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.
3. Execution takes many forms. With guard Sean Dockery out with a bum right knee, no real substitute available for frontcourt stud Shelden Williams, and floor leader Daniel Ewing liable to pick up technical fouls (he had four in the last seven regular-season games), Duke can't even be sure that its most important players will be around for the final five minutes. Hence coach Mike Krzyzewski's vigorous working of the refs, lest a Blue Devil get tagged with any fouls he doesn't fully deserve.
4. One well-executed play can turn a season around. Oklahoma runs a set called Circle, in which the point guard circles through the backcourt to gain momentum before taking an inbounds pass and heading up the floor. Guard Drew Lavender ran it to perfection at Kansas State on Feb. 19, receiving the ball and dashing three quarters of the court to toss in a layup to beat the Wildcats by a point. It was the key victory during a six-game winning streak that gave the Sooners a share of the Big 12 title.
5. The ability to execute in the clutch can't always be quantified. Sometimes an ineffable something courses through a locker room and along a bench. Take the case of Michigan State. By almost any empirical measure this season's Spartans ought to be master executioners. At the end of the regular season they were tied for first in the nation in free throw shooting (79.1%) and ranked fifth in assists per game (18.0) and ninth in field goal percentage (49.9). But upon closer examination they hardly resemble coach Tom Izzo's national champs of five years ago, who scored on at least 80% of their possessions after a timeout. Their leading scorer, guard Maurice Ager (13.6 points per game), tends to come up big in little games and little in big ones. The Spartans muffed five of their last eight free throws in a defeat at Duke; at Indiana they blew a six-point lead in the final four minutes; and guard/forward Alan Anderson, 86.1% from the line, missed two free throws with 6.5 seconds left in Michigan State's 71-69 loss to Iowa in the Big Ten tournament. Though the Spartans can point to 22 victories, they have yet to win by five points or fewer.
So don't get caught up in "I'll be the hero." Go Spike Lee on us and do the right thing. And squeeze that orange. Ask any shrink: Possession is just another word for madness, and, madness, thy name is March.
5 GOOD HANDS PEOPLE
Here are the players in whose clutches you'd most want to see the ball when the game's on the line
DERON WILLIAMS, G, Illinois
Illini's powerful (6'3", 210 pounds) junior point guard, who led the Big Ten in assists (6.5 per game), may be the nation's savviest decision-maker. The sure-handed Williams will protect the rock down the stretch, and if the play breaks down, he's solid enough from the field (42.6%) to hoist it up himself.
SEAN MAY, C, North Carolina
His viselike grip means the 6'9", 266-pound Tar Heels junior won't easily surrender the ball. A jump-hooking inside threat (16.7 points average), the relentless May can go back up and grab his misses, and he's reliable (75.7%) from the line. Double him down low, and you leave another dangerous Heel open.
ANDREW BOGUT, C, Utah
As the best-passing big man in the country (2.3 assists a game), the Utes' 7-foot, 240-pound sophomore will most likely see an open man before the defender does. Like May, Bogut can score (20.7 average) and follow his shot (3.6 offensive boards). He shoots an adequate 72.8% from the line.
MIKE WILKINSON, F, Wisconsin
With his ability to score from inside or out, the Badgers' 6'8", 240-pound senior, a 50.8% shooter from the field, is one tough matchup. Ever around the ball, Wilkinson makes good things happen even when he misses: Guard Alando Tucker rebounded his last-minute air ball to beat Indiana.
CHRIS PAUL, G, Wake Forest
Pick your poison: The Demon Deacons' nonpareil 6-foot sophomore point can beat you off the dribble, with his teardrop floater, by dishing, from the line (83.0%) or with the dagger from beyond the arc (49.4%). At North Carolina State he sank a tying trey, then a game-winning 12-footer at the horn.
5 DO-OR-DIE BIG SHOTS
Along with Duke's J.J. Redick, these top guns are the tournament's best late-game options
SALIM STOUDAMIRE, G, Arizona
The nation's deadliest three-point shooter (an otherworldly 52.5%) with unconscionable range, the Wildcats' 6'1" senior uses that outside prowess to set up the dribble-drive. The upshot: The scorching Stoudamire did in UCLA and Arizona State this season with end-of-game-winners.
CARL KRAUSER, G, Pittsburgh
Pitt's leading scorer (15.6 points a game), the sturdy (6'2", 200 pounds) Panthers junior point guard is utterly fearless in pressure situations. Ask Syracuse, whose hearts Krauser broke on Valentine's Day, draining a decisive trey with 54 seconds left in Pitt's come-from-behind, 68-64 win.
FRANCISCO GARCIA, F, Louisville
Versatile 6'7" Cardinals junior proved his last-second mettle against Marquette: Disdaining a timeout after a Golden Eagles miss, Garcia rammed the ball downcourt and, with 2.6 seconds left, launched the three-pointer that gave Louisville a 64-61 win. He's also an 87.2% free throw shooter.
CHRISTIAN MARAKER, F, Pacific
Supremely prepared (like all Tigers) for last-minute emergencies, sweet-shooting (51.9% from the field) 6'9" junior clinched one of the season's most amazing comebacks--from eight points down with 37 seconds to go versus Utah State--by hitting a foul-line jumper with 2.5 seconds left.
