each other with reckless abandon. Their bodies weren’t worn down by all the basketball miles yet, and the pair still had all their springs. ESPN’s camera crew had a hard time keeping up with the quick-as-a-hiccup guards.

Iverson got to Marbury first, forcing a turnover that lead to a breakaway layup by the Georgetown star. That started an impressive game of one-upmanship that lasted the whole first half.

Iverson would go coast-to-coast at breakneck speed for a tough layup. Marbury would get the ball right back and go into the teeth of the Hoyas’ defense, getting fouled on a tough shot between Georgetown big men Othella Harrington and Boubacar Aw.

Marbury had a great no-look feed for a dunk by Matt Harpring. Iverson got a steal and one of his signature one-hand-transforms-into-two dunks. Marbury displayed a wicked crossover that caught Iverson flat-footed on three occasions. Both players played vicious on-the-ball defense.
A late surge gave Georgetown a 46-38 lead at halftime. Marbury had nine points, four assists and six steals. Iverson had 15 points, two assists and two steals.

But like their NBA careers, Iverson’s greatness had a little more longevity. “The Answer” set the tone for the second half by blocking Marbury’s driving shot for a jump ball with 17:30 left in the game.

Iverson, already with 19 stitches in his forehead, displayed his trademark toughness by playing through shoulder and thumb injuries. He attacked the rim full-tilt, finishing with 23 points, six assists and five steals as Georgetown won going away, 94-72.

Marbury forced the issue after halftime, getting lost in the one-on-one battle with Iverson. It was a sign of the coming years, in which Marbury would be labeled as a player who put his stats above team play. Still, the freshman scored 13 points (on 4-of-14 shooting) with eight assists, seven steals and six turnovers against the pressing Georgetown defense. He missed out on several assists as teammates botched easy buckets.

Iverson was the first pick in the 1996 NBA draft by the 76ers. Marbury was drafted three picks later by the Milwaukee Bucks, who traded his rights to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Marbury bawled in front of the television cameras that night, his dream of making it to the NBA finally realized. Getting there was probably the high point for Marbury, and his time in the NBA after draft day seemed to frustrate fans, coaches and teammates who wanted him to live up to the massive hype of his teenage years. Add in the pressures of a demanding family, newfound wealth and a coterie of freeloaders, and that’s enough to make a man start acting erratically.

Early in his career, Iverson grew an ardent army of supporters with his fearless forays to the basket. He earned just as many detractors with each new tattoo and scrape with the law. The featherweight is the undisputed, pound-for-pound toughest player in NBA history. That all-in mentality doesn’t seem to have an off-switch after he leaves the court, and he allegedly partied and gambled as hard as he attacked the rim. Hopefully, Iverson can get a handle on his life before something really tragic happens.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

By The Book

The New York Knicks of the early 1970s are continually held up as the exemplars of team-first basketball. There is no doubt that a substantial reason for that team’s immortality is the wealth of quality words devoted to it: Pete Axthelm’s “The City Game,” Walt Frazier’s “Rockin’ Steady” and Bill Bradley’s “Life On The Run” should be on the bookshelves of any hoops fan worth his Puma Clydes and tube socks.

Order of the Court previously used Frazier’s tome as a guide to the Knicks’ victory in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, so now an early regular-season game for the defending champions will be viewed through the lens of Bradley’s trenchant observations of the professional game.

After the Knicks won the title, the Milwaukee Bucks traded for Oscar Robertson and hoped that by pairing the veteran superstar with young stud Lew Alcindor they could dethrone New York. The teams met for the first time in the 1970-’71 season on Nov. 27 at the Milwaukee Arena.

The addition of Robertson had paid immediate dividends for the Bucks, who came into the game against the Knicks at 17-1 and winners of 16 in a row. The Knicks were playing with a bit of a championship hangover at 18-7, but came out with something to prove against the biggest threat to their title defense.

Alcindor scored over Willis Reed for the game’s first points. But on the Bucks’ second possession, Jon McGlocklin mishandled a pass that the Knicks’ Dave DeBusschere promptly scooped up and tossed ahead on a gorgeous bounce feed to Bradley. The Knicks were off on a signature fast break, with Bradley giving it back to DeBusschere and Bradley’s roommate tapping it right back for a layup by the future U.S. senator. It was textbook basketball, or as Bradley writes in “Life On The Run”:

“I believe that basketball, when a certain level of unselfish team play is realized can serve as kind of a metaphor for ultimate cooperation. It is a sport where success, as symbolized by the championship, requires that the dictates of community prevail over selfish impulses. An exceptional player is simply one point on a five-pointed star. Statistics — such as points, rebounds and assists per game — can never explain the remarkable range of human interaction that takes place on a successful pro team.”

