Sunday, January 21, 2007

Wyoming @ Utah: Sailors, Ferrin, Mikan and The Great Santini

In 1943 Wyoming captured the schools only NCAA basketball championship. After winning the Mountain States Conference championship Coach Ev Shelton and the Cowboys defeated Oklahoma, Texas, and Georgetown to win the championship in the NCAA tournament. Legendary Kenny Sailors of Hillsdale, Wyoming averaged 15.5 points per game and Milo Komenich averaged 16.7 points per game in leading the team to the championship. The team finished the season with a 31-2 record.

Along with Hank Luisetti of Stanford, Sailors is arguably regarded as the inventor of the jump shot, Conroy himself disputes the fact.

"'When your father came to this part the Midwest, everyone shot with two hands. When he left, everyone shot with one hand. Your old man brought the one-handed shot to Iowa.'" Conroy being told by his father's longtime friend Ray Ambrose that the Great Santini in fact invented the jump shot. Conroy's father played high school basketball in 1938 exactly the same time Sailors was shooting the shot in Hillsdale!

Wyoming's championship likely would not have happened had the season not coincided with World War II. That same year Illinois finished the season 17-1, but their season was cut short as all five starters headed off to active duty in the armed forces. Illinois had finished the regular season as the nations' top ranked team, but did not participate in either the NCAA or NIT tournament that season as a higher duty called.

A year later, Utah captured the Mountain States Conference championship and its only national championship under a set a nearly identical circumstances. Arkansas, this time was victimized by a freak auto accident. Just prior to the NCAA tournament, two of Arkansas five starters were injured when their station wagon broke down after returning from a scrimmage game in Fort Smith, Arkansas. While trying to fix a flat tire, two of the starters on the team, Deno Nichols and Ben Jones were injured when another car rammed into the back of the station wagon. Both players never walked again. The severity of the incident caused Arkansas to withdraw from the upcoming NCAA tournament. In need of a replacement, the NCAA committee turned to Utah, inspite of the fact that the Utes had 4 losses and had just lost their first round game in the NIT tournament. The Utes promptly went out and beat Missouri, Iowa State and Dartmouth in overtime en route to the schools only NCAA championship. Similar to Wyoming, Utah was led by a couple of local kids - Arnie Ferrin who would was named MVP of the Final Four, Fred Sheffield and interestingly Wat Misaka who was himself of Japanese decent.

Importantly, Depaul led by a junior center George Mikan, went 22-4 in 1944, and was largely regarded as the premiere college basketball team in the country that same year, but lost in an upset loss in the NIT tournament.

Only a year - 1943 - before Utah won the championship the man who became the Great Santini took on Mikan and Depaul, Conroy writes, "In a practice game against DePaul Dad outscored a young sophomore by the name of Geoge Mikan, the first great big man in the game. George Mikan was named the best basketball player in the first fifty years of the twentieth century. . . My father had outscored the best basketball player of his time. 'I caught Mikan young, before he became George Mikan.'" Conroy's father explained.

Somehow, the man who would become Bull Meecham in The Great Santini managed to avoid both Kenny Sailors and Arnie Ferrin!

Both Sailors and Ferrin, after capturing the NCAA tournament championships, lead their teams to wins over NIT champion St. John's in front of capacity crowds at Madison Square Garden in war effort benefit games organized by the Red Cross.

The game has changed. In 1944, Utah had one player, Lyman Condie a medical student, who midway through the season quit the team to pursue medical school. Additionally, in 1944 all of Utah's players were raised within 30 miles of the Utah campus. Wyoming's stars were from Hillsdale, Wyoming and Green River, Wyoming (Jim Weir). Today, Wyoming's star point guard is from Chicago, Illinois and Utah's star center is from Australia. In fact all but one of Wyoming's players (Eric Platt) is from another state or country. Utah has only Sean Green and Daniel Deane as regular players raised in Utah.

The game is back and forth, as neither team able to take control, but Wyoming's leading scorer Brandon Ewing picks up his third foul with only 6:11 left in the first half and is forced to take a place on the bench for the rest of the half. The Utes use the advantage to take a two point lead into the half.

With Ewing back, Wyoming opens up seven point lead in the second half, but Utah's Australian Center Luke Neville scores 14 points and is able to use his height to get a couple of key baskets. A late charge call goes against Wyoming and Utah's Sean Green of Salt Lake City hits two free throws to put the Utes up by four points. It almost isn't enough as Eric Platt of Casper hits a late three pointer and three free throws. The Cowboys get a last possession with 4.0 second left but Brad Jones' runner misses and Utah escapes with a 62-60 win.

