College basketball has a wonderful chance to self-destruct, unless the rule czars make it impossible for Dean Smith and Terry Holland to win by not playing. The only way to get game-long fun back, we learned once again today, is to legislate it.
Imagine the final 12 minutes of Hamlet if the cast started reciting the Congressional Record. Or Hemingway writing the last chapters of his classics in pig Latin. Coaches abused basketball again today, ruined what could have been a game for the ages by thinking.
North Carolina-Virginia was wonderful for 33 minutes, close to breathtaking at times. What James Worthy, Ralph Sampson and Sam Perkins did every now and then was the collegiate game at a unique level. Perhaps never before had three giants with such grace and power been so stunning, and then been forced to be so stagnant.
This was another players' game coaches ruined, the mud on the masterpiece being that disgraceful Smith stall that was successful, in part, because Holland seemed to join the rest of us in courtside slumber. Chicken Champs, we'll call Carolina after the 47-45 victory in the Atlantic Coast Conference final.
Nobody ever scores an argumentative knockout on Smith after such folly. Having made stallball successful, having taught coaches with lesser minds how to win with it, he can defense the reaction from people angered at three of the most dominant players in their sport being reduced to playing catch and fetch.
The only time Carolina went for the basket 13 1/2 minutes after halftime was to cut down the nets in victory. Never have the Heels started a game so swiftly and ended it so slowly.
James was worthy of being the lingering memory today. He is 6 foot 9 and weighs 220 pounds, yet was so quick once that he lost his man and dunked the ball before Sampson could move a few feet to intercept him. Two spin moves left Craig Robinson helpless and the ball lofted so high that Sampson's blocks could be nothing but goaltending.
Worthy had been slightly embarrassed by Robinson in a regular-season game in Charlottesville; he was bent on revenge, and started getting it on the first play today. Sampson seemed languid before and during the opening tip, Perkins outjumping him and flicking the ball to Worthy.
The net might still be aching from the dunk that followed.
Worthy had 14 points in the first eight minutes, scoring from inside and outside, on running shots and turnarounds. But the move that everybody dwelled on was Smith's, when he told his gang to stop with a one-point lead.
"It takes two any time you have a slower game," Smith said. "And they chose not to be aggressive until about the two-minute mark."
What about it, Terry?
"It also takes two to play that game" Holland said of Smith's baiting, "and I'm not going to start."
Smith stalled after Michael Jordan showed that Carolina probably could score at will on Virginia's man-for-man defense. And the Cavaliers' second most important player, Othell Wilson, was sidelined again with a thigh bruise. But coaches are odd creatures.
The Wizard himself once played stallball in the NCAA title game, in 1971 against vastly inferior Villanova. Some said he did it to illustrate the need for a shot clock in college. Carolina went scoreless the first half against Duke three years ago.
Smith said he deflated the ball today out of respect for Sampson. Which is reasonable.
"It could have been great (in the last eight minutes)," he said, hurrying for the dressing room after post-game sparring with reporters, "if they'd come out and we'd have gotten layups. That's what I like."
If it takes two to do the stall dance, Dean, one has to lead.
But Sampson never was lured far enough for the Heels to work their delay for backdoor baskets. Holland wouldn't dance with Dean.
Probably, he waited too long to force Carolina to shoot--from the free-throw line. With 90 seconds left, the Cavaliers still had just two team fouls. It took another 62 seconds for enough hacking to get Matt Doherty to the line. Hindsight screams that was too late.
Virginia waited too long because Carolina had five fouls to give, and used them wisely to endure 22 of the precious final 25 seconds without allowing anything close to a shot and forcing Jim Miller into a game-deciding turnover. Thought we could get a turnover, Holland said.
"I'll go play a 30-second clock tomorrow," Smith said. "And I'll vote for it in this conference anytime. What about a zone? Nobody complains anytime somebody uses a zone."
Smith is right. He's good enough to dominate college basketball whatever the rules. When he found a way to feature his fine players with a spread offense, he invented the four corners. He would win if the game went back to a center jump after each basket.
The problem, to a great extent, is not what Smith does with a spread offense but how the copy-cats, the butchers of basketball, handle it. Smith very often scores with his delay, and might have today if Sampson had followed Perkins to midcourt.
Still, Carolina holding the ball today--and Virginia allowing it--was more inexcusable than that Maryland-N. C. State farce in the first round Friday. Lots of those guys can't play well at any pace.
With both teams assured of being top seeds in a regional regardless of the outcome, this ACC final could have been what it ought to have been: reins-off basketball, a game for the players and fans to savor. It got down to coaching again.
Holland might have played one more mind game with Smith after the game. Virginia could have left the court immediately, but Holland ordered the players to stay. Did he want them to experience every ounce of Carolina cockiness? Did he want that net-cutting celebration to be burned into their minds in case the teams meet again in the NCAAs?
"We lost, they won," Holland said. "They deserved a hand from everyone."
"I think he did it to be nice to our team," Smith said. "Respectful. Being a sportsman."
He said only cynics would dare think anything else. This from one of the great angle players in sport.