That’s powerful prose, but of course, when one point on that star gets hot, a good team would do well to keep feeding that player the ball. Reed and Alcindor were going at it on the blocks, but the Knicks legend wasn’t about to cede any ground to the game’s next great center. By halftime, Reed had 22 points to Alcindor’s 14 and the Knicks held a 56-55 lead.

Unfortunately for Bradley, this wouldn’t be one of his memorable games. He scored two quick buckets in the first quarter but was soon whistled for three fouls. He didn’t play at all in the second quarter, a boon for backup forwards Mike Riordan and Dave Stallworth. It was a situation Bradley knew well:

“Basketball is impossible to officiate well. Most of the calls are dependant on judgment, which in turn is dependant on the official’s vision, his angle, his emotional state, and his partner. The result is colossal inconsistency. Sometimes I can make contact with hands all night without being caught and the next game the official calls three quick fouls for the same kind of play.”

This was obviously a game the officials were calling tight, and the Bucks benefited from that in the third quarter. Robertson showed why the Bucks wanted him despite 10 years on his NBA odometer. (In a quick aside, Robertson must have the coolest warm-up jacket in NBA history. On the back, above his No. 1, it just had “O” stitched where others had their last names).

Robertson backed down whomever Knicks coach Red Holzman put on him, including Frazier, and displayed his expertise in creating space for mid-range jumpers. Robertson’s success at hitting those shots opened things up for Alcindor, who got Reed into foul trouble as the Bucks took an 83-74 lead heading into the final quarter. The ecstatic Bucks fans were convinced that the team’s 17th straight victory was inevitable. Bradley probably wasn’t worried as he watched from the bench:

“I have been on teams that lost 30-point leads. I have come from 25 back to win. The score means little. What is important is being able to sense the mood of the opponent. What I feel is his will.”

These veteran Knicks were too cohesive to fall apart. The Bucks weren’t quite on New York’s level yet. Stallworth took advantage of the extra playing time and started drilling outside shots and finished with 18 points. He hit the jumper that tied the game at 89. But, with 5:40 left, Reed was sent to the bench after picking up his fifth foul. That didn’t matter to the adaptable Knicks. The lanky and mustachioed Phil Jackson came on for Reed, and the future Zen Master scored his only four points of the game over Alcindor to give the Knicks a 93-89 lead they wouldn’t relinquish in a 101-94 victory.

But the key to the victory was clearly on the defensive end. Reed was visibly tired late in the game after dragging the youthful Alcindor up and down the court. The Knicks countered by dropping Bradley and DeBusschere down to help Reed. Alcindor finished with 33 points and 14 rebounds but couldn’t get the help he needed in the fourth quarter. Reed countered with 34 points and 10 rebounds, but the difference was his teammates. The Bucks, who were the top offensive team at 118.4 points per game, could manage only 11 points in the fourth quarter against one of the more prideful defensive teams in NBA history. As Bradley explains:

“Each defensive man has to accept the responsibility for his own man and also to aid a teammate in trouble. Once he understands that and acts on it, the various types of presses are simply technical adjustments and our double teaming becomes a well-executed, known defensive maneuver. With team defense understood, pressure defense is assured, and with pressure defense the game’s emphasis shifts from muscle to quickness, from pure individual physical skill to coordinated, intelligent group response.”

The Bucks lost again to the Knicks the next night in New York, 100-99. Milwaukee would win only one of four games against the Knicks that season. But New York lost a seven-game Eastern Conference Finals against Baltimore, and the Bucks were able to sweep the Bullets in the NBA Finals for their only championship. Bradley and the Knicks would wait until 1972-’73 for their next title:

“The money and the championships are reasons I play, but what I’m addicted to are the nights when something special happens on the court. The experience is one of beautiful isolation. It cannot be deduced from the self-evident, like a philosophical proposition. It cannot be generally agreed upon, like an empirically verifiable fact, and it is far more than a passing emotion. It is as if a lighting bolt strikes, bringing insight into an uncharted area of human experience. It makes perfect sense at the same time it seems new and undiscovered. The moment in basketball depends on the blending of human forces at the right time and in the right degrees.”

Plugged In

Infinite thanks to those whip-smart basketball men Ken and Dan at the excellent Free Darko Presents...The Disciples Of Clyde NBA Podcast for their plug of Order of The Court:

Monday, March 15, 2010

Big East Comes Of Age

The Big East Conference feels like it should have been around at the dawn of the college game. The conference has become so ingrained in hoops culture that it seems historically inaccurate to read that the Big East was formed in 1979, the brainchild of former Providence coach and administrator Dave Gavitt.

Only six years after its inception, the Big East was at the zenith of its power in the 1984-’85 season. Georgetown was the defending NCAA champion and in the heady heyday of “Hoya Paranoia” with Patrick Ewing, David Wingate, Reggie Williams and Mike Jackson. But the conference was stunningly deep that season, with luminaries like Ed Pinckney at Villanova and Pearl Washington at Syracuse.

