The Catholic 7, More Hoopla

Here’s a postscript to the previous blog, since the Catholic schools continue to make news on the basketball court. Amazingly, the No. 1 team in America now is the Gonzaga Bulldogs, a little Jesuit school from Spokane, Wash. Of course, the Zags play in the anemic West Coast Conference, so don’t expect them to drive toward the championship.

The more compelling news is the announcement that the “Catholic 7” – Georgetown, Marquette, Villanova, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and DePaul – will create a basketball-only conference next year, assuming the name of the Big East. They will likely add Catholic schools Xavier and Creighton, and look for a 10th school to round out the conference in future years.

The other big Catholic school, Notre Dame, also now a member of the Big East, will be joining the Atlantic Coast Conference, along with Louisville, Syracuse and Pittsburgh – at least for basketball. And thus does the bouncing ball tend to follow the millions of TV money available for the elite football schools.

More about that some other time, but I want to revisit last night’s action and yet another Notre Dame miracle, this time for the Lady Irish who went three overtimes to knock off Connecticut. Anyone who watched that game would have to acknowledge that chick hoops rocks.

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Notre Dame Coach Muffet McGraw has some instructions for her star, Skylar Diggins.

How can you not like a team that is coached by the brilliant and poised Muffet McGraw and stars the resourceful and indefatigable Skylar Diggins? McGraw spent half the game on her haunches on the sidelines in a dress and high heels, making both a basketball and a fashion statement. Diggins played every possession of the three-overtime game, 55 minutes, scoring 39 points and hitting key shots down the stretch.

As we get ready for the women’s conference tournaments this weekend, it’s refreshing to see outstanding teams like the Irish and Lady Huskies, although I can’t muster much love for the man among the great women coaches, UConn coach, Geno Auriemma. Auriemma has the best winning percentage among all women’s coaches, but he also recruits the best talent year in and year out, sending many of them on the WNBA. And he’s arrogant. Yeah, what’s not to like?

As a former girls basketball coach, I’m a big fan of the women’s game and coaches like McGraw, Tara Vanderveer at Stanford, Vivian Stringer at Rutgers, Jody Conradt at Texas and the indomitable Pat Summitt of Tennessee. Summitt, who won more college basketball games than any other coach (1,098), had to turn over the reins of her team this year, after 38 years of coaching, to deal with the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Listen to Summitt describe her fight to keep her mind in the game in this ABC News report:

http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/video/pat-summit-off-court-battle-alzheimers-18656174

A well-coached women’s college basketball team plays the game “the right way,” with no one individual generally dominating play, which occurs mostly below the rim (where I had to play). They pass, move without the ball, run the break and nail three-point shots with amazing precision.

But there are exceptions, such as the athletic Candace Parker who actually beat all the boys in the high school all-star game dunk contest. Candace went on to win national titles for Summitt at Tennessee and now plays for the L.A. Sparks. And then there’s Brittney Griner, the 6-8 star center for the No. 1 Baylor Bears. Earlier this year, Griner became only the second women’s player (after Parker) to dunk twice in a game.

Monday night, Griner scored 50 points to help Baylor beat Kansas State, getting two of those points with a classic drop step and dunk along the baseline. I’m sure that video will be available on YouTube soon enough, but it looked something like this:

Hold on to your hats: March Madness is on the horizon!

Confessions of a Basketball Junkie

As I watched Notre Dame survive through five overtimes to beat Louisville last Saturday, I had this overwhelming sense of déjà vu. Here I was pulling for Louisville, knowing full well that the Irish were going to win the game. It was destiny. I’ve seen it before. It’s a well-ordained script. Not just the luck of the Irish, but also perhaps some divine intervention. At least, the Catholics believe.

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Spiritual awakenings are common in basketball at all levels, but at the college level it borders on the epiphany, where the devoted and frenzied fans drive it up a notch. Note the sign from the Georgetown faithful in the photo above. Earlier this year, Villanova channeled higher power to knock off top-rated teams Louisville and Syracuse in succession, even though they’ve struggled through the year, losing 10 so far.

