Just some informal thoughts on the University of Louisville's victory over Duke in the NCAA Midwest Regional Final . . .
Riding shotgun with WDRB sports director Tom Lane on the drive to Louisville from Indianapolis. A year ago, I was on a red-eye flight back from Phoenix and wrote a little blog entry with my impressions. It went over pretty well, so I'll try it again.
My first thought tonight is that 24 hours ago, in writing a bunch of pieces for the web site here, I was struck by the enormity of the game. The stakes for the players and coaches, the historical ramifications for two of the game's heavyweight coaches. In fact, the biggest question all day was about the health of U of L's team, because of an outbreak of strep throat. Funny, that didn't come up in the postgame discussion after U of L's 85-63 win over Duke.
Instead, tonight, both on TV and in my first column on the game, the game itself didn't even make the lead.
The Kevin Ware injury shifted a game that was larger than life into real-life mode.
The role of social media when something like that happens is pretty astounding. As I wrote in my column, celebrities from all over were Tweeting well-wishes to Ware. From the hospital room, Ware's girlfriend Tweeted a photo of him holding the championship trophy.
There was plenty of debate on my timeline about CBS replaying the injury multiple times in its broadcast, then approving of its decision not to play it anymore. WDRB did not air a replay of the injury. At least one other station in Louisville chose to. Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated was catching grief for posting an old story he'd done on Ware's recruitment to Central Florida, which landed the school on probation. I didn't look at the story. I don't share the outrage of some who are angry. Maybe if I looked at it I would.
I do know that media would be well-served to remember that these guys are human begins, and not even professionals. Earlier this year, the newspaper ran an editorial cartoon that played off an x-ray of Nerlens Noel's injured knee. I thought it crossed the line.
Beyond Ware, though, the game itself provided abundant images.
With the score tied at 42-42, Seth Curry heating up and fouls mounting, I thought the situation for U of L looked bleak. The Cardinals would not have agreed.
U of L then hit Duke with a combination. It got enough of a stand defensively to ignite a spark, then played its most flawless offense of the season down the stretch. Guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith were untouchable.
Richard Pitino, the coach's son and Florida International's head coach, made the observation a day earlier in practice that Siva and Smith are better going north and south than laterally. He suggested that his dad tweak the high ball screen to get those two guards going more at the basket than parallel to it when they came off the screen. Duke couldn't touch it. Siva and Smith got into the lane at will. They "lived in our paint" as Mike Krzyzewski said they had done in the Duke victory over Louisville in November.
Chane Behanan nearly teared up in the locker room talking about Ware. Pitino did several times after the game talking about him.
On the court after the win, I asked Tom Jurich if he was surprised at the margin given the Ware injury and all the adversity. "Nothing that guy does surprises me," Jurich said of Pitino.
U of L president James Ramsey said he was sitting right in front of the spot where Ware went down. "It was a sickening thing," Ramsey said. "The amount of toughness these guys showed to come back after that is something the entire university will be proud of."
Sitting beside Jurich when it happened was U of L football coach Charlie Strong, who told the athletic director, speaking about Pitino, "He'll be fine. He just needs to get them in the locker room and refocus."
Covering a game for television is far different from covering for the newspaper. I'm still writing columns, but with the paper, I had one shot. For TV, I'll write several. I wrote five stories advancing the game in the hours leading up to it. My first column came on the reaction to Kevin Ware, because that was what people were wanting to hear about.
Next up I'll recap the entire game, and take my time doing it, trying to rebuild what happened from preparation to execution.
Of course, in television, there's always the TV element, going out and talking about the game on camera.
A year ago, the Final Four was a surprise. It was an intimate affair. There were only a few hundred U of L fans in Phoenix. The team was sequestered at a resort a half-hour from the arena. When the coaches went to a restaurant and bar for a post-game party, U of L fans took it over.
This team has expected the Final Four, would not be satisfied with not reaching it, and in fact will not be satisfied with just getting there.
"If we don't win a national championship," a player told me Saturday, "we've failed to get to our goal."
That player was Kevin Ware.
I remember seeing Tim Henderson enter the game and immediately making a play that won't show up in the stat sheet. He charged to cut off a dribbler in the pass, forcing a cross-court pass that was stolen. At the end of the game, Luke Hancock orchestrated a clearout that got Henderson a three.
Last year, because of production concerns, Henderson was left out of the newspaper's Final Four commemorative section for U of L. They'd better put him in this year. The Cards are going to need him in Atlanta.
The last guy I interviewed after last year's Elite Eight victory over Florida is the last guy I interviewed after this year's: Trainer Fred Hina.
Fred had a busy season last year. He was putting out fires every week. Pitino called him the "grim reaper," because every time he came into the office it was with more bad news.
That wasn't the case this season. This time, Hina was calmly explaining to the media what he'd done with Ware, the steps that were taken, what medical details he could give. He said he didn't respond to the severity of the injury when it happened, didn't have the emotional response. But the more he talked, the more you could tell it was hitting him in a delayed way.
I ran into U of L radio color analyst Bob Valvano wandering off the court after the team had gone back to the locker room, and he seemed almost dazed for a bit. He told me it had been a struggle to contain his emotions after watching the Ware injury and the team reaction. Later, he would write this reflection on it.
Finally, a year ago, on the airplane back from Phoenix, I marveled at the cavalier nature that you could hand your postseason fate to as unstable a force as Russ Smith down the stretch.
A year later, his were the hands you wanted the ball in. He was gassed. Every perimeter jumper he tried was pretty badly short. So he just went to the hole. He went to the hole exclusively. Not since watching Derrick Rose with Memphis have I seen guards get to the rim with the ease and efficiency of Siva and Smith in that game.
Before the game, I wrote about Smith and Gorgui Dieng, who bring such personality to the team. Dieng looked that the halftime box score, "When I saw I only had one rebound, I knew I had to really bring it in the second half." He did, with a second-half double-double, to finish with 14 points and 11 rebounds.
About the last thing I saw before heading off to write was equipment manager Vinny Tatum getting the regional championship trophy. He had someone to show it to. Later, a picture of the trophy surfaced on Twitter, and Ware was holding it. Pitino spent the night with him at the hospital.
Periodically through the season I've visited the U of L basketball office to meet with the coach. Since he arrived, there has been an empty spot in the U of L trophy case with a sign that reads, Reserved for the next NCAA championship trophy. For the Cards in Atlanta, their table is waiting.