Flashpoint: A few Observations from rewatching the Arizona vs Kansas Sweet Sixteen Game

Even back in 1997 this was a historic matchup between two elite college coaches. Lute Olson was already known as a good coach from his Iowa days, but he created his own ecosystem down in Tucson when he made Arizona perennial contenders. Meanwhile, Roy Williams was entering his ninth season as a head coach, and had taken Kansas to two Final Fours already, and kept the program afloat as a Midwestern juggernaut. Going into this Sweet Sixteen game, the Jayhawks had only lost 1 game out of 35–giving them a deceiving 34-1 record. The Big 12 wasn’t cracking as a basketball conference yet, with a Chauncey Billups led Colorado finishing second in the standings with 4 losses, and a six loss Tom Penders coached UT squad that was in its final run as an exciting upstart team ( Penders would be gone after the following season). Neither coach had won a National title yet (although Roy was an assistant on the ’82 UNC title team), so this had all the makings of a classic with a bit of tension woven into the Sweet Sixteen storyline.

Arizona would go on to win the game 82-79 and at the time, I remember the media pushing this as another Roy WIlliams’ collapse to fit the narrative that his Kansas teams underachieved during the post season. There may be some truth to that, of course history is much kinder to Roy after he won multiple titles over in Chapel Hill. But in the 90’s, it felt like the media enjoyed those post game press conferences of Coach Roy Williams crying into the microphone, lamenting his players’ lost seasons. But after watching this game the other night, it is obvious that not only did Roy not get outcoached by Lute Olson, but maybe perhaps this 34-2 Jayhawk team may have overachieved. Hear me out for a second.

  1. That Kansas team was not that deep to begin with and had battled injuries the entire year with their star players. Both Jacque Vaughn and Scot Pollard had missed games throughout the season, and going into the tournament guard Jerod Haase was playing basically one handed. When Scot Pollard got into foul trouble early in the 2nd Half (Probably the only real in game mistake Coach Williams made–leaving Pollard in too long after he picked up third foul–4 fouls with 17:50 remaining), it was obvious the Jayhawks were in for an uphill battle.
  2. This was the perfect storm for Arizona, a team with a lot of depth in both their back and front lines. Jason Terry, Miles Simon and Mike Bibby had a field day, creating penetration at will, and no one to guard them. Other than Vaughn (who had his own problems guarding Bibby), there was no one to help out on the perimeter defense. Once Vaughn picked up his 4th foul at 9 minutes, the Arizona guards went on attack mode getting bucket after bucket in the paint. Kansas couldn’t get stops during winning time and Bibby, Terry, and Simon took advantage of no Pollard in the paint and foul stricken Paul Pierce and Jacque Vaughn. No one that Coach Williams brought off the bench could guard anyone in the Wildcats’ backcourt.
  3. Kansas got outrebounded by Lute Olson’s rotating front line of A.J. Bramlett, Donnell Harris, Michael Dickerson, Eugene Edgerson, Bennett Davison. The Zona guards also got their fair share of rebounds, crashing the glass and somehow catching loose balls and caroms, providing second chance possessions that almost always led to points. The quickness of the Arizona players allowed them to jump the passing lanes (Jason Terry broke the team’s season steal records with 85 thefts) and create turnovers. Kansas had 12 turnovers in the first half alone, some unforced, but Arizona’s pressure defense created a lot of problems for Kansas’ thin backcourt.
  4. Kansas’ best players had their worst games of the season. Pollard was rendered ineffective with foul trouble and only attempted a handful of shots at most. Raef LaFrentz only got four first half shots and finished below his season average for scoring. Jacque Vaughn played well, but not as well as the team needed him to play. There were many posessions where Vaughn needed to penetrate and create scoring opportunities, but instead gave the ball up early to a perimeter shooter (even during the final possession). Paul Pierce balled out, keeping the team in the game with timely shots, blocks, and steals. He even created two turnovers during the final stretch of the game when Kansas was down by 10 and clawed their way back to within 1 point.
  5. Bringing me to my next point: Kansas could’ve laid dwn after going down by 10 with 2 minutes to go, but they kept fighting and gave themselves a chance to go into overtime with the final possession. Role players like Billy Thomas and Ryan Roberson hit timely 3 pointers to trim down that big Arizona lead, and had it not been for a blown (wide open) layup by B.J. Williams, and a missed alley-oop by LaFrentz, history might look at this Jayhawks post season run differently.

