Each week until March Madness, I’ll be taking a look at the broader scene outside the Pac-12 in college basketball, assessing trends and faces in the game and previewing the next week’s best action on TV. Some weeks, the column may also run in the Times’ print edition.
When I think of Dean Smith, I gravitate to the concept of royalty, and I’m not sure why. I never quite felt that way about John Wooden or any other college basketball coach. But Smith was such a dominating figure in the game, and North Carolina was such a brand.
Two other things that might account for it: Smith coached at a prominent level longer than Wooden (whose madcap success was in a relatively short period of 1963-75), and of course, as has been properly noted in the wake of his death, Smith was a figure whose renown was also based heavily on his stance on social issues.
I first saw the Tar Heels up close in 1976 at the Far West Classic tournament in Portland (oh, those were the days). Smith had a ridiculously talented team — Tom LaGarde, Walter Davis, Phil Ford, Mike O’Koren — and it breezed to the title in the eight-team tournament. Fond personal recollection: Working in Eugene at the time, I took on a stringing job for a paper in North Carolina; might have been Greensboro — $200 for covering all the Heels’ games that week. That was pretty good cash 39 years ago, and frankly, it was stealing money, being able to follow a team that good. It went all the way to the 1977 NCAA final, where, as a favorite, it lost to Marquette and Al McGuire in McGuire’s teary swan song.
Later, in 1991 in Indianapolis, I was covering the Final Four, and that became famous not only for the memorable Duke upset of UNLV in the semifinals, but for something that happened in the first game — an official named Pete Pavia tossed the iconic Smith from Carolina’s upset loss to Kansas (coached, of course, by Roy Williams). It happened in the waning stages, probably with about a minute left, and as it developed, I was walking out an exit just after the Carolina players had trotted off. Here came Bill Guthridge, the loyal and longtime Smith assistant, screaming at Pavia, who was only too happy to repair to the officials’ quarters.
(Googling that incident, I came across a funny line from Mike Littwin, ex-LA Times writer who was working for the Baltimore Sun then. He ripped Pavia for the ejection, while noting that Smith executed a fairly ceremonial departure after getting thumbed. Wrote Littwin: “It looked like Nixon leaving the White House. I kept looking for the helicopter.”)
Three years later, in 1994, at the sub-regional in Landover, Md., I witnessed Boston College’s second-round upset (surely you remember Billy Curley) of a Jerry Stackhouse-led Carolina team. That was notable for stopping the Tar Heels’ 13-year streak of Sweet 16s. Thirteen straight years of Sweet 16s — who does that?
Here’s a glimpse into the genius of Dean Smith: When the three-point shot was voted into college basketball for the 1986-87 season, there was a lot of blowback from some coaches who weren’t in favor of it. It was viewed suspiciously by some of them, and there was even a hint of rebelliousness in how some reacted to it. They shunned it.
Not Smith. He recognized the simple math of the three being important. It might seem counter-intuitive that a blueblood school would quickly capitalize on the three — it’s usually viewed as an equalizer for less-talented teams — but that’s exactly what Smith did. That first year, the Tar Heels shot more threes than anybody in the ACC (488) and made more (213). By contrast, Virginia attempted 130.
As for Jerry Tarkanian, who died early Wednesday a mere three days after Smith, well, you know most of the sub-themes, the gifted teams he produced at Long Beach State and Nevada-Las Vegas, the protracted fight with the NCAA. I’ll say this: If you were inclined to side with the NCAA as the do-gooder through those many battles (and I’ll cop to that, to some degree), you’re less apt to do so today, given the excesses we’ve seen in recent years from college sports’ governing body.
On the floor, his 1990 Vegas team — Larry Johnson, Stacy Augmon, Greg Anthony — was one of the best in history, blowing out Duke by 30 in the NCAA title game. That team, like some of his others, played maniacally hard, and that shouldn’t be lost in the discussion of Tarkanian. His teams were willing to put out for the man.
Some of the stuff that attached itself to Tarkanian, the original second-chance guy, was so comical, ranging from the leaked photo of a couple of Vegas players in the hot tub with convicted sports-event fixer Richard Perry to one of his Fresno State players being convicted of threatening a man with a Samurai sword in an apartment in the late 1990s.
But let’s say this about Tark: A lot of the stuff he perpetrated was merely an extension of the envelope-pushing that went on at a lot of other schools. He just took it to another level.
And What’s More . . .
