Well, I figure I gave Washington and Cornell, my home team and adopted team, the kiss of death by rooting for them.
Both teams lost by double digits in the East Regional semifinals. But one executed a well thought out offensive game plan while the other looked confused and disorganized.
Cornell can look back on their game against the most talent-loaded team in the tournament and think “maybe if a few more threes go down, things get tight at the end…maybe…”
After an inspired start in which four great shots flowed from their offense (Jeff Foote jump hook, two jumpers for Louis Dale, Ryan Wittman from deep), Kentucky’s defense stymied the Big Red Machine by forcing Cornell’s guards to over-dribble. Midway through the first half the Wildcats took over by creating turnovers and running out off of missed shots.
Cornell did everything they could to create conditions for victory against the hyper athletic Wildcats. More than a few things went their way: they kept the score low, Kentucky was shaky from the free throw line (61%), and the Big Red were in legitimate striking distance with five minutes left, down just six.
But Cornell was able to execute only half of their game plan. As starting guard Chris Wroblewski told me a few days ago “If we’re shooting the ball like [in the first two rounds], and running our offense, and taking care of the ball like that, I think it’s going to be a very competitive game.”
They certainly didn’t shoot it from deep like they had against Wisconsin and Temple (only 24% against UK), and Kentucky’s pressure produced 15 turnovers, including 12 steals. These rips often came from one-on-one battles that showcased the Wildcats’ quickness and talent.
One play was emblematic of the game. In the first half, Cornell got Ivy player-of-the-year Ryan Wittman in a wing isolation with no weak-side help. Wittman read the defense and made a strong move to the baseline, only to be cut off by Kentucky’s lightning quick feet. The Wildcats took the ball, and took off running.
Even when the Big Red got the look they wanted, they couldn’t get the buckets they needed.
But Cornell didn’t hand the game to Kentucky. The ‘Cats just brought too much heat, hustle and scariest of all, heart. Patrick Patterson and DeMarcus Cousins owned the glass, Wall and Bledsoe were intelligent and devastating in the open court, and Kentucky’s defense had no trouble with Cornell’s “dribble hand-off” motion offense. It just wasn’t meant to be for the Big Red.
For Washington fans, there are no such consolations.
It’s hard to knock coach Lorenzo Romar, the resume is solid. Back-to-back Pac-10 tournament champions. A 7-5 NCAA tournament record. Three Sweet 16 appearances since 2005. A number of stud recruits that have gone on to the NBA (Hawes, Brockman, Roy, Robinson and Bobby Jones). So why do no Seattle hoopaholics believe in him?
Well, last night’s game was a perfect example of the flaws associated with a Lorenzo Romar team. Nasty but foul-prone defenders, great one-on-one offensive skills, frenetic pace in transition, seemingly no clue in the half court offense. Athletic and fierce enough to bully teams in the early rounds, but too undisciplined to advance past the Sweet 16.
Romar is a stellar recruiter and has brought unprecedented talent to Hec Edmundson. He clearly motivates his teams—no one can question how hard the Huskies played last night. And I admit you have to accept some of the mindless errors intrinsic to the pace and intensity that Washington needed to force on the bruising Mountaineers. But they just looked so undisciplined.
How many times did West Virginia miss a lay up in transition only to have two Mountaineers sprinting to the put-back while three Huskies watched at half court? How many times did the sneering Venoy Overton make a world class defensive play and then immediately give the ball back with a boneheaded fast-break decision? You can’t force 23 turnovers, including 14 steals, and only score 56 points.
I was talking to my Dad during the game, and we decided that Romar needs an offensive coordinator, a true X’s and O’s specialist. A team can’t rely on transition play alone, especially against the disciplined teams that make it deep into the tourney.
It was heartbreakingly obvious, even early on, that West Virginia was going to pull away sooner or later. The Mountaineers’ rugged motion offense continually squished the Huskies with freethrow line curl rubs and block-to-block cross screens. Eventually the WVU shots in the paint started to drop.
On their own end, the Huskies seemed to be playing pick-up. It was as if Romar gathered them in the huddle and said, “Just put your head down and dribble until you are in too much trouble to do anything!” There was no visible attempt to move the ball around, probe and manipulate the defense, or manufacture opportunities for open shots through any method other than the dribble drive.
It’s possible a better offensive scheme wouldn’t have made much difference. West Virginia’s whole team looked more mature and muscular. As many predicted, this showed on the boards, where the Mountaineers climbed over the slighter Huskies, earning a 16 rebound advantage.
The Dawgs had to gamble on defense in hopes of creating more possessions to mitigate the offensive rebounds WVU would inevitably get. It was the right defensive plan, maybe their only chance.
The question is, on offense, did the Huskies even have a plan? (Cue Washington fans shaking their heads). Sadly for the Purple and Gold, it was just RoLo Ball as usual.
Picture the potential of a team with the Huskies’ quickness and talent, executing a half court offense like Cornell’s that emphasizes dribble drives but also cutting and screening, while maintaining focus on defensive pressure and transition offense. The addition of an X’s and O’s guy to the coaching team could make it happen.