April 6, 2004
By Brian Litvack
Team Of The Tournament
My apologies to the other 325 teams in Division 1, but Connecticut clinched this honor with its dominating performance in the tournament. Their preseason No. 1 rankings indicated that there was no question that the Huskies were ultra-talented. This also led to expectations greater than Emeka Okafor's wingspan. The Huskies had trouble finding a rhythm during the season and their play often seemed mechanical.
Whether it was a sudden hardwood epiphany or the mantra of coach Jim Calhoun the individual parts united like Voltron and UConn became unbeatable. Ben Gordon finally emerged into a superstar during the BIG EAST tournament and formed a potent combination with Mr. Perfect, Emeka Okafor.
Jim Calhoun has built Connecticut from scratch into a premier program. Two national championships in five years erase the word fluke from any critic's vernacular. Even with the definite departure of Emeka Okafor, and perhaps his running mate Ben Gordon also heading to the NBA, UConn will still be a force next season. That's right, the Huskies don't rebuild, they reload.
Hewitt entered the tournament as a promising but still unproven coach, with his future at Georgia Tech still up in the air. But Hewitt brought Tech to the finals and did it with dignity, intelligence and charisma. For that he put to bed rumors of bolting back to his hometown to coach a dismal St. John's project, and accepted a six-year extension that will boost his salary (currently the lowest in the ACC) into seven figures.
Phil Martelli can quit yapping. The Hawks' play on the court proved to America that they belong among the elite. Billy Packer's misshaped noggin wasn't the only head that turned at Saint Joe's electric defense, long-range swishes and by the display of the best backcourt in college hoops' recent history.
The Hawks had a truly special season. They captured the imagination of many and didn't disappoint their fans. They went toe-to-toe with the big boys and were a Joey Graham stumble and a John Lucas trey from being in San Antonio.
Gordon continued his success in the BIG EAST tournament by dominating the first few rounds of the NCAA tournament, when Okafor was using ice packs and doing backstretches. He put up 36 to help UConn blow out Alabama and his 127 points in the tournament were second to none.
It is hard to be a superstar in Coach K's team-oriented system. When you're a freshman such as Deng, it is almost impossible. But Deng shined throughout the tournament. His play in Atlanta made him the regional MVP and probably a lottery pick if he decides to turn pro. Deng's agility and quickness is sensational for a forward his size and he constantly made plays around the basket and ran the court in ways that must defy some principle of physics.
The Cats had more talent than most teams in the tournament. They seemed to have an intriguing draw with a first round match-up against an overachieving Seton Hall, and then a showdown with Duke. The Wildcats were coasting against the Hall, up 14 in the second half, when they fell flat on their face. A lack of defense and selfish offensive players did them in once again and the Wildcats' dreadful season came to an end.
Forward Andre Igoudala will likely go pro and even though Lute Olson will still have four talented starters returning, Arizona must figure out how to play with some defensive intensity or next season may be a repeat letdown.
Does anybody on Florida seem to care? The Gators came to the tournament but forgot to show up. Manhattan handily outplayed Florida and the Gators were gone before the tournament was a few hours old.
Christian Dreijer, dubiously known as the Danish Defector, bounced mid-season to play in Europe. Anthony Roberson tries to be a little too much like Allen Iverson. Although Roberson is talented, right now the thing he has most in common with AI is a bad FG percentage.
The Refs were a bit too trigger happy blowing their whistles, especially in the Final Four. There is a fine law between maintaining control of a game and controlling the outcome of the game, and the zebras hurdled that foul line back and forth like a superstitious relief pitcher.
Even Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski took a shot at the refs when commenting on J.J. Redick's final drive: "You're either trying to score or you're trying to get fouled, or both, and we didn't get any. That was the game right there."
If you thought the men's officiating was questionable, check out the women's tournament where officials butchered a last-second sequence in the Baylor-Tennessee game that cost the underdogs the game.
So How Do They Know Kevin Bacon?
Everybody in San Antonio seemed to have a connection. Will Bynum and Tony Allen played high school ball together in Chicago and Bynum was set to transfer to Oklahoma State to play with Allen but no scholarships were available.
Point guards Jarrett Jack and Chris Duhon happen to be cousins. Oklahoma State point guard John Lucas is from Houston and is friends and high school teammates with Emeka Okafor. Freshman sensations Charlie Villanueva and Luol Deng were roommates in high school at Blair Academy in New Jersey. Deng's brother was part of the 1999 UConn championship team that defeated Duke.
Perhaps the most eerie coincidence is that of Ed Nelson. Nelson is sitting out this year after transferring from Georgia Tech to Connecticut. Nelson was in the Alamo Dome on Monday night and hopefully used the space-time continuum to figure out which team to root for.
Lasting Tourney Memories
UAB's Donnell Taylor's no-look over the head outlet pass to his identical twin brother Ronnell definitely had too much ESP/sixth-sense powers to be explained. After that, Kentucky didn't stand a chance.
East Tennessee State's Tim Smith might have had the most electrifying performance in the tournament in a 79-76 loss to Cincinnati. It seemed like Smith would go up one on five time after time. Smith was all over the court, diving for loose balls, picking off passes and driving down the lane. If you were lucky enough to watch this performance, you too were left wanting more.
Jameer and Delonte are a treat to watch. If you didn't get to see them in action until the tournament, you missed out. Put aside records, conferences and Billy Packer and just watch the two guards play together. They have such feel for the game and always seem to know where the other guy is on the court. Nelson and West showed the big boys the meaning of maturity, heart and focus.
Luke Schenscher, the red-haired mop top center became a cult hero during the tournament. Two weeks ago people couldn't even pronounce his name. Now, he is the darling of college basketball. The hype became so large that respected analysts actually started to believe that he could shut down Emeka Okafor. We love ya, Luke!
Jim Calhoun guided UConn to its second national title in five years.