Neither Ferrin, Sailors, Mikan or Bull Meecham are in attendance.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Air Force

"Winning basketball games in a military college is as perilous a way to earn a living as exists in American coaching." Conroy on coaching at a military academy.

The statement is supported by Conroy's alma mater The Citadel which enters it's game against Davidson this same evening with a record of 6-12, having still never reached the NCAA tournament. Additionally, Army has still never reached the NCAA tournament. Only the Naval Academy has had a level of basketball success as a military institution, having reached the NCAA tournament 9 times.

Air Force's two recent NCAA appearances and 17-1 mark and number 13 ranking this year has defied the long odds that plague military schools. The Falcons have won 13 straight games with a 17-1 record. They have large margin victories over Texas Tech, Wake Forest, Stanford and Colorado - all from major conferences. The latest Bracketology lists the Falcons as a #3 seed in the future NCAA tournament. The same seed line as Duke, Pittsburg, and Clemson.

Six years ago the Air Force basketball program was a joke. It traditionally finished dead last in the conference. Joe Scott brought the Princeton offense with him and Air Force made the NCAA tournament his last season. He left after the successful season, saying exactly what Conroy wrote above - the Academy just had too many strikes against it and it really wasn't possible to consistently win there. A year ago, Jeff Bdzilik took over, tweaked the Princeton offense and made the NCAA tournament again. This year, the Falcons have gone beyond even the wildest Zoomie fans expectations. Their only loss was against Duke.

Utah has lost six straight games, it's the longest losing streak Utah has had in 56 years. The talk on the local radio shows is that Coach Ray Giacoletti's job may be in jeopardy if things don't turn around quickly.

What happened next is exactly why basketball games are played. Utah takes the lead early expands it to 15 points and never relinquishes it. Utah center Luke Neville goes 8 for 8 scores 18 points, the Utes shoot 70% from the field, Neville uses his height advantage and dominates against the smaller Falcons. Air Force does show a lot of fight, hitting five straight three point baskets or plays down the stretch to cut the deficit to five points, but ultimately, Utah doesn't fold, withstands the rally and uses their home court advantage to pull away to a totally unexpected 85-79 victory. The improbability of the victory causes dozens of fans to storm the court after the victory. The rematch will be February 14th in Colorado Springs.

The Citadel also lost tonight 79-54 to Davidson. Their record drops to 6-12. This weekend Army and Navy will play on Saturday and Sunday in a new scheduling format utilized by the Patriot League.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

College of Southern Idaho

The all time record of the College of Southern Idaho is 1129-210 - a winning percentage of .847. It is the winningest junior college basketball program in the country. The program was first coached by legendary Eddie Sutton who went on to hold head coaching positions at both Kentucky and Oklahoma State. He is the only coach to lead four different schools to the NCAA tournament. As Sutton tells the story, when he arrived at CSI the school didn't even exist and the President told him that his job was "to make a school." His first games were played at a local high school. Boyd "Tiny" Grant who later coached at Colorado State and Fresno State followed Sutton and Fred Trenkle who later coached at San Diego State followed Grant. The current coach is Barrett Peery who clearly appreciates what has been built and what he has at CSI after stints at Southern Utah, Utah Valley and Portland State as an assistant coach.

CSI has won two national championships, but it has been 20 years since Fred Trenkle lead the 1987 squad to a 38-1 record and their last national championship. Expectations are high at CSI. On Saturday, January 14, 2007 they host Salt Lake Community College. The previous night, SLCC pulled off a shocking one point victory to drop CSI's record to 15-2.

"When I think of the word "snakepit," the image of the claustrophic, hostility-steeped field house where Clemson University played their basketball games comes to mind." Pat Conroy.

If Conroy had played junior college basketball he would have envisioned the College of Southern Idaho Fieldhouse instead of Clemson's field house. The ends of the arena at CSI are plastered with booster signs from around the Twin Falls community, any business would be hard pressed to find a place to put another sign. The lower section of the arena has a wait list for season tickets and all seats are chairback. The booster club has raised over one hundred thousand dollars this year alone and the prime banner locations correspond to the largest donors. CSI even has their own practice facility - a complete rarity at the midmajor level much less the junior college level. The arena seating is steep - like climbing the steep portion of a mountain. The fans in the upper reaches of the fieldhouse cannot even see some parts of the court. Their view is blocked by asbestos laden beems that support the ceiling. The lower level has fans that are sitting almost on top of the court. From 1984 to 1992 CSI won 137 consecutive games - the longest home court winning streak in junior college basketball history.

