Get inside March Madness with SI.com's Luke Winn in the Tourney Blog, a daily journal of college basketball commentary, on-site reporting and reader-driven discussions.
3/20/2008 05:05:00 PM
Life As A 16-Seed: How Portland State Prepared For The Dance
OMAHA, Neb. -- This is how a team simulates the impossible. They were scattered about a carpeted conference room, some wearing sneakers, some in sandals, all walking through a task that even at 9 a.m., in the quiet confines of the Crowne Plaza Hotel, seemed daunting: defending No. 1-seeded Kansas in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The players for No. 16-seeded Portland State, the Big Sky champions, were using a small, red rubber ball as a substitute sphere while the scout team acted out KU's offensive sets against the starters. The noise in the room was limited, mostly, to the commands of coach Ken Bone and assistant Tyler Geving, who had done the scouting report on the Jayhawks; calls of "Red! Red!" (their word for doubling-down on the posts); and the light thwacks of that rubber ball as it landed in the hands of each new player.
Four-and-a-half-hours later, the Vikings would be walking off the Qwest Center floor, 85-61 losers to a 32-3 KU team with the best offense in the nation. But on Thursday morning there was still a sliver of hope that Portland State, a 26,000-student commuter school making its first trip to the NCAA tournament, could become the first 16 seed to ever knock off a No. 1 -- and therefore, the greatest Cinderella in the history of the dance.
"It's not a very complicated offense," Geving said as he directed players around the conference room, "but they're very good at it. And when their guards catch it out here [on the perimeter], they explode to the hole." Bone -- a former Washington assistant under Lorenzo Romar who had piloted the Vikings here in just his third season -- had additional warnings: "We've got to play physical. I don't mean pushing and shoving with your hands, but with your body. Otherwise their bigs will have their way with you."
The Vikings, whose roster is a mosaic of 11 transfers, including a 5-foot-6 star at point guard (Jeremiah Dominguez), retreated to a film room down the hall for further preparations. A full personnel breakdown, led by Geving, featured highlights from Kansas' Big 12 tourney win over Texas; a win at Texas A&M earlier in the year, and a home rout of Texas Tech. Image after image of Jayhawks players lighting up the scoreboard flashed across the room's TV screen. There was Darrell Arthur in the post ("he likes that left shoulder," Geving said); Brandon Rush hitting mid-range jumpers ("he's aggressive, but he looks to pull up on drives; he won't try to throw one down on you"); Sherron Collins penetrating ("you need to give him a step on the perimeter, because he's extra-quick.")
Once the video was complete, the players rose, grabbed their backpacks and shoeboxes, and headed straight for the bus. Outside the lobby, the Crowne Plaza had manufactured a scene for the Vikings: a group of Portland State fans and hotel employees were flanking a red carpet that had been rolled out to the team motorcade. A police escort was waiting to take them to the Qwest Center, roughly 20 minutes to the east in downtown Omaha. (Life as a 16 seed means not only that you'll be overmatched in talent, but that you'll also be stuck in the farthest-away hotel.)
Portland State's on-campus arena, the Stott Center, seats only 1,500 fans, and it only sold out once this season. There was a reported attendance of 17,162 in the Qwest Center, the majority of them decked out in KU blue, ready to watch their Jayhawks rout a team that came in as a 22-point underdog. In the minutes leading up to game time, the Vikings huddled twice inside a tiny locker room, accessorized with nothing much more than a whiteboard, a TV and a table in the center. Geving ran through the personnel matchups one last time, with the scouting report pasted up on the corner of the whiteboard. Their defensive goals, written out in marker, were to jam the outlet on fast breaks, go under ball screens, double both posts and be physical on the boards. On offense, the three-pronged goal read "spacing, ball movement and attack" -- all of which sounded easier in theory than they would be in practice against the Jayhawks.
It must be a defining moment in a head coach's career to give his first pregame speech at an NCAA tournament. But the way the tourney's pregame is set up, with multiple entries and exits, a coach must essentially make two rousing speeches -- one before the final shootaround and one before the national anthem. Bone stepped in front of the room and delivered his opener:
Hopefully this is what you envisioned when you went to college, or where ever you went first. We've got a lot of guys that have been to college a few different places. But when you were a kid, or at junior college, or whatever, I would think that you're not different than 99 percent of the people out there, [thinking], 'Man, I want to get to the NCAA tournament.
Well you know what, we're here. We're here. Embrace it. Enjoy it, maximize every moment on the court. The worst thing that can happen is, if you sit here after the game, and think -- even though you personally might not admit it -- that, 'Man I wish I would have just sprinted one more time in transition.' Or, 'I wish I would have got back, wish I would have taken that charge.' That's on you. You've gotta do the best you can. And if we do, and we can turn it into a 30-minute game, the pressure is on them, big time. Because they have failed recently. Now let's go!
Bone's second message echoed his first -- although he chose to lighten the mood at the conclusion, referencing a player, freshman Justynn Hammond, who began the season in the Vikings' rotation but was no longer with the team. The room broke into laughter, cutting the tension for a few brief moments.
Seniors, lead us any way you can. On the bench, off the bench, in team huddles. Whatever you can do, lead us. Other than that: Like we talked about earlier: Leave it on the court. We are going to play as hard as we can. Because our aspirations are to do what no one else has done: Knock off a No. 1, and turn around and stay here a few more days and play on Saturday. That's what we want to do. It can't be done unless we totally bring it. Which I'm confident we will. And all 12 of you -- we have not heard from J-Ham; though he might show, he hasn't showed up yet -- so it's up to us. [Laughter]. So let's go.
The Vikings soon made their way onto the court, with their band blaring the school's fight song and the Qwest Center P.A. announcer booming, "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Vikings of Portland State." Their dream, unfortunately, deflated quickly after that: KU jumped out to a 14-3 lead in the first six minutes, a 49-26 lead at halftime, and hug on for a 24-point victory. Just four minutes into the game, at the 16:09 mark, a sequence illustrated how little hope PSU had of hanging with the Jayhawks. Mario Chalmers flew from behind forward Kyle Coston and blocked his three-point attempt, then saved the ball from going out of bounds by throwing it to Russell Robinson. He, in turn, heaved it up to Arthur, who had already raced up floor past the Vikings' frontcourt, and Arthur threw down a ferocious dunk. "We don't play teams like Kansas every day," Dominguez said. "We don't see those kind of athletes in our league."
Bone was asked, afterward, what it might take for a 16 seed to eventually beat a No. 1. He hypothesized the 16 would probably need one of those rare, game-changing NBA sleeper prospects, or have to be running an abnormal system like the Princeton offense. "Unfortunately," Bone said, "we don't have either."
His mood changed two questions later, though, when asked about what he said in the game's final TV timeout, with 2:09 left and his Vikings trailing 82-58. Bone's eyes welled up as he retold a speech about the season being a long five months, and him telling the players "how proud I was of what they've accomplished."
As he made a somber walk back toward Portland State's locker room, having to avoid a pack of TV cameras surrounding Kansas coach Bill Self, Bone reflected that whatever he had done to prepare his team for battle against a No. 1 seed, "I didn't do it well enough." He will surely dwell on that in the offseason, but should not let it become an extended source of agony. As much as the Vikings tried, there is no real way to game-plan for the impossible.