But the biggest threat to Georgetown’s dominance came from upstart St. John’s. The then-Redmen had everybody’s All-American in impossibly sweet-shooting lefty Chris Mullin, and an imposing starting five was rounded out with the fast-twitch Mike Moses, rugged inside men Willie Glass and Walter Berry, and a more-athletic-than-you-remember Bill Wennington. Future NBA all-star Mark Jackson came off the bench. The coach was Lou Carnesecca, who wouldn’t seem out of place in a Sam Fuller flick and had a predilection for a red, blue and brown Cosby sweater that took on totemic power when St. John’s rose to the No. 1 team in the nation for five weeks.

The Redmen earned that lofty position after taking down Georgetown, 66-65, at the Capital Center. Ewing was limited to only seven shots in that game. The Hoyas evened the regular-season series with a 85-69 dismantling at Madison Square Garden. It seemed inevitable that the two teams would meet in the Big East tournament final on March 9, 1985, at the Garden.

The game started on a light note, with the diminutive Carnesecca coming out of the locker room with a giant version of hulking Georgetown coach John Thompson’s trademark towel. Thompson had come to the bench in the Hoyas’ regular-season victory over St. John’s in a knockoff of Carnesecca’s famed sweater. That joviality is rarely seen among coaches anymore, as the character types have exited the stage and been replaced by men in the CEO mode who are into strategic self-interest and seem to define intensity only as nonstop screaming.

Despite the frivolity, this game certainly didn’t lack for passion. Thompson and Carnesecca were hit with two technical fouls apiece (three got coaches the boot in those days) and Georgetown’s Williams and St. John’s Ron Rowan were both ejected after exchanging blows in the first half.

Mullin struggled with his shot, but kept getting to the line and had 19 points in the first half against the Hoyas’ box-and-one defense (with Wingate chasing) that was designed to slow the St. John’s star. Ewing had three fouls in the first half, and the Redmen were surprisingly able to stay within 47-40 at halftime despite getting abused on the boards.

Georgetown put everything together in the second half. Jackson had a season-high 17 points and efficiently ran the Hoyas’ aggressive attack. Mullin couldn’t squeeze off a second-half shot until the 12-minute mark, and had only six points after the break.

Georgetown pulled away for a 92-80 victory and its fourth Big East tournament title in the conference’s six seasons. It looked like Georgetown was unstoppable, and the NCAA tournament would be a mere formality before the Hoyas were crowned as champions again.

Georgetown rolled to the Final Four and was joined in Lexington, Ky., by Big East mates St. John’s and Villanova — the first time a conference placed three teams among the last four standing.

Georgetown asserted its dominance over St. John’s again in the Final Four, 77-59. That box-and-one held Mullin to eight points, the first time since his freshman season that the senior didn’t score double figures. Of course, in the championship game, eighth-seeded Villanova shot 22-of-28 to stun Georgetown in one of the biggest upsets in tournament history.

The Big East had officially reached legendary status. Perhaps that the conference made it to such grand heights in its infancy is the reason it feels like the Big East has been around forever.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

First Impression

Kevin Garnett has been such a forceful presence over his 15 NBA seasons that it’s hard to remember the fierce debate that arose when he became the fourth player to jump straight to the pros from high school.

Would Garnett become a certifiable legend like Moses Malone (ABA draft in 1974)? A multiple-time all-star like Shawn Kemp (1989 NBA draft after a basketball-less year at Kentucky and Trinity Valley Junior College)? Would Garnett end up with a forgettable career like Bill Willoughby or an amusing trajectory like Darryl Dawkins (both picked in 1975 draft)?

Those questions began to be answered on Nov. 3, 1995, when Garnett made his professional debut for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who took a chance by taking the youngster with the fifth pick in the draft. Garnett would start the game against the Sacramento Kings on the bench at ARCO Arena, with Minnesota coach Bill Blair opting for a starting front line of Christian Laettner, Sam Mitchell and Tom Gugliotta.

With the Timberwolves winning, 14-11, Garnett finally checked in for Mitchell with 5:55 left in the first quarter. Garnett was bouncing with youthful exuberance as he defended the Kings’ Walt Williams. The amazing thing is that Garnett still plays a random regular-season game with that kind of vitality.

On Garnett’s first offensive touch, he got the ball at the top of the key — which a few seasons later would have led to an easy 22-footer. But in his first game, Garnett deferred to his elders and swung the ball for a three-point attempt by Terry Porter. Garnett immediately sprinted down to get in position for the offensive rebound, but was aced out of the board by a pre-dreadlocks Brian Grant (the announcers made the point of drawing attention to Grant’s new Bob Marley tattoo).

Garnett’s first pro basket came a few minutes later. Gugliotta made a great save on the baseline and threaded a bounce pass down low to Garnett, who lofted a high-arching two-footer off the glass over Williams. There was no chest-pounding or histrionics, just Garnett hustling back on defense.

