Commerce and education are uneasy partners, no question. But there was a central honorableness to this March Madness meeting, an all-in-ness by the principal actors, the coaches and players, that was restorative. Auburn’s action was so beautiful it blotted out the shoe companies and middlemen and the whole stinking NCAA structure in which everyone gets paid exorbitantly except those doing the sweating. When the ball went up, the players purified all of it, if you will, with their hearts and their efforts, and so did their coaches with their elegant and frantic arm-waving strategy. Final score: No. 5 seed Auburn 97, No. 1 seed North Carolina 80.
Four reputationally dinged coaching greats were here in the Midwest Region, four semi-soiled huckstering representatives of the system, in Carolina’s Roy Williams, Auburn’s Bruce Pearl, Kentucky’s John Calipari and Houston’s Kelvin Sampson. But they also happen to be superb teachers of the game and lovers of their players. On the day before the region semifinals, Williams, in logoed Carolina blue, ambled down a hallway of Sprint Center and ran into the Tigers’ 59-year-old Pearl. “Hey Brucie!” he greeted him. Then Williams, survivor of one of the worst academic scandals in NCAA history, grasped the hand of Pearl, whose former assistant Chuck Person is entangled in the FBI corruption probe and who did three years himself in NCAA purgatory for recruiting violations.
You could judge them by those paper investigations, or you could judge them on the comportment and performances of their players — and only hope that every campus academic is as effective at imparting organized concepts, disciplined action and speedy decision-making under pressure as these coaches. “We love to teach. We all got in as teachers,” Pearl said. His team was Exhibit A. As Pearl said, “Ninety-nine percent of what we got is still really, really good.”
The Tar Heels were the nation’s third-highest scorers, and they at times could take you with them on their wings. Every defensive rebound that ticked off the rim was an excuse to break down the floor in a stampede “three seconds away from a layup,” as Pearl said. “When that ball is in their possession . . . they’re flying.”
But the Tar Heels were slowed by a flu bug that hit the day before the game — their leader through the postseason, Nassir Little, had a temperature of 100, and then Cameron Johnson came down with it, too, and was said to be throwing up in the postgame locker room. The result was that the Tigers beat them at their own pace. They were stealing, fast-breaking, shot-stroking fools who hit on 45.9 percent from three-point range. According to Williams, the 17 three-pointers surrendered were the most one of his teams had ever given up. The Tar Heels ran as hard as they could to try to close out the multiple offensive threats of the Tigers, whom Williams called “a whole team of green lights.” They just couldn’t get there.
The Tigers didn’t merely make shots — they created them, with spacing and smart ball movement to all four corners of the court that was a pleasure to follow. They had 21 assists on 36 made baskets. This was beautifully taught basketball. And it was no fluke; it’s what the Tigers do, night in and night out. They made 421 from long range this season, fourth in NCAA history.
After a first half in which neither could establish a clear advantage, the Tigers opened the second by hitting jumpers from what seemed like all points of the court for an 8-0 run and then ran the lead up to 76-57 with 9:21 to go. “I’ll never use my halftime talk again, because it sure didn’t work,” Williams said.
The Tar Heels simply couldn’t guard five different players who could sink a shot from anywhere.
“When it gets tough and you got to match up, we got five, and you don’t. That’s how we feel,” Pearl said.
How were the Tar Heels supposed to shut down the 6-foot-8, 230-pound Chuma Okeke, who was as soft-handed and smart from the outside as he was big? The only thing that finally stopped him was injury. Okeke already had a double-double with 15 minutes remaining (20 points and 11 rebounds), and his performance was becoming the game’s individual highlight when his left knee buckled as he landed awkwardly with 8:08 remaining. He was ushered out by the sportsmanlike salutes of the Tar Heels he had just decimated. “He kicked our rear ends,” Williams said.
The Tigers picked right up where they left off. In addition to everything else, they got 40 points off their bench.
Afterward, when the last smooth stroke had fluttered the net, both coaches, those supposedly cool operators, were in tears. Pearl was emotional over reaching the Elite Eight yet devastated to be there without Okeke, who is probably lost for the tournament. Williams was choked with emotion over his sickly team, one he has loved and that had achieved a top-seed status for the third time in four seasons. “I’d coach my guys for nothing,” Williams said.
All in all, it was a reminder that great basketball itself is an intrinsic ethic.