Kansas really just ran into the perfect storm with a deep and well coached (Olson coached the perfect game and arguably a perfect tournament run) young Arizona team. On paper, it may look like an upset, but Arizona beat 3 #1 seeds to win that tournament–led by a Freshman point guard in Mike Bibby. Providence proved to have been seeded too low with the legendary God Shammgod and a veteran front line of future professional NBA players. Carolina had Vinsanity and Antawn Jamison and Ed Cota. Kentucky was coming off a championship season and had only lost a couple players from their title team. This is one of the best NCAA tournaments of all time and it could’ve gone either way. Even if Kansas had beaten Zona, the road to a title was not a cakewalk by any means.

Bonus Point:

This game featured a lot of future professional players. With Bibby, Pierce, and Terry (future teammates for a spell in Boston and Brooklyn) making respective their marks in the NBA. Vaughn, Pollard and LaFrentz would take journeymen roles and Michael DIckerson made a little noise in his brief NBA career. Simon, Bramlett, Robertson, and Thomas would have a cup of coffe and catch some balls in the league for a spell as well. This Sweet Sixteen game stands the test of time and is one of the Good Ass Games of Good Ass Games for many reasons. It is worth investing the 1 hour and 20 minutes it will take to watch it. But don’t take my word for it; click on the link and find out for yourself.

BM

Lovable Losers: 2002 Sacramento Kings

Recently the 2002 Western Conference Finals was commemorated with an oral history by the people closest to the action.
A lot has happened in 12 years and there was so much I’d forgotten or just plain missed during that epic series. I wanted so badly for the Kings to dethrone the champs that I’d forgotten how lousy the officiating was for both teams throughout that series. I’d forgotten how poorly the Kings had played besides Bobby Jackson (why didn’t Rick Adelman give my boy more burn during crunch time?) and Mike Bibby (who was absolutely clutch). Let’s not waste anymore time, here is a long overdue, installment of “Lovable Losers”–an homage to the 2001-2002 Sacramento Kings.

Head Coach: Rick Adelman

Record 61-21

Starters: C Vlade Divac, PF Chris Webber, SF Peja Stojakavic, SG Doug Christie, PG Mike Bibby

Key Bench Players: C Scot Pollard, SF Hedo Turkoglu, PG Bobby Jackson

Were it not for Lebron James ascent into basketball royalty, the Eastern Conference would still be a doormat. Besides the Heat, there isn’t a team in the east what could beat any of the top Western Conference teams twice in a 7 game series. After Michael Jordan retired, the Eastern Conference became a doormat and once the Lakers grabbed the mantle away from the Bulls, the NBA Finals was about as entertaining as a community pick up game. The New Jersey Nets were atrocious and everyone knew that whoever won the West would take the title. The kings won 61 games that year, had home court advantage and looked primed and ready to finally give the Lakers a run for their money.

Well what happened? Why did they lose? The Kings had one of the most entertaining teams around. They played good enough defense. They were easily the best passing team in the NBA at that time with a legitimate point guard taking over the duties from Jason “White Chocolate” Williams. Chris Webber (a human highlight reel all by himself and Vlade Divac were two of the best passing big men around. Bobby Jackson was an electrifying spark plug that came off the bench (he won the sixth man award that year). Peja Stojakavic and Doug Christie were bombing 3 pointers from the wings and the corners. They also had one of the loudest arenas around (Think OKC’s Chesapeake Arena but with Cowbells). Watching the Kings play at home was about as good of a basketball watching experience as you could get back then. Just hearing the crowd go apeshit to Rock N “Roll part 2, after a back breaking 3 pointer, would get me and my brother hype. “Beat L.A.! Beat L.A.!” I’m serious. I thought 2001 was the year. They had a better team than the Lakers from top to bottom, but a lot of things conspired to happen to keep that from happening (we’ll leave the refs out of it this and only discuss the things that were in the Kings’ control).