It’s a good thing Garnett didn’t engage in any self-congratulations, because the NBA can be humbling for rookies. That’s especially true for 19-year-olds, and Garnett got his welcome-to-the NBA moment near the end of the first quarter. Sacramento’s Duane Causewell got free underneath the basket and Garnett was late in going for the block, leading to Garnett’s first foul and facial-dunk victimization.

Garnett played only two minutes of the second quarter, but that was enough time to flash more of his limitless potential. Garnett took a pass on a fast break from Isaiah Rider, then delivered a sweet touch pass to Marques Bragg, who promptly blew the layup.

Garnett didn’t return until there was 4:30 left in the third quarter. He suckered Williams into overplaying, then smartly cut back door to receive another nice pass from Gugliotta for Garnett’s second basket.

Garnett was then more at ease in the game, comfortable in the knowledge that he belonged in the NBA. He even engaged in a little banter when Porter and the Kings’ Olden Polynice started jawing in the third quarter, and it seems like Garnett has been talking ever since.

Garnett played eight minutes in the second, getting his first dunk and hitting one of those 20-footers that would become a staple of his game. He even threw a no-look pass to Laettner on a fast break. Garnett left for good with 8:16 remaining in the game, and the Kings pulled away for a 95-86 victory. Garnett finished with eight points on 4-for-4 shooting, with one rebound and one assist in 16 minutes.

Garnett’s playing time would increase as his rookie season continued (20.1 minutes per game over the first three months; 37 minutes per game in the last three months). Blair would be fired in December and replaced with Flip Saunders, who gave Garnett his first start on Jan. 9, 1996, against the Los Angeles Lakers. Garnett became a full-time starter on Jan. 30, and became a more focal part of the offense when Laettner was traded to Atlanta in February.

Garnett ended up on the all-rookie second team after averaging 10.4 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. That started a sure-fire Hall of Fame career, and now no one argues that Garnett shouldn’t have made the professional leap in 1995.

Shouting Distance

It’s the standard advice given to any movie character about to do a prison bid: Find the biggest guy in the joint and pick a fight, thus earning the respect of the most hardened criminals in the crossbar hotel.

Perhaps Rick Barnes was subscribing to that theory during his first season as an ACC coach at Clemson in the 1994-’95 season. The Tigers’ two regular-season games against the North Carolina Tar Heels were cut-throat, physical matches. Then came the teams’ battle in an ACC quarterfinal, a prison-yard game if there ever was one in the conference tournament.

The seeds of animosity had been fertilely planted in the Tar Heels’ 83-66 victory at Clemson. Barnes was given the boot after vociferously voicing his opinion to officials about the 32 fouls called against his team, as opposed to the nine called on Dean Smith’s team. At their next slugfest, UNC waxed the Tigers, 66-39, to run the Tar Heels’ record against Clemson to 41-0 in Chapel Hill, N.C. After the game, players from both teams lobbed accusations about dirty play.

Clearly, the Tigers didn’t have the horses to play with a UNC team that boasted All-Americans Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace. Clemson never stood a chance in the ACC quarterfinal from the moment Wallace took a textbook post-feed from Dante Calabria for a wide-open dunk punctuated by Wallace’s trademark primal scream.

Clemson tried to make up for the talent disparity by goading the Tar Heels with physical play. Almost every time Wallace hit the boards, rugged Clemson forward Iker Iturbe was there to plant a forearm.

Indeed, Iturbe was involved in the large majority of skirmishes. UNC point guard Jeff McInnis stared daggers at Iturbe after a hard foul in the first half, and referee Frank Scagliotta had to step between the players to negotiate the peace. With 10:49 left in the game and Clemson hopelessly behind, Iturbe and Wallace got mixed up on the blocks. Wallace was thrown to the floor, and when no foul was called, the enigmatic forward’s objections were duly noted with one of the 437,322,345 technical fouls on Wallace’s permanent record.

Smith sat Wallace for the rest of the game, but Iturbe continued to wreak havoc on the court. With UNC leading, 69-53, Iturbe delivered a hard shot on a driving Stackhouse. Smith leaped off the bench to say something to Iturbe. Barnes immediately called time out and summoned Smith to a powwow at the scorer’s table with the officials.

Barnes grew up in Hickory, N.C. Like every hoops-obsessed child along Tobacco Road, he surely was nourished on stories of Frank McGuire, Bones McKinney and Vic Bubas. Smith had won his first ACC tournament title when Barnes was 12 years old and was as close to a deity as humanly possible in the Bible Belt.

That said, Barnes wasn’t about to have an opposing coach talking to Clemson players. The new kid in the ACC started screaming directly in the face of a living legend. It looked like the tête-à-tête was going to devolve into fisticuffs before Scagliotta and fellow official Rick Hartwell sent the coaches back to their respective benches.

