Focused Group (cont.)
Posted: Tuesday March 25, 2008 2:03PM; Updated: Wednesday March 26, 2008 12:05PM
If the Jayhawks can dispatch 12th-seeded Villanova on Friday, it would give Self the chance to finally break through . . . or become only the second coach (besides John Chaney) to make five Elite Eight appearances without a trip to the Final Four. Give some credit to Self for being honest, though, about his Week 2 Whammy. "If you get to that Elite Eight game, you probably had a pretty good season," he says. "But in order to have great seasons at a high-profile place like Kansas, you have to punch the ticket from time to time, and we have not done that."
While the Jayhawks are perhaps the nation's most balanced team, Stanford entered the tournament as its most top-heavy outfit, not least because its twin-tower front line produced more than half of its points. And though Brook Lopez did nothing to dispel the perception of Stanford as a two-man team, scoring 30 points and the last-second game-winner in an 82-81 second-round overtime win against Marquette, it was Johnson's school-record 16 assists, one turnover and calming halftime speech (after coach Trent Johnson had been ejected) that showed the Card's guard stigma may be undeserved. "We were rattled," said forward Taj Finger, "but Mitch is our vocal leader, and he was able to relax everybody."
The son of former NBA All-Star forward John Johnson, Mitch still bounces passes off his teammates' shins at times, but his junior-season stats are up from last year's in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.7 to 2.4) and three-point shooting (32.1% to 39.7%). This week, however, he'll face his greatest challenge yet. "The teams we play now, it's going to take more than two big guys to beat them," Johnson says, and a South Regional showdown with D.J. Augustin, Texas's All-America point guard, on Friday in Houston will prove whether the much-maligned Johnson has the chops to make a difference.
Then again, if the NCAA tournament has taught us anything over the years, it's that conventional wisdom is often a synonym for hooey. What was supposed to be the second straight Year of the Freshman came to a quick end as Michael Beasley of Kansas State, O.J. Mayo of USC and Eric Gordon of Indiana were all eliminated by last Saturday. Moving on instead were a pair of carbon-dated seniors who long ago were labeled busts. Xavier's 5' 7" Lavender and Wisconsin's 6' 11" Butch are so ancient, they both played in the 2003 McDonald's High School All-American Game alongside LeBron James, Chris Paul and Luol Deng. But five years later they're reigning over college basketball, happily scoffing at the snap judgments that rendered them failures when they struggled early in their college careers.
The operative word is career, and the lesson is that it's still possible to have a long and decorated one in the college ranks. (If you measure a college player solely by his pro potential, then you're probably better off skipping March Madness altogether.) No little man may leave a bigger footprint this week than Lavender, who watches tape of the Charlotte Bobcats' 5' 5" Earl Boykins for inspiration and regularly hears taunts referring to him as Webster or Gary Coleman from opposing fans. "It makes me laugh. I know I'm short and everything, but I've been getting it since the first day of college," says Lavender, whose family members all came to last week's Xavier games at Washington, D.C.'s Verizon Center wearing T-shirts silk-screened with the SI tournament-preview cover featuring his likeness.
Lavender played for two seasons at Oklahoma, but he transferred to Xavier in 2005 and took his hard-partying reputation with him -- at least until Musketeers coach Sean Miller arranged an intervention of sorts in the spring of '06 that included Lavender's mother, Shirlene Howard. "It was really emotional," Xavier assistant James Whitford says. Lavender choked up while revealing his grief over the death of Bruce Howard, his AAU and high school coach in Columbus, Ohio. The coach died from liver failure in '03, which deeply affected Drew, who says Howard "was everything to me."
Lavender rededicated himself to hoops, and he's no longer a fixture on the party scene. "When he's playing at his very best, we can beat anyone in the country," says Miller, whose Muskies will need a top performance from their point guard against West Virginia on Thursday in Phoenix (and even more in a potential West Regional final against top-seeded UCLA).
Like Lavender, Butch suffered the emotional strain of a loved one's illness -- his mother, Nancy, battled breast cancer, now in remission -- a year after he shocked the Badgers faithful by deciding to redshirt his freshman season to gain strength for the rough-and-tumble Big Ten. The result: Butch didn't earn a starring role until his fifth year in Madison. "The development I've had is what [college basketball] is all about," he says. "[Redshirting] definitely paid off in the end. I would have been able to help the team [as a true freshman], but not as much as I'm helping now." Underrated all season, the Big Ten champion Badgers can return to their first Final Four since 2000 with wins this week over Davidson and either 12th-seeded Villanova or, more likely, top-seeded Kansas, one of the few teams that can match Wisconsin's size.