I confess I draw my basketball compulsion from Catholic school. We only had one sport at little Holy Name of Jesus, the one we played in the gym/convocation center. We played on our lunch break and after school, and I followed the team religiously by bus all over western Kentucky, as a back-seat busser and aspiring sports writer. I was writing basketball game stories for the local paper when I was in high school, so I felt like a player.

Our little Catholic school would compete far above its enrollment or weight class. Boys would live in the gym, firing up shots from all over. There were no 3-point shots back then, but the long jump shooters were the heroes. We might not be able to mix it up underneath with all the big boys, but we could shoot over them, with amazing regularity.

That is what makes basketball such a great sport, the truly beautiful game. You don’t need to be the biggest and baddest, you just have to be the smartest, with the best-practiced skills. And above all, you have to play together. There’s no “me” in basketball, at least not at the winning level. Even Michael Jordan needed his Scottie Pippin and Steve Kerr. He couldn’t go it alone.

That’s what I was thinking, back in 1983, when I recruited a couple of Hollywood, Fla., cops to fill out our three-on-three city league roster. I was the player-coach, and we were definitely challenged talent-wise, with a couple of shooters and one ball-handler, not much else. I took advantage of the opportunity to draft two African-American players – one 6-7 mobile big man and a quick, agile guard who handled and could shoot.

We were three young editors/writers at the local Sun-Tatler, medium-sized guys with medium to slow speeds, so the infusion of talent may have rocked the boat a bit. My good friend Alan didn’t like it, and he told me so, but I really wanted to run and play at a higher level. And we did win more games than we would have otherwise.

There is nothing to compare with the feeling that you share, when you’re in motion, got a hard-driving notion, just running with the glides. I wrote that to my brother David and he turned it into a song, not exactly knowing what I had in mind. Later he says, I thought you were talking about racing cars in high school, and hanging out with the cool guys. It became a mixed metaphor:

We’re not likely to see this song picked up by CBS to serve as background for the NCAA tournament, but it still revs me up, makes me want to run and (if I could only jump) dunk. That three-on-three format also served as a lesson for me later as a coach for my youngest daughters, from ages 8 through 17.  You have to run, beat the other team down the court. At tryouts I would always look for girls with the best ball-handling skills, who could keep their heads up as they raced down the floor with the ball. (Yes, they also tended to be soccer players.)

I probably over-coached and under-fathered in that situation, but I would get excited. I pushed the girls to beat the other team to the basket, ideally off steals. I taught the girls how to trap the ball and force bad shots, drawing on Kentucky’s successful 1-3-1 half-court zone press of the Joe B. Hall era. The idea was to take advantage of our speedy transition game. We managed to compete in every game enough girls showed up, winning the championship once.

Sticky defense, good passing, fast break: That’s what I look for in a good basketball team, and why I think Indiana is poised to win the NCAA tournament in March, barring one of those five-overtime spiritual haymakers. Cody Zeller and Victor Olidipo are great players, and the Hoosiers also have good ball-handlers who defend, rebound and quickly push the ball down the court. They lead the nation in offense, but their offense is predicated on their defense.

Duke, Gonzaga, Florida and Arizona can stake their claims, but the best teams are in the Big 10 this year – Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, all with a legitimate chance to make noise in the tournament. We could see at least two Big 10 teams in the Final Four for the seventh time in history, most recently in 2005.

But nothing is assured in college basketball, so don’t take my well-informed judgment to the bank. In particular, beware the little Catholic schools with the big crosses on their shoulders and no conscience with their shots. Besides Gonzaga, Georgetown, Marquette and Notre Dame are contenders, as are Creighton, Temple and Xavier. Anything can happen. But expect entertainment, excitement and a few miracles along the way.