Barnes was the only one hit with a technical, and after Stackhouse hit 2 of 4 free throws there was still three minutes left in the game and a threat of violence hanging in the air of the Greensboro Coliseum. A couple of possessions later, Stackhouse was hit with a technical for pushing Clemson guard Bill Harder after battling for a rebound.

The Tar Heels now had their sights trained on embarrassing the Tigers. Reserve forward Pat Sullivan hit a three-pointer with 20 seconds left that gave UNC its final margin of victory, 78-62. Then UNC stole the ball and wanted to put an exclamation point on matters with McInnis attempting an alley-oop to Donald Williams in the closing seconds. Harder gave Williams a little undercut, and the ball sailed out of bounds as time expired.

But the tension didn’t end. Sullivan angrily confronted Harder about trying to hurt his teammate, and Shammond Williams sprinted off the UNC bench to enter the fracas. Soon the court was muddled with bench players, assistant coaches and assorted flunkies pushing and grabbing. Interestingly, Barnes and Smith were forgiving and forgetting at the post-game handshake. As soon as they realized what was happening, the coaches hustled their teams off the court, ending one of the most tension-filled games in ACC tournament history.

Barnes and Smith buried the hatchet (and paid fines of $2,500 apiece) in a summit at ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan’s house. There were the usual platitudes about things being said and done in the heat of battle. Fans aren’t as quick to forget, however, and Barnes was stuck with the label of the thuggish ACC coach until he left for Texas after four years with Clemson.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Gainey's Gains

Pop culture maven and noted hoops fan Chuck Klosterman has reasoned that his love of collegiate athletics stems from watching an average player have a great game and knowing that fans are bearing witness to the greatest day in that athlete’s entire life.

A variation on that thesis is the thrill of watching an overwhelmed 18-year-old kid start to understand the college game and how to be a meaningful contributor. Witness North Carolina State point guard Justin Gainey at the 1997 ACC Tournament in Greensboro, N.C.

N.C. State was the only big-time school to offer Gainey a scholarship. The coach who recruited him, Les Robinson, had resigned by the time Gainey stepped on campus. So the freshman had to adjust to a new coach in Herb Sendek and also to opponents who were bigger, stronger and faster than the ones he faced as a prep standout at Greensboro Day School.

The Wolfpack got off to a rocky start in the 1996-’97 season, losing their first eight ACC games. The team rebounded to finish the second half of the conference season 4-4, with Gainey gradually becoming the starting point guard. The only way N.C. State could have made the NCAA tournament was by winning four games in four days in Greensboro, starting with Georgia Tech in the ACC play-in bracket.

The teams provided ample evidence as to why they were the ACC tournament’s lowest seedings in the first half, combining for 16 turnovers and only 17 field goals. Georgia Tech held a 20-19 lead at halftime despite an almost nine-minute scoring drought.

Gainey directed N.C. State’s deliberate attack in the second half with precision. His final numbers (4 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and 2 turnovers) don’t pop off the stat sheet, but Gainey was in control of the 60-46 victory. He dictated the pace and spread his teammates out, giving high-scoring teammates Jeremy Hyatt and C.C. Harrison room to operate. Gainey played all 40 minutes, showing how much Sendek’s confidence had grown in the freshman.

The Wolfpack needed a top-shelf game from Gainey against their next opponent: top-seeded, seventh-ranked and ACC regular-season champion Duke. The Blue Devils’ plan of attack was evident early: Disrupt N.C. State’s offensive flow by picking up Gainey full court on defense with perpetual pest Steve Wojciechowski.

Gainey handled the pressure with aplomb, but cold shooting left N.C. State in an early 21-5 deficit. The Wolfpack battled back to within 31-25 at the break, but they were soon behind by 14 points early in the second half. Gainey never lost his composure, coolly sparking an 11-0 run that got N.C. State back in the game. He hit a crucial jumper that gave the Wolfpack a 52-48 lead, and they held on for a 66-60 victory. Once again, Gainey didn’t come out of the game, and finished with a beautiful point-guard line of 9 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals and, most important, only one turnover against Wojciechowski’s hawking defense.

Maryland had waves of good perimeter defenders to throw at Gainey in the semifinals: Terrell Stokes, Laron Profit and Sarunas Jasikevicius. Gainey did commit four turnovers against the full-court pressure, but was steady in getting the ball to the red-hot Harrison, who scored 24 points. Gainey pulled down a rebound and hit two free throws with 4.5 seconds left to finish off the 65-58 upset of the 22nd-ranked Terrapins.

The Wolfpack had become the lowest seeding to make the ACC championship game. They had won six straight games, including three before the tournament, and Gainey had committed only 11 turnovers in his previous 10 games as a starter. He had also played every second in the three tournament games.

