Tuesday, November 28, 2006

November Madness

Andy Katz:

LAS VEGAS -- Billy Donovan cracked a smile. The Florida head coach was fine. He was totally at ease in discussing the Gators' state of affairs as he walked toward his locker room at the Orleans Arena late Saturday night.

So, see? This wasn't March. It wasn't a conference tournament title game or the NCAA Tournament. Seriously, it wasn't.

But didn't Kansas' fans storm the court? Storm a supposedly neutral court? And wasn't that a female KU fan holding the Las Vegas Invitational trophy above her head while she was getting a piggyback ride?

This was November, right?

Well, if you were here, you would have thought otherwise for the 2½ hours that Kansas and Florida played, albeit hardly flawless, one of the most emotionally charged November non-conference games.

Kansas won 82-80 in overtime in the finale of the predetermined Las Vegas Invitational. What it proved for both teams is worthy of a discussion. But on the surface the game itself should be first celebrated for its sheer enjoyment.

It would be hard to argue against Gonzaga's triple-overtime Maui Invitational semifinal victory over Michigan State last year. That game was one of those "wish you were there" kind of games. But the buildup was hardly comparable to this one with No. 1 Florida going against No. 12 Kansas -- still the choice by many to win the national title. It didn't matter that the Jayhawks had lost to Oral Roberts at home already and looked rather pedestrian in beating Ball State the previous night here, while Florida looked UNLV-like -- in the best of the Tark era -- in walloping Western Kentucky.

This was supposed to be the game prior to the 2007 conference season. And it was. It also was one of the most unique with the two teams playing at Phog Allen West as Kansas seemingly transported nearly 7,000 fans to Las Vegas for Thanksgiving weekend. There was a pep rally outside the Orleans Arena, which holds 8,500. Kansas brought its mascot, its cheerleaders and looked like it had spared many a turkey in Lawrence by coming here instead of staying home for the holiday.

Donovan made sure everyone knew Friday night that it would be a road game for the Gators against the Jayhawks. Remember, the Gators were playing Florida State in football in Tallahassee Saturday, too. Even if the football team was off the Gators would be hard-pressed to match KU's travel party.

Donovan said he has seen a "neutral court" like this "at the SEC tournament" in a reference to the Kentucky-advantage.

"It wasn't neutral and Billy will be the first to tell you that," Self said. "This was fabulous and the perfect size venue. We travel so well. It was a Maui atmosphere times four as far as the crowd."

As for the storming of the court, Self said, "obviously those weren't our students. That wouldn't happen at home." He was talking in jest but the reality is the Jayhawks didn't mind letting loose after winning this game.

It was only 24 hours earlier that Self ripped into his sophomore class -- and that included Julian Wright and Brandon Rush. He wasn't satisfied with their play to this point and he wasn't going to protect them.

"We said a lot of things [Friday night] and most weren't flattering," Self said. "It was the truth. We weren't playing together and we were individuals on an island. The body language stunk. We looked like a team that had guys who can really play and [against Ball State] we didn't look like that."

Wright was sensational Saturday night, despite a few mental lapses -- like fouling Florida's Corey Brewer on the baseline with 10 seconds left after he had scored to put him at the line. Brewer missed the free throw, but the Gators tapped it back out to Taurean Green who missed a shot only to have Joakim Noah beat out teammate Al Horford for the game-tying tip-in to send the game into overtime.

That one foul didn't dare overshadow Wright's stellar night of 21 points (17 in the first half) and 10 boards. Rush had his moments too where he made a huge 3-pointer, a layup to tie the game in overtime but also turned softly into a triple trap (KU's perspective) and got stripped by Horford.

Wright said the Jayhawks had been telegraphing the offense and had not been aggressive prior to Saturday.

"We just kept attacking and win or lose we knew we had to put ourselves in position to attack," Wright said. "It shouldn't take him yelling at us at halftime or whatever for us to try harder."

Kansas was lost Friday night by Self's accounts, but had found itself Saturday. Self wasn't even that disappointed that the game had gone into overtime. The players were mad, but not frustrated.

The poise, notably by freshman Darrell Arthur who made a bucket and calmly made two free throws in overtime, showed Kansas had matured quite a bit in 24 hours.

As for the Gators, well, don't cry for them because no one on Florida is tearing up.

The Gators didn't play well in the first half and still were only down six. They had foul problems to their big three -- Corey Brewer, Horford and Noah -- and still were in position to make a run. And they did, clawing back to tie the game and send it into overtime where they were one shot away from taking this game.

"Kansas played better than us but I never saw a level of frustration," Donovan said. "I told these guys that because we won the national championship there were going to be games where we couldn't match the energy at the beginning of the game. But it's a 40-minute game.

"I don't want to take anything away from Kansas but we were right there, giving up 57 percent in the second half, right there [to win]," Donovan said. "That shows a lot about the internal makeup of the game. Jo and Al rip the ball right out of Rush's hands, we tip it in and we find a way to [force overtime]."

The players, notably Green and Noah, weren't pleased with the team concept by the Gators Saturday. But they were hardly despondent. Donovan's main concern was the NBA-like schedule recently where the Gators played seven games in 15 days and its effect on loosening their defensive intensity.

"But it was a terrific game for us," Donovan said.

Remember, this is the losing coach here.

"Our guys have the will to win as good as any team I've coached," Donovan said.

And that's why Florida will be fine. So, too, will Kansas now that it located its passion and purpose.

And college basketball got a rare holiday treat with a game that lived up to its anticipation on the court as well as exceeded it in the stands with an electric buzz, reverberating throughout every corner of this arena.