Coaching

Most players will tell you that Rick Adelman is a “player’s coach” and great to play under. He is a great offensive mind who has gotten multiple teams deep in the playoffs. However, no coach has cock-blocked Adelman’s path to the title more than the Zen Master, Phil Jackson. Jackson had Jordan when the Trailblazers ran into the ’92 Bulls, and ten years later he had Shaq AND Kobe Bryant. What the fuck you supposed to do with that? Outside of the Spurs and Kings, nobody could give the Lakers any run, and that was at Shaquille’s absolute peak as a player, and Kobe had barely scratched the surface of his potential. Phil was always a step ahead of Adelman, and Adelman’s failure to give Bobby Jackson any meaningful minutes (in game 7) when the rest of the players were nutting up, was a gigantic coaching error. Doug Christie was chucking up bricks, and Peja was shooting air-balls. I’m saying though.

Bench and role players

The Kings had no bench really. They only went 8 deep. Los Angeles had chess piece upon chess piece. Robert Horry, Rick Fox, Derek Fisher, Brian Shaw chipped in just enough to help out Shaq and Kobe. Scot Pollard was good for committing fouls on Shaq, and offensively he was good for rebounding, or passing.

I’m going to name off these names and you tell me if any of these guys scare you:

Mateen Cleaves
Lawrence Funderburke
Jabari Smith
(a young) Gerald Wallace
Brent Price
Chucky Brown

That is what Adelman had to work with. When it came down to crunch time, the starters were tired. Christie was asked to guard Kobe Bryant on defense and then was expected to create shots on offense. Hedo Turkoglu was still green. Vlade was banging with Shaq the entire game, and Chris Webber preferred to get his teammates involved rather than take over (Bill Walton would call out Webber time after time saying “Chris Webber needs to take over this game”). Webber made great passes, they were just to people who didn’t want the ball in crunch time.

Experience

The Lakers had been there. Let’s face it. Experience is a motherfucker. Think about the first time you fell in love. Shit was overwhelming wasn’t it? All these hormones and feelings that you had never felt before. Some people got it right the first time, and said and did the right things. Often times this is not the case. More often that not, the flubs and mistakes from that first serious relationship are the reasons why you make things work the next time around. The Kings had never made it this far, and the Lakers were two time defending champs. Being down 3-2 did not scare them in the least bit. I remember in one interview Kobe said that “was looking forward to the challenge.” That was when I knew that it wasn’t going to be easy (though I still thought the Kings would win). The Lakers never blinked while the Kings traded haymakers with them. Any other team would have folded like lawn chairs in an overtime game 7 on the road. Not the Lakers. They stayed focus, climbed on the back of the Big Diesel and pounded their way into the NBA Finals against the putrid New Jersey Nets.

So did the Kings choke? Was there a conspiracy in game 6 to give the game to Lakers? Was Rick Adelman just a basketball version of Buck Showalter (the classic good enough coach to get you there but not good enough to win)? Or were the Lakers just the better team? Maybe it was all of these things, maybe it was none, or maybe the results speak for themselves. The Lakers were good and the rest of the NBA was really bad. It’s hard to call a team that won 61 regular season games and the only team that gave Los Angeles any type of run, a loser.

Maybe they were losers,but they were a fun team to watch, and if they were losers, then what does that say about the rest of the NBA at that time? San Antonio was winning championships back then, but no one outside of south Texas would pay to watch them play. I lived in Texas back then (in Austin) and their style of play put me to sleep. I’d have rather watched those Kings play and lose, than tune in to the Malik Rose, Speedy Claxton, slow it down Spurs of 2002. It just wasn’t entertaining. Maybe we all lost when the Kings were knocked out of the playoffs back in 2002. You’ll never convince me otherwise.