PERHAPS THE GODS OF THE GAME intended it as a five-part passion play, a bit of homiletic pageantry to refer to over the coming weeks as we make our way to St. Louis. On March 6, the final Sunday of the regular season, five marquee games involving six Top 10 teams were decided by a total of 10 points, and four of those games hung on a last possession. NBA games may not be decided until the proverbial final two minutes, but college basketball in March--when players spend every late possession "squeezing the orange," to use CBS analyst Clark Kellogg's wonderful phrase for taking care of the ball--often telescopes down to a more microcosmic level.
In reality, the outcome of most NCAA tournament games is played out in a somewhat greater amount of time: the final five minutes. So it's worth analyzing which plays coaches call and how players execute in that span, and not only because CBS will present the tournament as a succession of late-game look-ins. It's also worth focusing on the endgame because in last year's NCAAs, even after allowing for the inevitable No. 1 versus No. 16 and No. 2 versus No. 15 blowouts, the margin of half the games stood at five points or fewer sometime in the final five minutes of regulation. Two of those games went into overtime--by definition, a five-minute, wiped-clean window. The teams that tend most fastidiously to the last-minute details are the ones most likely to reach a Final Four that will cap one of the most balanced, satisfying and flat-out eye-pleasing seasons in memory.
Who will those teams be? Oklahoma State, Louisville and Vermont have a knack for getting a good look out of a timeout. Kentucky, Wisconsin and Michigan State artfully use the length of their benches, whether to exploit a mismatch or to protect a player with four fouls. No teams are more adept at making passes that lead to good shots than North Carolina, Illinois, Washington and Utah State. Meanwhile, the Illini and the Badgers are among the best in the field at taking care of the ball--suggesting that the Big Ten, maligned all year, may be particularly well-suited to the citrus-caressing imperatives of the tournament. As for free throw shooting, you put UTEP (79.1% at regular season's end), Arizona (77.6), Texas Tech (76.4), Niagara (75.8) or Gonzaga (74.6) on the line at your peril--while the fortunes of Kentucky (66.5), Pittsburgh (65.7) and that fully accredited school of 15-foot masonry, Syracuse (66.4), could depend on their ability, or inability, to shoot unguarded. Which recalls Louisville (72.9) coach Rick Pitino's comment three years ago about Cardinal Joseph N'Sima, who was 46.3% from the line: "I'm a coach who believes in execution, and when I see him shoot free throws, I want to execute him."
The list of players in whom their coaches have complete trust extends well beyond our five late-game Good Hands People (box, right) to such guards as Washington's Nate Robinson, Syracuse's Gerry McNamara, Charlotte's Eddie Basden, North Carolina's Raymond Felton, Villanova's Allan Ray and Boston College's Jermaine Watson, as well as Final Four veterans Jarrett Jack of Georgia Tech and John Lucas of Oklahoma State and any guard in an Illinois uniform. When it comes to last-shot specialists (box, page 51), Arizona so trusts the sublime Salim Stoudamire that it will set up a game of final-seconds one-on-one to determine its fate, hopping into a 1--4 set to isolate Stoudamire on some pitiable defender. Just before Stoudamire took an inbounds pass against Arizona State that preceded his hanging, game-winning 14-footer, Arizona's center Channing Frye stood near forward Ike Diogu of the Sun Devils. Says Frye, "I wanted to say, 'Ike, I'm really sorry, but he's going to make it.'"
Come March we don't usually ask much more of mid-majors than to provide quaint storylines. But because non-BCS schools must make up for inferior talent with superior execution, they're also likely to nurture a core of upperclassmen whose poise can carry the day when a game comes down to a handful of touches. Take Big West champion Pacific. Fourteen times this season the Tigers have found themselves in games that stood at differentials of five points or fewer in the final five minutes. They've won 13 of them, including all five on the road. It's hardly an accident: Pacific works on "the short game," as Bob Thomason, the Tigers' coach for 17 seasons, calls it, beginning with the second practice of the season. Up a point with 10 seconds to play, or down two with five--there's hardly a permutation of time and score that Pacific doesn't tabletop. Thomason's rules: Make sure you get a shot off; make sure that shot is somewhere near the basket, where you might draw a foul; and don't hunt a three-pointer. "Now, if you've tried to get inside and get fouled and you can't, and as a result have to take a three, your chances of making one are a whole lot better," says Thomason, who reasons that defenders will be so concerned about the layup that they'll have laid off the perimeter. "But in the short game you need to eliminate getting caught up in 'I'll be the hero.' We work to make the whole team the hero, to make the guys who pass or set screens the heroes."
A perfect example of Pacific's methodical approach came on Jan. 8 at UC Irvine, where the Tigers trailed by two with a minute to play. "We made a stop, got the ball inside for a layup, made another stop and hit one at the buzzer," says Thomason, who notes that four different players have won games in the late stages for his team this season. "Our point guard penetrated and gave it up. There's a calmness to our team. They're given a play with three options, so they can say, 'Hey, Coach has a plan.' But they also have the confidence to make a play on their own if things break down."
Simply working on the short game instills that confidence. "Maybe you lose in practice," Thomason says. "But the more we screw up the short game in practice, the better we do in games. It teaches us what to do the next time." Indeed, seven years ago Valparaiso pulled off what might be the most beautifully executed play in tournament history (box, page 54), a sequence that the Crusaders had made a mess of during a regular-season game against Western Illinois. On the big stage they used slightly different personnel--three seniors figured this time--and the play still runs round the clock at the Highlight Heaven Cineplex.
Here are five more truisms about endgame execution:
1. Break what's left of the game into stages. On Passion Play Sunday, with his team trailing Duke by nine and slightly more than three minutes to play, North Carolina coach Roy Williams asked for one thing: "total commitment to every possession." The Tar Heels scored the game's final 11 points to win.
2. If you have to draw up a new play, you've already lost. Williams spends so much time prepping the short game that he scarcely needs to reach for the greaseboard. Three years ago, when he was coaching at Kansas, the Jayhawks went 16--0 in the Big 12 even though they trailed Iowa State, Texas and Nebraska by two or more points in the final two minutes. "We ran plays in those situations and were able to get great shots," recalls TCU coach Neil Dougherty, then one of Williams's assistants. Dougherty also points out that Kansas's win over the Cornhuskers came when a Jayhawks freshman sank a three-pointer on the second option of a well-drilled play. That freshman, Keith Langford, is now a senior, and his late shots this season beat Georgia Tech and extended Texas Tech to overtime.