|The last little guys get squeezed out of NCAA party|
|Written by Admin|
|Sunday, 30 March 2008 21:47|
Of all the NCAA tournament endings Stephen Curry imagined for himself, that one probably didn't make the list. All the other elements for a great story, though, were in place: Davidson down 59-57 to Kansas with the ball, 16.8 seconds left and the final spot in the Final Four on the line.
The slim, 6-foot-3 sophomore and son of NBA sharpshooter Dell Curry brought it up the court, then from crossed from left side to right, just past the top of the key. Because Curry has the same range as his old man, and because he'd already burned three tournament teams, Kansas coach Bill Self made sure no step on the kid's journey from halfcourt in would be unaccompanied.
The Jayhawks came out ``small'' after the time out, deploying 6-9 forward Darrell Arthur under the basket and four guards around the perimeter. All four had played Curry man-to-man at some point in the game trying to wear him out, and in the concluding seconds, first Mario Chalmers, then Brandon Rush and finally Sherron Collins each took one last turn.
With Rush soaring directly in front of him, and Collins hemming him in on the left, Curry's last option was to kick the ball back to teammate Jason Richards with 2 seconds left. Richards' hurried 25-footer caromed harmlessly off the backboard.
``They made sure they put the ball in their best player's hand,'' Self said. ``We did a good job of switching.''
Making the Final Four meant everything to Self, who'd come up short a few times before. But it meant plenty to his fraternity brothers running similarly high-powered programs, too, since it restored some order to their universe.
The win meant all four No. 1 seeds - UCLA, North Carolina and Memphis previously booked their trips to San Antonio - advanced out of the regionals for the first time since the NCAA began seeding teams in 1979. Narrow as Kansas' win was, that was not an accident.
Davidson became the darlings of this tournament, the smart pick to retrace George Mason's magical steps of two years ago and provide another rallying cry for the small schools seeking a better shake from the selection committee come tournament time. And none other than George Mason coach Jim Larranaga climbed on the Wildcats' bandwagon even before the postseason began.
It helped that Larranaga had been an assistant at Davidson and that he was close pals with coach Bob McKillop. But more to the point, Larranaga saw many of the same qualities that made his Colonials team such a tough out in the NCAAs in 2006 - a roster brimming with late-blooming talent, experience and the fearlessness that comes from playing tough nonconference opponents.
And whenever schools like George Mason or Davidson - which plays in the lowly Southern Conference, with a student body of 1,700 and the same coach for 19 years - get on that kind of a run, it makes athletic directors at the big schools with bigger budgets playing in the biggest conferences question why they're already home watching on TV.
Self acknowledged afterward both he and his kids felt the burden of those expectations.
``Even though they're as good ... they don't have the same 'wow' factor with the name of their school, not being from a BCS conference or whatever, I think in some ways, maybe put a little subtle pressure on you, as well,'' he said.
``Our guys didn't handle it great,'' Self added, ``but we were tough enough to get the win, which is all that matters.''
He's right, of course, but that's no accident, either.
We could argue the rest of the year whether anybody is tougher than Curry. But Kansas, Carolina, UCLA and Memphis have tough kids in waves, more than a few of whom also happen to be NBA-ready; that kind of quantity AND quality almost always wins out over the course of time.
Curry grew up wanting to play in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Despite his pedigree, the closest he got to a scholarship was an offer to walk on at Virginia Tech, where Dell played, with a shot at a full ride the following year. Instead, Stephen chose Davidson and used all those rejection letters for fuel.
``I think everybody will tell you they were wrong,'' Dell said recently, ``but it's good to have a chip on your shoulder when you play sometimes.''
Stephen doesn't have anything left to prove, though he already announced he will be back for his junior year. No one had a better tournament and there's no one that McKillop, or any other coach in the land, would have rather seen with the ball in his hands and the clock winding down - even if Curry wound up running himself ragged and into a thicket at the end.
``Their four-guard rotation, where they could throw kind of the same defender at you, same style, it really took a toll toward the end,'' Curry said. ``Regardless of that, we had an opportunity to win. So fatigue is a factor, but we fought through to the best of our abilities and still had a shot to win it at the end.''
McKillop knew only too well how rare it was for the Davidsons of the college basketball world just to get into that position. If there was anything he wanted people to remember about this season, that was it.
``My father was a New York City cop. He used to always tell me to polish the backs of your shoes,'' McKillop said, ``because that's the last thing people see of you.''
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org