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4/08/2008 10:18:00 AM
Musing On A Miracle ... And A Top 10 for 2008-09
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
SAN ANTONIO -- The hoops world is not ready to move on from Mario's Miracle just yet. It's unlikely that anyone packing up and leaving Alamo-land this morning -- from the media to the Kansas and Memphis contingents -- can get Monday night's drama out of their heads.
I'm just a greenhorn at this Final Four business (2008 was my fourth at SI), but I think this was a title-game finish for the ages, this decade's closest answer to the Keith Smart shot that stunned Syracuse when I was just 6 years old. There are certain things from Monday's finish that I'll forever remember: my vantage point on Mario Chalmers' three, from two rows back and to the left of Packer & Nantz; standing next to Chalmers and his mother, Almarie, as they embraced courtside; listening to Ronnie Chalmers in the Kansas locker room as he recounted sitting with Mario in the Alamodome at the 2004 Final Four, and how his son said that he would be playing for a championship some day. After watching two straight Final Fours full of blowouts, this was the payoff, the long-awaited shining moment.
The image in my head of Chalmers' shot is vivid enough to still give me goosebumps at 11 a.m. on Tuesday. And perhaps that's why I'm stuck on it; because any picture I try to form of next season is incredibly unclear. There's a chance that the Jayhawks could lose their entire starting five: Darnell Jackson and Russell Robinson are graduating, Brandon Rush is going pro, Darrell Arthur is leaning that way, and even the miracle man -- who wasn't thought to be potential early draft entrant as of last week -- is considering making the jump to the NBA.
If Chalmers were to return for his senior season, though, he could lead the Revenge of the Upperclassmen. The second straight tidal wave of one-and-done freshmen -- from Memphis' Derrick Rose, to UCLA's Kevin Love, to Kansas State's Michael Beasley -- are uniformly expected to enter June's draft. For the past two seasons one could scan a list of top recruits and envision how the college hoops landscape would soon be altered. Last April one could see that Love would boost the Bruins and Rose would take Memphis over the top, and I ran a top 10 in the magazine that nailed the '08 Final Four. As much as I'd like to pat myself on the back, those were not difficult predictions.
Examine the incoming recruits for '08, though, and you'll see that there is no truly transcendent rookie on the horizon. There are a few good ones -- such as McDonald's All-American game MVP Tyreke Evans, who might soon be bound for Memphis or Villanova, and Jrue Holiday, who should fill UCLA's expected backcourt vacancy -- but there is no Greg Oden or Derrick Rose. Teams will rely on upperclassmen to save them. Perhaps Super Mario can come to the rescue once again? And if not him, what about North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson, Texas' D.J. Augustin, UConn's Hasheem Thabeet, UCLA's Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook, and West Virginia's Joe Alexander? Their pro decisions will matter more than anyone else's.
In writing a top 10 for next season so early (a practice we can mutually acknowledge the absurdity of, but at the same time admit that we're reasonably interested in) it's necessary to make a few educated guesses. And so on top of the players who have already declared, I'm assuming there will be a few more. Among them: Memphis' Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts, Kansas State's Michael Beasley and Bill Walker, UCLA's Love and Collison, Kansas' Arthur, USC's O.J. Mayo and Texas' Augustin.
Everything will fall into place over the next three weeks. Until then, this is my best assessment:
1. NORTH CAROLINA - Will leaving San Antonio empty-handed inspire key Tar Heels to stay for another season? Hansbrough could become the first back-to-back Naismith Award winner since Ralph Sampson’s three-peat (1981–83) -- and along with Lawson, make another run at the title. If Ty takes off for the NBA, leaving UNC to make do with senior-to-be Bobby Frasor and incoming recruit Larry Drew at point guard, that championship will be more difficult to attain.
2. UCONN - The 87-inch question in Storrs is: Will Big East defensive player of the year Hasheem Thabeet (147 blocks) return and make the Huskies a title contender? Point guard A.J. Price (torn left ACL) is expected back for the ’08 opener.
3. UCLA - The next wave of Bruins backcourt stars -- led by polished combo guard Jrue Holiday -- arrives as part of Rivals.com's No. 2–ranked recruiting class. The pairing of Holiday with Russell Westbrook should keep UCLA atop the Pac-10.
4. PURDUE - Big Ten hegemony could begin here for coach Matt Painter, whose precocious band of underclassmen -- led by freshman guards (and former AAU teammates) E'Twaun Moore and Robbie Hummel -- came within one win of a conference title in ’08.
5. KANSAS - Senior All-Americas are a dying breed, but KU should have one in point guard Mario Chalmers -- plus a breakout star in Sherron Collins, who finished an injury-riddled season with a superb performance off the bench in the title game.