CSI is clearly one of the premiere junior college basketball programs in the country.

CSI's roster is dotted by players from across the country: Portland, Oregon; New York, N.Y.; Reno, Nevada; Youngstown, Ohio; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Waterbury, Connecticutt; Headland, Alabama; Biloxi, Mississippi; Las Vegas, Nevada; and St. George, Utah; and beyond - Dakar, Senegal; Minsk, Belarus. Players are usually placed at the CSI by division I head coaches who need the player to become eligible. Initially, the typical CSI player does not meet the NCAA's core requirements and is therefor ineligible until completely two years of junior college. This year's squad features a 6'11" center from Minsk, Belarus who would clearly play for any division I school that he wanted. CSI landed him with the help of Binghamton University from all the way in New York, which is hoping to sign him after he becomes eligible.

Going into the weekend, CSI was ranked 6th in the latest NJCAA rankings. Friday nights' upset loss will surely lower their rating, but CSI needs Saturdays' game to avoid a disastrous weekend.
CSI utilizes 12 players during the course of the game (15 suit up). They press full court all game, looking to take advantage of their depth and quickness. The challenge every dribble and every pass. The strategy usually works as CSI's depth can usually wear down an opponent. The disadvantage is that opponents usually reach the bonus quickly. That is the case during both the first half and second half against SLCC as SLCC is in the bonus only six minutes into the game. They utilize their free throw advantage to stay in the game and at the half trail by only two points.

Looking at the teams, any novice basketball fan can see CSI has an athletic and height advantage. They clearly have better players, but SLCC is able to utilize the made free throws to stay in the game longer than anyone in Twin Falls would like. Midway through the second half, though, CSI is able to go on a couple of runs created by their press and SLCC turnovers. The runs put them up by as much as 16 points and they cruise down the stretch to a 98-91 victory. Their record improves to 16-2 with the rematch weekend to follow in Salt Lake on February 16th and 17th.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

No Jimmy Chitwood in Park City

Traditionally, towns like Jackson Hole, Aspen, Vail, Breckenridge, Sun Valley and Park City do not have strong basketball programs. I am assigned to the Park City vs. Union jayvee game in the nonheart of the game town of Park City, Utah. It's not the game that is interesting, it's the struggle to develop enthusiasm for the sport. It's not hard to see why. The competition for 12 to 18 year olds' kids time is fierce in a town that only four years ago basically hosted the Winter Olympics. In the coaches/athletic directors office are skis, snowboards, and boots all sitting beneath the schools sports schedule. Before the game, students walk in and out of the school in helmets and ski boots - fully dressed from an afternoon or ready for an evening on the lit mountain that sits less than a mile from the gym.

"Coach Crunkleton prepared us for the tournament in the oddest most unconventional way imaginable. . . We never touched a basketball once and looked more like a cross-country team." Conroy on his coaches preparation for his sophomore year of high school basketball. Park City seems more prepared for a cross country ski race than the high school basketball games that are about to take place. Their players are thin and lanky, but not tall. They are in shape, but not basketball type athletes.

Over the past three years Park City has won only seven games. Parents complained that their was talent, it just was not being used properly. At the midpoint of this season, the coach Troy Buford called for a parent meeting to resolve problems. He resigned after the meeting. Unlike Hoosiers, their was no Jimmy Chitwood who came in and miraculously saved the coaches job. He just resigned and a new coach and staff were appointed by the school.

The new coach, Matt Nagel, doesn't look like a basketball coach, he looks more like the English teacher he is. Unlike Union where the coaches have jackets and ties on, Coach Nagel wears a tie with a short sleeved sweater while his assistant has a long sleeve sweatshirt similar to Bill Belichek.

At the half of the varsity game against Union, Park City trails by 22 points. The second half isn't much different. Union clears their bench early and although Luc Tucker of "City" as they are called, by the locals, hits four straight three pointers, they lose 54-38. Their record drops to 1-11.

The jayvee game, where programs are developed, is no different. Union takes a technical foul to open the game and then another one at the start of the second half, almost as if they are trying to keep the game more interesting. It's not interesting to me, them or City and it mostly appears Park City wants not only the second half of the game to be over, but their whole season to be over, if not their whole program.