— Bill Raftery’s naming to Final Four telecasts as a fill-in for suspended Greg Anthony should be a good thing, even as Anthony is an excellent analyst. Raftery, the longtime color man, has a natural warmth and sense of humor that makes you feel good about what you’re watching. Anthony was sidelined for alleged solicitation of a prostitute recently.
— Speaking of analysts, I’m not in the camp that can’t get enough of Bob Knight. I can only take so many pithy observations like, “If he had just put his right foot a quarter-inch farther back, that would have switched his pronation exactly on track and he’d have made that shot.” Way too much micro-analysis of the action and not enough big-picture advice.
— This could be a completely seat-of-the-pants observation, but I’m thinking that Phil Forte III may ultimately be a bigger deal to Oklahoma State than the star alongside which he was supposed to be a mere sidekick, guard Marcus Smart. The two were high school teammates and Smart, obviously, was the guy everybody wanted. Well, he had a nice career with the Cowboys, but in his two seasons, they never won an NCAA-tournament game. Forte averages 17 a game for the Cowboys and will be a four-year guy for a 17-7 team that just accomplished the rarity of taking down three straight ranked Big 12 teams.
— Remember Murray State a few years back, with hotshot guard Isaiah Canaan? The Racers are at it again under Steve Prohm, with a 21-4 team that’s unbeaten in the Ohio Valley at 11-0 and no doubt bent on wrinkling some NCAA brackets next month.
— No matter where you fall on Gonzaga’s difficulties when it visits West Coast Conference gyms — such as struggles last week at Santa Clara and USF, two losing teams — it’s stark, and almost comical, how those teams perform when the Zags leave town. Last week, Santa Clara made a spirited run at GU before losing in front of 4,700. Two days later, it lost by 20 to Portland in front of 2,110. Speaking of which, Portland has to be the most blessed travel partner in the nation.
— Tennessee just can’t seem to get it right. After the NCAA episode with deposed Bruce Pearl, it replaced Cuonzo Martin with Donnie Tyndall, and now Southern Miss — Tyndall’s last port of call — put itself on post-season probation as a result of violations there. That doesn’t exactly look good for the Vols.
— I’m going to say I-told-you-so on this one. A radio host expressed skepticism to me a few years ago about Tony Bennett going into the fires of the ACC at Virginia, but I thought it could be a good landing spot for him. It’s a respected academic school, it’s close to populous recruiting areas, it has excellent facilities, yet it’s not a place where the pressure to win big is stifling and that’s big to Bennett, who once turned down Indiana. The Bennett defensive style is also the perfect counter to the up-and-down M.O. favored by North Carolina and Duke.
— It’s astonishing to me that Gary Payton II wasn’t recruited harder. He’s rangy, long, intuitive and seemingly made for Wayne Tinkle’s system at Oregon State. I think he’s probably the Pac-12 player most integral to his team’s success.
— Speaking of Oregon State, no matter if the Beavers’ non-league schedule wasn’t that daunting, it’s flat stunning that OSU will be unbeaten at home as we enter late February.
— The NCAA basketball committee chair is Scott Barnes, the Utah State athletic director and a familiar name around Washington. During the reign of Todd Turner as UW athletic director, Barnes was an assistant AD.
— A real success story is BYU guard Kyle Collinsworth, who amazingly recorded his NCAA-record fifth triple-double of the season the other night. It was only last March that Collinsworth collapsed under the basket in the WCC tournament final against Gonzaga, tearing up a knee.
Thursday night, Stanford could buff its NCAA-tournament credentials (or not) at Utah in a 6 p.m. game on Pac-12 Networks.
Saturday brings the usual lazy-Susan of Big 12 games involving ranked teams — the league is so good even when its teams lose, they don’t get docked in the rankings. So it’s No. 16 Baylor at eighth-ranked Kansas at 10 a.m. on CBS, and at 1 p.m., No. 21 West Virginia at No. 14 Iowa State on ESPN2.
And then Monday, wash, rinse, repeat. Kansas visits West Virginia on ESPN at 6 p.m.
But the best game is next Wednesday, the first of the always-must-see-TV North Carolina-Duke battles at Durham, at 6 p.m. on ESPN.
Field Goal Percentage
1. Jelani McCoy, UCLA (1996-98), .694
2. Steve Johnson, OSU (1977-81), .678
3. Todd MacCulloch, UW (1996-99), .664
4. Mark McNamara, Cal (1981-82), .662
5. Bill Walton, UCLA (1972-74), .651