What's next on the agenda? ACC-Big Ten Challenge? Duke-Gonzaga? Ohio State-Florida? It might be hard to duplicate this one that ended at 1:24 a.m. on the East Coast, at least until conference play if not maybe March.

Four months from now the games will matter more and the postgame reactions in the locker rooms won't be nearly as constructively analytical.

But in the end it will be hard to top a late November Saturday night in Vegas because this one will be remembered fondly for a long time.

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Bill Self provides some clues as to the softness of schedule:

Self noted many powerhouse programs don’t want to play in Kansas if they don’t recruit Kansas.

“Let’s use Duke as an example. Coach K (Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski) and myself talked about it this summer. The advantage of them playing Kansas is obviously the attention it’d bring. But they probably will not recruit this area a ton,” Self said. “Can they play somebody of similar interest in areas they recruit? Look at it as a total big picture perspective. Hopefully these type of matchups will occur. We play a very good schedule, still it would be great to get a couple of those well-known traditional programs on the schedule yearly.”

From the Chad Ford Insider:

The Lotto Boys

Julian Wright, F, Kansas
I've been reporting on Wright's potential for the past two years, but this is the first NCAA game I've seen in which he really played up to it. He was sensational in just about every aspect of the game, and the NBA folks I spoke with couldn't stop raving about him.

Wright played with his usual energy and enthusiasm, but was much more aggressive offensively than we've seen him in the past. He was hitting midrange jumpers (his biggest Achilles' heel), putting the ball on the deck and driving to the basket, and picking up offensive rebounds for put-backs ... in other words, he scored in just about every way possible.

Where he really shined was in the point-forward role. He mad several jaw-dropping passes that won't soon be forgotten. While Wright made some defensive mistakes and was relatively quiet offensively in the second half, the reviews afterwords were glowing.

"He reminds me of a mix between Kevin Garnett and Boris Diaw," one executive told me. "He's got Garnett's energy and athleticism, and he combines with with Diaw's versatility and basketball savvy. If he continues to attack that way on the offensive end, the kid's a top-five pick. You can't teach what he has."

I was talking to another NBA GM in Maui who told me that his top scout pushed and pushed him to make a guarantee to Wright coming out of high school. The GM didn't know enough about the kid to make that type of commitment, and Wright ended up going to KU. Now that we're starting to see the progress he's making as a player, it looks like it's a good thing for Wright, but not such a good thing for the GM who passed on a chance to get him late in the first round.

Darrell Arthur, F, Kansas
Scouts have also been falling head over heels for Arthur over the past few weeks.

Arthur was a late signer to Kansas, and most scouts thought, given the amount of talent already at KU, that he wouldn't contribute a lot this year. Think again.

Arthur is the Jayhawks' leading scorer through their first six games and made a big impact in limited minutes on Saturday. Arthur is a long, athletic forward who can play both the three and the four. He's got a nice midrange jump shot and combines that with an array of nice post moves.

Like Wright, he's a very agile player who can get up and down the floor. Unlike Wright, he is very aggressive on the offensive end.

While scouts believe he needs to add weight and continue to improve his outside jumper, several appear ready to put him in their top 10 after watching him dominate several games for the Jayhawks.

"He's a really special talent and is a good fit in the way the NBA is heading," one NBA scout told Insider. "His size, versatility and athleticism make him a perfect fit on an up-tempo team. He has the potential to be another Chris Bosh-type of player."

After consulting with a number of scouts and executives, we've moved Arthur up 20 spots on our Top 100 to No. 9. That's a huge jump this early in the season, but after watching Arthur make such an impact against one of the best front lines in college basketball, it's hard to put him any lower.

Other Potential First Rounders

Brandon Rush, SG/SF, Kansas
Rush's numbers compare pretty favorably to what he did in his stellar freshman campaign, but he's going to struggle to impress the way he did last year. That's mainly because his teammates, Wright and Arthur, are better prospects, and it's going to become increasingly difficult to outshine them. Considering that Rush already has an unselfish streak in his game, I'm not sure he's going to be able to continue to put up the great numbers he did last year.

Right now he's a borderline first-round prospect. He might benefit from staying another year at Kansas and letting Wright and Arthur bolt for the NBA.

Mario Chalmers, G, Kansas
Chalmers still is trying to prove that he's a pure point guard, and the arrival of Sherron Collins is only going to complicate that question.

Still, Chalmers looked good against Florida. He's a good defender, a solid perimeter shooter and a capable leader out on the floor.

He still lacks experience and polish, however, and the scouts I spoke with don't think it's likely that he'll be bolting for the NBA this year.


  1. The scouts seem to be reading too much into the Florida game. Darrell is suddenly a lottery pick and Rush is suddenly out of the first round all because of one game?

    And hasn't Chad Ford gotten the news that Julian plans to stay for three years? I hate it when sportswriters take NBA defections as a foregone conclusion even when the the player himself denies it. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    As for the schedule, I don't necessarily expect us to have home-and-homes against Duke. And I would like to give Self some overdue credit for scheduling Oral Roberts: I (like our players apparently) dismissed them as a cupcake when I saw the schedule, forgetting that they were a tournament team.

    Still, there's a lot of good major and mid-major teams out there, some in our own backyard, that we could have been playing instead of NAU, Towson, Tennessee State, Ball State, Dartmouth, Toledo, Winston-Salem State, and Detroit Mercy (against whom we may have to invoke the mercy rule).

    We should have invoked it last night against Dartmouth (6-26 last season), who set a new Fieldhouse record for scoring futility.

  2. And by the way, Duke's two nonconference trips this year are to Madison Square Garden and -- surprise! -- Kansas City.

    So ... what exactly is the snag in their coming to Lawrence?