6. TEXAS - The Horns have nearly every piece of the championship puzzle: a three-point marksman (A.J. Abrams), a glue guy (Justin Mason), two versatile forwards (Damion James and Connor Atchley) ... but no tested point guard if Augustin bolts.
7. WEST VIRGINIA - If late-season sensation Alexander, a 6-foot-8 forward, sticks around for his senior year and teams up with top recruit Kevin Jones, a 6-7 forward, the Mountaineers will have a potent one-two punch in the frontcourt.
8. GEORGETOWN - Greg Monroe is no Greg Oden, but the 6-10 forward from Harvey, La., is the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2008 and will help fill the void left by center Roy Hibbert's graduation. Look for unsung point guard Jessie Sapp to emerge as the Hoyas' MVP.
9. DUKE - The Blue Devils lose DeMarcus Nelson (graduation) and Taylor King (transfer) -- and Mike Krzyzewski could tire after coaching the U.S. team in Beijing -- but the nucleus for a Final Four team, including versatile forwards Kyle Singler and Gerald Henderson, remains.
10. TENNESSEE - Junior-to-be forward Tyler Smith has All-America potential, but landing a five-star recruit --shooting guard Scotty Hopson -- on April 1 was huge for the Vols, who need scoring power after losing seniors Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith.
The rest of the top 30: Notre Dame, Michigan State, Pittsburgh, USC, Ohio State, Syracuse, Memphis, Florida, Kentucky, Texas A&M, Davidson, Marquette, Villanova, Baylor, Gonzaga, BYU, Wisconsin, Xavier, Louisville, Clemson.
SAN ANTONIO -- Sherron Collins was slipping, losing control of the ball with no whistle to save him, in much the same way Kansas had nearly let the national championship game slip out of reach two minutes earlier, falling behind Memphis 60-51 with 2:12 to go. But this was the denouement of a miracle rescue, and just like his Jayhawks, who had whittled the Tigers' lead to 63-60 on the final possession of regulation, Collins recovered, keeping hope alive. The play-call was "Chops," and Collins found a way to hand the ball off to Mario Chalmers on the right wing, with the final seconds ticking away. Collins turned to watch Chalmers fly toward the top of the key and launch a high-arching three-pointer, with overtime -- and the title -- hanging in the balance.
Athletes often struggle to do justice, in words, to the way they've awed a stadium full of 43,257 fans, or sent a nation of NCAA tournament viewers flying off their couches, and all Chalmers said of what he did with 2.1 seconds left at the Alamodome was that it was "a lucky shot." It barely eluded the outstretched right arm of Memphis freshman Derrick Rose, who was, until that moment, well on his way to becoming the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. Until that moment, the thought in Tigers coach John Calipari's head was that "we were the national champs."
The ball took what Collins said seemed "like five seconds" in the air, perfectly rotating, and Brandon Rush, who had positioned himself near the basket in the event of a tip, looked up at the net and "saw it splash right in there." Never mind that Chalmers lacked appropriate verbiage to describe what he had done -- tie the game and kill Memphis' spirit going into a one-sided overtime that finished 75-68, and make possible KU's first national title since 1988 -- because coach Bill Self did.
"It will probably be," said Self, "the biggest shot ever made in Kansas history."
Mario Chalmers (center) racked up 18 points, three rebounds and three assists and earned MOP honors.
Not even Danny and the Miracles, the last Jayhawks to cut down the nets (as a No. 6 seed) needed a shot like Chalmers' in their finale. Twenty years later, Danny Manning had a prime view of the Mario Miracle, as the assistant coach who had prepared the team's scouting report of Memphis for the title game. Ed Hightower, one of the refs from '88, was working the floor the floor again in '08, and while Manning said he was thinking "deja vu" when Chalmers launched it, the reason was not Hightower. Chalmers had hit the exact same shot -- on the same play -- to take Texas to overtime in last season's Big 12 tournament. "When this shot went in," said Manning of Monday night's three, "it gave us unbelievable energy, and we were able to roll in OT."
The Jayhawks went on a 6-0 run in the first 2:22 of overtime to bury Memphis' championship dreams. The Tigers looked shell-shocked in OT. Wouldn't you, if you were up nine with just over two minutes left, and watched it evaporate in some kind of sick nightmare? As Calipari said, "You have a lead like that, you're supposed to win the game."
What happened, then? How does one explain this breathtaking finish? If you listen to Chalmers' father, Ronnie, who happens to be KU's director of basketball operations, the sequence of events was nothing short of divine intervention.
Inside the left breast-pocket of Ronnie's suit on Monday night was a small scrap of white paper, a verse of scripture written on each side in pen. He took it out when Memphis' Robert Dozier was at the charity stripe, hitting the first of two free-throws that would put the Tigers up 60-51. On Kansas' bench, Ronnie silently read Psalm 46:1 to himself:
God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.