Gainey and the Wolfpack would need every ounce of energy against North Carolina in the title game. The Tar Heels were the hottest team in the nation, winners of 11 straight games. UNC coach Dean Smith played on Gainey’s reluctance to shoot from the outside, starting the game with Tar Heels power forward Antawn Jamison guarding Gainey and markedly sagging off. Then a few minutes later, Smith switched to one of the more improbable man-to-man matchups a fan would ever see: 7-foot, 2-inch center Serge Zwikker on Gainey, who was listed at 6-0 but was probably around 5-10. The stratagem paid off, with Gainey going scoreless in the first half.

The Tar Heels could never pull away from the Wolfpack. Gainey scored 11 points in the second half, hitting a three-pointer that got N.C. State to within 47-44. But fatigue finally set in for the underdog, and the Wolfpack shot only 10 for 32 on three-pointers as UNC held on to win 64-54. Gainey was solid in 40 minutes again: 11 points, 3 assists, 3 steals and no turnovers.

Yes, Gainey’s per-game averages don’t boggle the mind. But an undersized freshman point guard played every second of four games in four days. He played 160 minutes in leading the most improbable run in the history of the most-storied conference tournament in the nation. He was the 14th freshman to make the all-ACC tournament team.

Gainey built on the confidence, playing 3,835 minutes in 128 games with the Wolfpack. That’s one of the perks of watching college basketball, seeing a player once deemed unworthy of the ACC defy the expectations.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Running Of The Bulls

The 1995-’96 Chicago Bulls are justifiably lauded as one of the all-time great teams, and in the popular imagination Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman seamlessly meld their talents while steamrolling to a 72-10 record.

Of course, that was hardly the case in a grueling 82-game season. Inevitably, there were victories that needed to be pounded out. Like, say, a mid-March game against the New Jersey Nets at The Meadowlands.

The Bulls (56-7) had their sights trained on the Los Angeles Lakers’ 69-13 mark, but were playing the second game of a back-to-back and Pippen was out while nursing a hodgepodge of late-season injuries (knee, ankle, back). Jordan had assumed an even greater majority of the scoring load. He had scored 30 or more points in 39 games already that season, but was logging heavy minutes.

Even more inexplicable than seeing a sold-out Meadowlands was watching Nets rookie Ed O’Bannon try to keep Jordan in check at the start of the game. Jordan kept getting the former UCLA star to overplay him, leading to easy backdoor cuts and layups. Jordan scored the Bulls’ first nine points and 12 of their first 14. That probably prompted O’Bannon to think about getting into a new line of work, such as selling cars or being the focal point of a major law suit against the NCAA.

Still, the Nets hung around, mostly due to the textbook pick-and-rolls directed by point guard Chris Childs, a newly appointed starter after the trade of Kenny Anderson. After a great feed from Childs to Armen Gilliam for a layup, Rodman was so frustrated with the lack of weakside help from Luc Longley that the volatile power forward viciously spiked the ball to get a technical.

That loomed large with 1:31 left in the first quarter, when Rodman and former Detroit “Bad Boys” teammate Rick Mahorn grappled for rebounding position. Rodman was whistled for the foul, prompting some untoward gestures that earned him another quick technical and an automatic ejection. The argument started pretty low-key (for Rodman, at least), but the technical ignited the Worm’s volcanic temper. His “head-butt” (really an accidental tap) of referee Ted Bernhardt would later lead to a six-game suspension.

Rodman left the court in bare-chested fashion after four rebounds in 10 minutes, and not before overturning a few Gatorade jugs on his way to the locker room. That caught the Bulls short against a formidable front line of New Jersey, which led the league in rebounding at the time. Buttressing 7-foot, 6-inch Shawn Bradley (rendered even more gawky with a bandaged chin), the Nets had rugged veterans Gilliam and Mahorn, as well as youngsters P.J. Brown and Jayson Williams (when he was known as eccentric rather than sociopathic).

The Bulls, who were also without the injured Jason Caffey, had to counter by pairing Longley with Bill Wennington and bringing John Salley and James Edwards out of the mothballs. Jordan had to keep Chicago in the game by staying hot, and he had 26 points in the first half on 11-for-16 shooting. But the Bulls went into halftime down, 52-46, mostly because the Nets dominated the glass with a 28-16 advantage. Childs showed his playmaking ability, notching 10 assists by the second quarter. He finished the game with his first triple-double (18 points, 14 assists, 10 rebounds).

The Nets gained some distance in the third quarter, building a nine-point lead. Then Jordan flashed that indomitable will that has spawned countless hagiographic stories. Already shouldering the scoring burden, Jordan started rebounding with a vengeance. He pulled down 13 boards in the second half to finish with 16. All that work affected his shooting, however, as Jordan cooled down for a 3-of-13 second half.

This, of course, leads to the inevitable part of the story where unheralded players step up when they get the chances. After all, according to any commentator worth his or her salt, that’s what happens on great teams. Jud Buechler nailed 3 three-pointers in the third quarter, when the Bulls grabbed a 71-70 lead. Steve Kerr picked up the thread in the fourth quarter, scoring eight points and hitting 2 three-pointers. Wennington, who also helped Jordan mightily on the glass, sank two crucial mid-range jumpers as the Bulls took a 93-86 lead. Jordan finished the Nets off with four free throws in the final minute, giving him 37 points in the 97-93 victory.

