The right way
by Jon Worley
Just like Bear Bryant, Joe Paterno died the January after he stopped coaching. I have been predicting this for years (much to the chagrin of my Penn State friends), but it was just too obvious. If you saw him on or around the football field, he was alive. If you saw him in any other context, he was a doddering, infirm old man. In short, football was the one thing that could sustain him, and once it was gone he was going to be gone, too.
The scandal that ended his coaching tenure was the result of a bad habit of sweeping embarrassment under the rug. That (massive) mistake simply made him human, something that his death yesterday only underscores.
But this column isn't about Paterno or even football. This is basketball season, and I've fallen in love with the game again. And that's something I wouldn't have predicted even three months ago.
I enjoyed watching the Missouri Tigers play under Mike Anderson during the last few years. They were a bit thin in terms of talent, but they fought hard every game. Those games weren't things of beauty, but I liked the competition. Then Anderson up and left for Arkansas. While not quite so appalling as leaving for Kansas, it was pretty bad.
Things got worse. Missouri heavily pursued Purdue's Matt Painter, who pulled out of an apparent deal. So the Tigers ended up with Frank Haith, the coach at Miami. You know, the Nebraska of the ACC. An afterthought.
Hellfire and brimstone ensued. Tiger nation was pissed. And then the Nevin Shapiro scandal broke at Miami, and the accusations against Haith went from "he's not good" to "he's a cheater." Bad times.
But through it all, Haith worked. He managed to keep all of Anderson's players at Missouri (no small feat, as a couple of players grew up calling ex-coach Anderson "Uncle Mike") and didn't say anything about the mess in Miami except that he didn't do anything wrong. A couple of weeks ago, the one basketball player implicated in the scandal was exonerated, so it's quite possible that he's actually right about that.
After all the off-season drama, the Tigers started playing. The first games I saw on TV were a pair of 39-point blowouts in Kansas City. Blowouts of Notre Dame (who just beat #1 Syracuse, by the way) and Cal, who is the apparent front-runner in the PAC-12. It wasn't that Missouri passed better than anyone I've ever seen (as much as I hate to say it, Roy Williams's Kansas teams still rank a notch higher) or shot better or played better defense, although they did all of those very well. The thing that I noticed is that this Missouri team was playing the game right.
Every second in a basketball game, every player on the floor has a series of choices. Most often, there is only one right choice for each player--and that choice is correct only if the other four players make the right decision as well. In those two games, Missouri destroyed two quality teams by making the right decisions almost all the time.
Yesterday in Waco, Tex., Missouri beat Baylor, which was ranked #3 at the time. Missouri's tallest player is 6'8", while Baylor starts three players taller than that and routinely has four players 6'7" or taller on the court at any given time. And yet Missouri not only outrebounded Baylor, but its top scorer was 6'8" Ricardo Ratliffe, who camped out around the rim and threw down shots past two taller players. The only way this happens is if your team is making all the right choices.
Missouri is proof that basketball is a game of size, skill and smarts--and that skill and smarts can beat size. According to a couple of obscure stats sites, Missouri ranks 303rd out of 346 NCAA in terms of height. By any measure, it is the smallest "major" program. On the one day the Tigers didn't make the right decisions, they got whacked by a much bigger Kansas State team. Eighteen other days the Tigers made the right decisions. And so, when the polls come out tomorrow, Missouri will be 18-1 and ranked #2 or #3. Hard work and hard study have allowed the Tigers to play the game right. Folks have noticed. Bob Knight may be a peckerwood supreme, but he does know basketball. And he has repeatedly proclaimed Missouri the best-coached team in the country. He might be right, though he (typically) leaves unspoken the fact that the players are willing to be coached.
I have rediscovered my love for college basketball. Next year's Missouri team will be good (and, as hard as it is to believe right now, maybe even better), but it won't play quite the same way. This year's bunch of Tigers is something that you don't see very often in basketball at any level--they are a team. They don't complain about minutes or touches on the ball. They recognize that the most valuable members on the team are often the ones who don't make much of a dent on the scorecard (Kim English, the former shooting guard who has been converted into a 6'6" power forward, comes immediately to mind). Most importantly, they play the game the way it should be played. This feeling I have isn't just infatuation. It's love. And love is a beautiful thing.
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