JOHN LUCAS, G, Oklahoma State
Cool hand Lucas's three-pointer with 6.9 seconds left against Saint Joseph's sent the Cowboys to last year's Final Four. In an end-of-game situation defenders who don't want to give the slithery 5'11" junior too much room crowd him at their peril: He's a 89.2% free throw shooter.
5 TOUGH LATE CALLS
Decisions, decisions: These knotty end-of-game scenarios keep tournament coaches awake at night
Certain strategies for down-to-the-wire games seem to arise repeatedly in postseason play. We canvassed a sampling of coaches, all with considerable tournament experience, to try to settle once and for all what to do when:
1 -- You're on defense with a three-point lead in the final 10 seconds. Do you send the other team to the free throw line for two shots rather than let it launch a potential game-tying three?
This is the conundrum that produced the broadest disagreement. "We're not fouling," says Alabama coach Mark Gottfried. "As I'm reaching to foul you, you're going to put the ball in the air and turn it into a [potential] three-pointer. I'm going to guard you and make you make a tough shot to beat me." Says Mississippi State's Rick Stansbury, "I foul every time." Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, Connecticut's Jim Calhoun and Oklahoma's Kelvin Sampson are in the don't-foul camp. Arizona's Lute Olson is, too, generally, while North Carolina's Roy Williams and Florida's Billy Donovan both say foul away.
CONSENSUS: Don't foul.
2 -- You're up a point in the final two seconds, and your opponent must inbound from underneath his own basket. Do you put a defender on the baseline to harass the passer or drop him back to help stop a long pass from being completed?
After Grant Hill's uncontested 75-foot pass to Christian Laettner in the last ticks of Duke's 1992 East Regional final defeat of Kentucky, the consensus seemed to swing to the smother-the-passer side. But Gottfried, Boeheim and Williams disagree: "I'd prefer five against your four," says Gottfried, referring to the defensive thicket downcourt from the passer. To Donovan it depends: If the inbounder can run the baseline, Donovan will use a defender to harass him; otherwise he sends that man back as a free safety.
3 -- You're down a point with 10 seconds to play and have just grabbed a defensive rebound. Do you call timeout to set something up or just let your guys play?
Most coaches go with the flow unless they see something ominous--their floor leader denied the ball; the defense back and established; a critical scorer on the bench who needs to get back in the game. Olson notes the downside risk of allowing the defense time to regroup and plot strategy: "If you call a timeout, now does the other team come out in a zone or in a man?" Adds Sampson, "Sometimes the broken play is the best play."
CONSENSUS: Don't call time.
4 -- One of your key players picks up his fourth foul with five minutes left in a tie game. Do you sit him down or let him play?
This is the call that's most dependent on personnel. "You have to play to win at that point," says West Virginia coach John Beilein. "We'd leave him in and change the matchup or go zone." A trusted, even-tempered senior gets the benefit of the doubt, as Vermont coach Tom Brennan makes clear about his star forward, Taylor Coppenrath: "If it's Tay, I live with him."
CONSENSUS: See your guy through.
5 -- You're down three points in the final 20 seconds. Do you hunt a three-point shot, or go for a quick two and a steal or foul?
Even 15 seconds, says Pacific coach Bob Thomason, is plenty of time to go for two and count on your defense to make a steal or put a poor foul shooter on the line. A team protecting a lead is usually on orders not to foul, so a quick slash to the basket can pay off. "You go for two because the percentage is up, unless you have just an incredible [three-point] shooter," says Calhoun.
CONSENSUS: Go for two. --A.W.
5 GREAT LATE PLAYS
We count down a quintet of the best-executed late-game plans in tournament history
5 -- Princeton shows defending champion UCLA the first-round backdoor, 1996 Southeast Regional. With nine seconds left the Tigers' Gabe Lewullis cuts backdoor, only to be shadowed by the Bruins' Charles O'Bannon. But during the previous timeout coach Pete Carril told Lewullis to knock twice--so Lewullis drifts back out to the wing, cuts again, fields a bounce pass from center Steve Goodrich and makes the layup to give Princeton its 43-41 victory.
4 -- Connecticut's Tate George twists in a turnaround to defeat Clemson, 1990 East Regional semifinal. Huskies freshman Scott Burrell hurls a full-court inbounds pass with a second to play. George catches it in the right corner, turns and throws in the shot to give Connecticut a 71-70 victory and a date with ...
3 -- ... Duke and Christian Laettner, who beat UConn, 1990 East Regional final. With 2.6 seconds to play in overtime, Laettner inbounds from the frontcourt sideline, then takes a return pass and flicks home a double-pumped jumper for a 79-78 victory.
2 -- Laettner stuns Kentucky with a buzzer beater, 1992 East Regional final. After fielding Grant Hill's 75-foot pass, Laettner fakes left, turns right, then guides in a turnaround jumper that gives Duke a 104--103 overtime victory. The play becomes a touchstone in the debate over whether to guard the inbounder.
1 -- Bryce Drew of 13th-seeded Valparaiso beats No. 4 Mississippi, 1998 Midwest Regional first round. With 2.5 seconds to play, Bryce's dad, Crusaders coach Homer Drew, orders a play called Pacer. Jamie Sykes hurls an inbounds pass from the baseline to 6'6" Bill Jenkins, who's standing just past midcourt. Jenkins leaps to catch it and, before his feet hit the ground, flips the ball to Bryce Drew streaking up the right sideline. Drew's 23-footer swishes through to stun Ole Miss 70-69. --A.W.