Usual suspects Toni Kukoc (18 points) and Ron Harper (nine points, lock-down defense) contributed, but this game was notable for the Bulls grinding one out with Jordan getting the most help from former castoffs. That gave them a little more confidence as Pippen and Rodman got back into the fold and the Bulls won 15 of their next 18 games to set the regular-season record. That’s just what happens on a great team.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Stalled Out

North Carolina and Duke will meet on Saturday for the second time this season, and Tar Heels coach Roy Williams will likely have to employ every strategy within the rules to have a chance at the upset in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Had the NCAA not fully instituted the shot clock in 1985, Williams might be devising a game plan similar to the one his mentor, Dean Smith, pieced together against the Blue Devils on Feb. 24, 1979, in Durham, N.C.

The teams had split their previous two games that season (UNC, Duke, Wake Forest and N.C. State used to compete in the mid-season “Big Four” tournament in Greensboro, N.C.) Duke needed a victory to tie UNC for the regular-season ACC championship. The Blue Devils had lost their last game against Clemson, which used a stall-and-spread attack to draw Duke out of its imposing 2-3 zone that was anchored by big man Mike Gminski. That sparked an idea for Smith.

Gminski controlled the opening tap over Pete Budko, and Smith had his Tar Heels come out in a 2-1-2 zone. That left UNC a little vulnerable on the boards, and Duke’s Vince Taylor took advantage — putting back an offensive rebound for a 2-0 lead.

Dave Colescott brought the ball up for the Tar Heels and diagnosed, as expected, that Duke was in its vaunted 2-3. Colescott passed to Dudley Bradley on the left side. Bradley passed the ball back to Colescott. Colescott swung the ball to Rich Yonaker. Yonaker passed the ball back to Colescott. And thus it went on. And on. And on. Smith had the Tar Heels in deep-freeze mode, hoping the Blue Devils would switch defenses to man-to-man so UNC could use its quickness to get to the basket.

The ball kept whipping around the perimeter. Duke coach Bill Foster tried to force some action by morphing into a 1-3-1 trapping zone, but soon sank back into the 2-3. The natives were getting restless in the crowd at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and after 11 minutes of UNC holding the ball, so were the players.

The Tar Heels’ Al Wood mishandled a pass, but the ball bounced off a Duke player out of bounds. After a couple near misses, Duke finally stole the ball and got possession after 12 minutes and 20 seconds of delay. Gminski was fouled after getting an offensive rebound, and the All-American hit 1 of 2 free throws for a 3-0 lead with seven minutes left in the half.

Despite the deficit, Smith stayed stubborn in his plan, and the Tar Heels kept stalling. Finally, Yonaker took a shot that missed everything with four minutes remaining in the half. Gminski shook free for a dunk that made it 5-0, and suddenly the crowd had something to get excited about.

Bradley turned the ball over a few minutes later, giving Duke the chance to eat some clock and let Jim Spanarkel hit a running bank shot with 5 seconds left. Colescott’s 40-foot heave at the buzzer didn’t draw iron.

Duke was leading at halftime by the score of 7-0, and it wasn’t 1953. UNC had taken just two shots, neither of which was close to the rim. Legend has it that the “airball” chant began at Cameron Indoor Stadium that day, but the television feed didn’t pick that up.

UNC had to play it straight in the second half, and the Tar Heels got their first points on Mike O’Koren’s free throws 42 seconds after halftime.

The teams would play even after intermission, with Spanarkel scoring 15 second-half points in Duke’s 47-40 victory. Tempers flared in the final minute, after Gminski laid Wood low with a vicious elbow. That drew an ejection for Gminski and some pushing between players and coaches. Order was restored, if for only a few seconds, before Yonaker delivered his own hard foul that resulted in another technical.

The bitter rivals would play for a fourth time that season at the ACC tournament in Greensboro, with UNC pulling out a 71-63 victory. Stall tactics weren’t needed.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Chicago Blues

The coaching job at DePaul should be one of the most coveted gigs in the nation. The obvious draw is that there are scores of talented players residing just an El ride away from the leafy campus in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood.

Ray Meyer knew how to mine the area during his 42 seasons on the Blue Demons’ bench, luring the city’s top talent from George Mikan in the 1940s to Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummings in the late 1970s. Joey Meyer took over for his father in 1984, but eventually lost the stranglehold that his father had on Chicago’s prep talent and was fired after a 3-23 nadir in 1996-’97.

