By Thomas Boswell
Sunday, April 1, 2007
ATLANTA Nothing is harder than achieving a feat that exceeds, even if only slightly, our own expectations. For an athlete, a career is a continual process of improving skills and adding experience so that those privately held, almost secret expectations can rise dramatically over the years. But occasionally, in an ironic and bitter punishment for overachievement, a deserving team finds itself on a stage one level beyond its own imaginings. Then, a predictable but painful fate awaits them.
Call it a slight case of stage fright, just enough to be fatal. Call it death by dozens of tiny big-game pressure nicks and cuts. But the next day an awful hangover arrives. That's when a team, like the Georgetown Hoyas after their 67-60 loss here to No. 1-ranked Ohio State in the NCAA semifinals, realizes that, if it had played as it usually does, it would probably be appearing in the national championship game on Monday night.
A similar experience befell Maryland six years ago, also in the semifinals. The Terrapins built a 22-point first-half lead over Duke. The Terrapins were about to be in the championship fight. And they just weren't ready. Hair was pulled over a couple of meaningless foul calls, momentum was lost, then a huge lead was blown. And Maryland went home. One year later, with essentially the same team and coach, but a different state of mind, an elevated set of expectations and higher self-imposed demands, Maryland returned with the imperious poise of champions and claimed a title.
For those who were courtside then and now, the feeling was eerily similar, even if the details were very different. Maryland found a huge opportunity sitting squarely before it because of its own fine play. On this Saturday night, Georgetown found the door to sudden and unexpected greatness thrown open before it after less than three minutes of play. Ohio State's 7-foot all-American center Greg Oden got his second foul and had to sit out the last 17 minutes of the first half. As if that weren't enough, eight minutes into the second half Oden picked up his third foul and headed back to the prison of the pine again. What a gift.
If Oden had played all night, maybe GU would have lost anyway. After all, Oden had 13 points and nine rebounds. But he didn't play all night. In most of the night's decisive junctures he was barely around. The 19-year-old only played 20 minutes. That's what will hurt. Ohio State may be ranked No. 1, but they played with only half a battleship.
The Hoyas simply didn't take advantage. Why? Perhaps it was because, like so many other teams before them, they weren't quite ready. In some part of their basketball personality, they weren't fully formed, just as Maryland still had to grow from contenders in '01 to champions in '02. Remember, just three years ago, when Coach John Thompson III arrived, the Hoyas were a losing team and a Big East tail-ender. Last season, they celebrated mightily after reaching the Sweet 16.
And last week, J.T. III cut down the nets after reaching the Final Four. Cut down the nets. That's usually what you do after you've gotten what you really wanted. So, you savor the experience. But you also tip off your sense of your own limitations.
"The last month everything has happened so fast. It's just been one big pleasure after another," said John Thompson Jr., who built the Hoyas champs of '84. "First, they won the [Big East], which wasn't necessarily expected. Then they won the tournament. Then they reach the Final Four. It's been like a fantasy wheel for me."
"I'm extremely proud of this team, even though we are all very disappointed at tonight's performance," JT III said. "There are always a million things you wish you could go back and pick apart. But we competed. We fought and scrapped when we were behind. And we lost to a very, very good team."
That's all true. But when the Hoyas pick apart the films, consult their memories and let their hair down among themselves, they may also see that they're not quite ready yet. For example, Jeff Green, the Big East player of the year, only took five shots, which stunned some OSU players. "We were pretty pleased with the way he played that game," said Ohio State's leading scorer, Mike Conley, who had 15 points. "He could have taken over the game anytime he wanted."
But he didn't. "I didn't want to force shots," Green said. Or maybe he just wasn't ready to take charge as he did against Vanderbilt to stave off defeat and reach the Elite Eight -- where the Hoyas absolutely believed they belonged.
Even Coach Thompson may not have been quite ready to feel the flow of the game and realize that, since Green didn't score until just 3:16 was left in the half, that perhaps he needed to demand that his star take charge. But he didn't.
"It's easy to say, 'Yes,' now. That's an easy 'Yes,' " Thompson III said when asked if he'd have preferred Green to take more than five shots. "We put the ball in his hands and he decided not to shoot. As I said, I'll live and die with Jeff Green's ability to make decisions."
Perhaps he shouldn't have trusted them. Not in his team's first Final Four. As a coach, maybe he should have monitored, and tried to influence, his players' instincts -- whether it was 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert's overly excited fouls or Green's reticence.
Finally, Georgetown's only freshman starter, DaJuan Summers, shot 1 for 10. The last time GU lost, to Syracuse in February, Summers also shot 1 for 10. Since then, he's been superior. But in a Final Four, he may also not be quite ready yet.
And even Hibbert, who scored 19 points and got his favorite shots at will in the brief minutes he played against Oden, managed to get himself into completely needless foul trouble of his own, limiting himself to 24 minutes.
"I just had to make smarter decisions when I was out there," said Hibbert, who got his first overeager foul 18 seconds -- yes, 18 seconds -- into the game. That's being over-amped, over-the-moon. And that's a form of stage fright. "I need to be an all-around better player when it comes to knowing when to foul and when not to." Or, of course, maybe he wasn't quite ready yet.
This was not a case of Georgetown failure so much as an inability to muster the same form that had led the Hoyas to 19 wins in their previous 20 games. Almost every player, except perhaps junior guard Jonathan Wallace, who had 19 points and only two turnovers, came up just slightly, but infuriating shy.
In 2001, when Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter lost a game they probably should have won in the NCAA semifinals, both were juniors. They decided to return and try again. The result will make them celebrities and honored guests at Maryland for the rest of their lives. However, neither was a big man with an NBA skill set. Neither passed up big bucks to stay a Terp.
Green and Hibbert are different. Before this game, every scout was sure Green had an NBA future. And after watching Hibbert's 9-for-13 performance -- "he got pretty much whatever shots he wanted" against Oden, Thompson said -- there seems little doubt where Hibbert can ply his trade in the future either.
If they return, which would improve both their games, then next season this same sublime nuttiness may return and, once more, the Hoyas may be part of it. But they call this clambake "March Madness" for a reason -- one the Hoyas may now grasp. Sometimes you have to experience it once, and be its victim, before you can return, keep your sanity and claim the prize.