Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Final Four: What's to Like

We become fans of sports franchises and programs for a variety of reasons, and most of the time, either logically or illogically, the symbiosis has to do with how we identify with the team. Basic reasons: Our hometown; a role model; our father’s team. More psychologically complex reasons: Aesthetics, like uniform color or shoe contract; playing style and tempo; or the team is playing against one we (logically or illogically) despise. Any and all reasons seem enough impetus to rationalize rooting for a particular franchise. Whether or not our friends support the fandom, well, that’s ultimately up in the explanation. Typically, if one can support a claim (in 7-degrees or less fashion) then peers will outwardly accept accompanying fan behavior. In sum, a solid argument dissuades the accusation: “You jumped on the bandwagon.” I’m not on any team’s bandwagon -- though the last one I saw rolling down the street had a big FGCU on it en route to USC -- but there are reasons to like every team in the Final Four. 


I moved to Boston to pursue graduate degrees in 1998, just a year after Rick Pitino became the head coach of the Celtics. I bought his book and I watched his talk show every weekend. My grad school advisor became the team’s consulting sport psychologist. And to top it off, I was at BU, where Pitino started his career as a head coach. It was more so that I became a Pitino fan (via his convincing), I suppose, than a Celtics fan. (Antoine shook a lot, Pierce was not yet mature, and McCarty was a great guy.) Pitino yearned for the Celtics to play like his Kentucky Wildcats. They tried. But Pitino spoke of advanced stats, needing 30 deflections a game to win, explaining in fine detail the ins and outs of every possession, and emitted an all-out tone that said this, my friends and fans, is the new breed. Accept it because certain people aren’t walking through that (figurative) door. He has since honed his craft back in the college ranks. (Can it really be true he’s been at Louisville since 2001?!)

The Cardinals have lightning quick guards, an intrepid mojo, and they were just here last year. Russ Smith is as fearless as they come -- and he finishes plays. According to analytics, he is the player of the year. Louisville is No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency -- No. 2 in opponent TO% and No. 2 in steals. Though only No. 6 -- ha, only! -- in offensive efficiency, it’s No. 16 in O-board%. Opponents O-board%? A laughable 33.2 percent (No. 236). And 3-pointers, considering how much emphasis Pitino has put on the long ball during his career? Not a factor. 32.8% (No. 223). But it doesn’t matter. The Cardinals thrive with their defense: A full-court, uptempo orchestration of controlled havoc that results in easy points created by defensive efforts.

Veteran coach. Experience and energy galore.

Wichita State

My great friend I met at BU left Boston after completion of his master’s degree. He went back to his hometown, Minneapolis, to pursue a doctorate in psychology. From there, he went to Memphis for a postdoc, then to Dallas for a related job. And after several years there, to Wichita where he was involved in sport psych and family consulting. Strong connection? Not necessarily, but when coupled with the fact that one of my assistant coaches has a cousin who is a Shocker -- Malcolm Armstead -- it makes it all the more substantial. How can I not root for the underdog, upstart squad that has a family member I know? America’s team!

The Shockers rebound, defend, and block shots. 38 percent O-board rate (No. 18) vs. 26.3% (No. 11) for opponents. They have a block percentage of 13.7 (No. 18). Most importantly, they also play with no fear. Armstead play-makes and loves to shoot. For every questionable shot, he’ll make you pay with a few conversions in a row. And Carl Hall may as well be Carl Wall -- you’re not going to score with him in the vicinity.

They’re coming after you and don’t care how many teams you’ve coached.


Ah, finally, a John Beilein Final Four. I’ve been rooting for him since I started studying his offense. And that began when he was at West Virginia -- yes, my father’s alma mater! -- and coached the heck out of a Pittsnogled group. Lots of 3’s, exciting spurts of scoring, a solid man defense and an opposition-frustrating 1-3-1 zone. Plus, he was at LeMoyne prior to that, up there in New York State. I wasn’t that far, down in Albany. It just all makes sense. My question had been: Can this offense make it all the way? It’s quite spread out and had been easy to guard at times. Inconsistent offensive rebounding and shooters camped out around the perimeter didn’t necessarily put undeniable pressure on the defense. But it helps when you have players and the named player of the year. Trey Burke is surrounded by a horde of NBA sons. (How does that happen?) Recruiting, belief, and some luck.

The Wolverines have the No. 1 offense in the nation; it’s cushioned by their reliability to not turn the ball over. When they do, it’s just 14.5 percent of the time (No. 1). They shoot the lights out from the field (54.6 eFG% No. 11). Who cares if they don’t get to the free throw line (No. 338) and let their opponents live there (22.3 FT rate, No. 1)?! They value their possessions and makes them count, plus create stops with a high steal rate of 8.1% (No. 24). Burke is as good as advertised and can take over a game. Beilein isn’t afraid -- rather, he wants -- to keep the ball in Burke’s hands and continue to run the offense through him. With strong performances from big man Mitch McGary and superb shooting from Nick Stauskas, it’s been working out.

They’re just fun to watch.


“The ‘Cuse.” When I moved to Albany in 1989 that’s what I kept hearing; after all, everyone was an Orangemen fan. With that Sherm, Seikaly, Coleman combination, it was ingrained in the upstate NY culture. Everyone in the area went to Siena basketball camp but the few who could make it to Syracuse did. So, big identification and the talk of the town.

What do they do now? It’s been similar throughout; something referred to as a 2-3 zone, but that’s just a default name because nobody has a better one -- it’s much more than that. It’s an octopus on steroids. Too many arms to count. With Syracuse players’ length (the second tallest team in the nation) and athleticism, it’ll suffocate you. It’s scary good.

Teams in the postseason just can’t score against it. A critical part of the problem is they can’t prepare for it either. The Orange boast the No. 6 defense by being No. 4 in eFG%, No. 3 in 3-pt%, and No. 1 in block%, defensively. Keep in mind that Syracuse lost to Georgetown twice in the regular season and another team it could end up facing on Monday: Louisville. But the Orange are clicking. Boeheim even admitted he hasn’t had a better defensive team than this one. Despite a lower eFG% (just 49.1, No. 139), the team makes up for misses with a 39.0 O-board rate (No. 8).

Scary good. Plus, the senior Brandon Triche, whose uncle Howard was on the ‘Cuse team with the trio mentioned above, has played in every single game of his collegiate career. That’s 146 games.

I’m a fan.


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