So Pat Kennedy knew what he had to do when he became DePaul’s first non-Meyer coach in over a half-century. After a seven-victory first season, Kennedy won over several of Chicago’s top players, Whitney Young’s Quentin Richardson, Simeon’s Bobby Simmons and Julian’s Lance Williams. He also canvassed the junior-college circuit and brought home Paul McPherson, a former South Shore standout. In 1998-’99, DePaul would have a starting lineup with three former Chicago Public League players for the first time since 1981-’82.

The Blue Demons went 18-13, played in the NIT and then scored a commitment from Steven Hunter, a 7-footer out of traditional Illinois power Proviso East. The pieces were now in place for a revival at the Catholic university. Expectations were atmospheric for 1999-2000, and in their fifth game that season the resurgent Blue Demons took on modern-day power Duke on Dec. 14 in Durham, N.C.

Kennedy also had a personal mark to settle in that game. As coach of Florida State, he had stacked the team with the likes of Sam Cassell, Bobby Sura and Charlie Ward, but he had never won at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Between Duke and DePaul, there was plenty of youthful talent on display. Four of the Blue Demons’ starters — Richardson, Simmons, Hunter and McPherson — went on to play in the NBA. Duke was blending top recruits Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy and Jason Williams with veterans Nate James, Chris Carrawell and Shane Battier.

Kennedy played to the strengths of his young stars, putting them in a trapping zone press. Duke was overwhelmed by the Blue Demons’ athleticism, committing seven turnovers in the first seven minutes and falling into a 15-4 hole.

DePaul never let Duke take the lead in the first half, and the Blue Demons were playing like they desperately wanted a signature victory. But with the distance of history, the flaws in the star players are evident.

In one first-half sequence, McPherson showed his tantalizing-yet-infuriating game. On a fast-break, McPherson took off a foot inside the free-throw line and with his 40-inch vertical leap was able to get by Carrawell at the rim. But McPherson couldn’t finish, leaving the layup short. He hustled back on defense and, using those considerable athletic gifts, was in position to challenge a close-range shot by James. However, James was fouled on the play, and McPherson compounded the mistake by goaltending the shot. The physical tools eventually got McPherson a shot in the NBA, but he couldn’t last longer than 55 games with the Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors.

Hunter probably showed the biggest upside against Duke. He was active around the basket, getting 13 points and eight rebounds in the first 20 minutes. But he never seemed comfortable with his back to basket, and his post moves were limited. That vexing combination keeps getting Hunter jobs in the NBA (he’s with the Memphis Grizzlies this season), but he never lasts long with one team (five cities in eight seasons). His game against Duke — 21 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks — might be the best of his entire body of work in basketball.

Simmons was always a quiet presence. He hit a couple mid-range jumpers against Duke in the first half. Then he would disappear for long stretches before pulling down a big rebound. He’s been the same way in the NBA, always showing enough to get a big contract, then failing to deliver on the promise he had shown (just ask Milwaukee Bucks fans). Still, without garnering much notice, Simmons had 14 points and 10 rebounds against Duke.

Richardson was the key to Kennedy’s rebuilding effort. He averaged over 20 points per game in that 1999-2000 season, but he struggled to get his shot off against James and Carrawell despite repeated adulations from announcers Dick Vitale and Mike Tirico that Richardson was the most talented player on the court. The idea of Quentin Richardson has always been better than the reality, which holds true on the professional level. Against Duke, Richardson would need 21 shots to get his 20 points.

Duke rallied from a 50-38 deficit to take a 66-60 lead. But DePaul didn’t melt in the Cameron pressure cooker and bounced back to force overtime. In the extra period, Richardson gave the Blue Demons an 82-79 lead on a put-back, and Simmons hit 1 of 2 free throws for a 83-81 advantage with 24 seconds left. With all the talent on the court, it was shocking to see goofy big man Nick Horvath bank in a three-pointer that gave Duke an 84-83 lead. Richardson was way off on his driving shot in the closing seconds, and DePaul’s chances at a defining victory were over. Soon the glimmer of hope for the DePaul program would fade as well.

Like Michigan’s Fab Five, who lost three times to Duke, DePaul’s wunderkinds made a valiant effort against the establishment but couldn’t break through. The Blue Demons would finish 21-12 and lose in overtime to Kansas in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Richardson and McPherson would bounce to the NBA after the season. Simmons and Hunter would follow suit after a disappointing 12-18 season in 2000-’01.

After that, Kennedy persuaded Eddy Curry to sign with DePaul, but the Thornwood star opted for the NBA draft. The Chicago pipeline soon dried up for Kennedy, and he took a buyout after finishing 9-19 in 2001-’02. Dave Leitao and Jerry Wainwright didn’t have much success in the local market, either, letting top Chicago stars like Evan Turner and Derrick Rose get out of town. Wainwright was fired 15 games into this season, with DePaul mired in a 22-game losing streak in the Big East.

So the job at DePaul will be open again after another disappointing season ends. The blueprint for success at the school is apparent, the Blue Demons just need to find a coach that can finish what Kennedy couldn’t.