Perfect, thought Ronnie, because "we were in trouble at the time."
That nine-point lead that Memphis held seemed insurmountable; even Darnell Jackson, one of the steady seniors who helped KU win the rebounding war, 39-28, admitted that "a lot of us thought the game was over." Self, who gave his troops the message "You've just gotta believe" during late timeouts, admitted that he almost didn't believe it himself. "But I never thought it was dead," he said. "I never did. But I knew it didn't look very good."
So how do you claw back against a Memphis team that had blown away its last two opponents -- including another No. 1 seed, UCLA -- by simply running them off the floor in the second half? Or as Rose had described it, by "just hoopin'" better than any other team in the tournament?
The answer: You slow the Tigers down. You put them on the free-throw line, the area of their greatest weakness, in the final two minutes. Memphis had come into the dance as the nation's fourth-worst free-throw shooting team, but had hit 20-of-23 against the Bruins. So you foul in hopes that the percentages even out. You foul in hopes that this line, which Calipari had uttered in the previous day's press conference, would come back to haunt him:
"I think I have mentally tough kids. If they're relaxed, they're going to make free throws. A kid that's not mentally tough that shoots 90 percent, knees knocking, he's missing it. Percentage doesn't matter. And we've got tough kids."
And then you watch, as Chris Douglas-Roberts, who hit 9-of-11 free throws against UCLA, but was a 71.2 percent shooter from the stripe on the season, misses the front end of a one-and-one. There's 1:15 remaining, and you get the ball to Darrell Arthur for a jumper that cuts it to 62-60. You watch as Douglas-Roberts misses two more free throws with 16.8 seconds left, but Dozier gets an offensive rebound, and you have to send Rose back to the line with 10.8 on the clock.
He misses the first but makes the second. The score is 63-60. If you're Collins, you think to yourself, "Now I know we have chance."
Ronnie Chalmers had two scriptures in his pocket, if you recall. The second was from Psalms 46:10 -- Be still, and know that I am God -- and he read that one, too, at the start of the comeback. But even Ronnie had his doubts when he saw Collins make the handoff, and then witnessed his son let go the biggest shot in KU history. At first, Ronnie said, "I didn't really think he got a good look at it."
But just as Rush did from near the hoop, and Collins from the wing, and Mario, falling back from the top of the key, Ronnie then saw that the aim was true. He had sat with Mario for the 2004 Final Four in this very arena, as spectators for UConn's title run, and his son had said that one day he would be playing for a national championship. Mario's shot made Kansas' title possible, and Ronnie, when he watched it go in, simply said, "Thank God. Thank God."
Soon after the buzzer sounded, Mario ran off one end of the court to find his mother, Almarie, and locked her in a tight embrace. "We did it, mom, we did it," he said, with tears streaming down his face, and his freshly donned championship hat turned askew. After Mario let go, Almarie said that she had seen Mario do this before -- the game against Texas in 2007 -- and knew it could happen again. "When it hit the bottom of the net," she said, "I breathed."
Manning, the architect of Kansas' two-decades-old title run, stood with the team on the podium after the game, watching as One Shining Moment played out on the Alamodome's video boards. Almarie was on the floor, singing along, and eventually came footage of Mario's shot: the play of this tournament, one of the greatest shots in the history of the tournament, and the latest Jayhawk miracle. As Manning, the proud coach, raptly gazed at the montage, it looked as if he, like Mario, might have tears in his eyes.
"It was a beautiful video," Manning would say later. "Just a beautiful video."
SAN ANTONIO -- All hail our Tourney Blog Pool champ, Karen Kraus, who roots for Missouri but rode Kansas to the top of our 5,490-bracket field. The main prize of our Facebook pool -- aside from the high-fashion Final Four belt buckle that was pictured yesterday -- is wordwide blog fame, so we reintroduce you to Karen below:
2008 Tourney Blog Winner Karen Kraus, 24, Columbia, Mo. School: University of Missouri/Public Health Masters program Team: "I root for MU now, as I have for my entire life." Bracket Philosophy: "It drives people who put a lot of thought into their brackets crazy: I generally pick by ranking as I do not follow any teams except MU. I probably spent less than a minute on my bracket. I do it this way every year, and the strategy [if you even want to call it that] tends to work well although I have never won a pool."
That's right, folks; she spent less than a minute on her bracket. And she beat every one of you.
Rounding out the top 10 were: Elliot Chan (a UC-Berkeley student who was alone in second place), Charlie Stavlo, Doug Pellatz, Craig Giovannetti, Cody Nilson, Kevin Gossen, Jonathan Flaugher, Michael Hess, Darrell Schulz, Adam Riggs, Derrick Anderson and Jeff Coverdale. Thanks to all for playing, and thanks to most of you for beating me in the standings. I finished 2,544th. The full standings are here.