Tournament Basketball: How to Win in March

<p><font size=-2>George Nikitin/Associated Press</font></p> <p>It felt like the &#8220;old days.&#8221; California rallied in the second half, and in overtime, to defeat Washington State 63-57 in OT. The crowd stood and cheered, and for once the noise in Haas reached old Harmon Gym levels. Later that day when UCLA beat Oregon, Cal qualified for the Pac-10 tournament, and earned the dubious honor of meeting Arizona in the first round on Thursday.</p>

The WSU game was not only exciting, it was also interesting. Maybe any game against a Dick Bennett team is going to be interesting. (Remember the NCAA tournament game against Wisconsin-Green Bay?) The Cougars have to be one of the most difficult teams to play against in the country. WSU reduces the number of possessions in the game by running down the shot clock on offense, getting back on defense to eliminate the transition game, and playing tough half court defense. A few weeks ago they lost to Arizona in Pullman 57-56 in overtime, in a game in which they completely controlled the tempo. It was 49-49 at the end of regulation against an Arizona team that averages 79 points a game.

The Cougars did the same thing to Cal. The Bears trailed for much of the game, falling behind 30-21 with 16:50 remaining. Cal rallied by ratcheting up their own defensive intensity and getting the ball inside. It was the established Ben Braun formula for success. The Bears caught the Cougars at 47, took the lead by three, and survived Thomas Kelati’s late three that sent the game into overtime.

Cal made an interesting adjustment in this game. During the last 15 minutes of play, the Bears played with only one “big”. For most of the season, Cal has gone with two post players, usually Rod Benson and David Paris. Down the stretch against the Cougars, Benson was the lone post player, teaming with Dom McGuire and Marquise Kately in the frontcourt.

This lineup opened up the offense, especially for Kately. With the added room, he was able to post up and get to the basket, and he had his best game of the season. His reverse lay-up with 1:26 to go in overtime gave Cal the lead for good.

Watching Wazzou play is a reminder of the reason that college basketball is so compelling. As the old saying goes, there are a lot of different ways to skin a cat, and college basketball allows them all.

Which style you enjoy watching is a very subjective thing. Coaches like Bennett, Braun, Ben Howland and Jim Calhoun have built their careers on emphasizing the defensive end. Coaches like Roy Williams and Lorenzo Romar are known for their teams offensive execution, and pushing the ball up the floor. In this writer’s opinion, it’s no accident that Williams has never won the big one (although he’ll never have a better chance than this year.) His teams have never yet defended well enough to win a national championship.

It’s a little more than a week until the start of the NCAA Tournament. The last two champions, Syracuse and Connecticut were outstanding defensive teams. Syracuse controlled games with their 2-3 zone, and Connecticut wore teams down with their defensive pressure and shot blocking. In the Tournament, games slow down, timeouts are longer (so team depth means less), and the referees usually let teams play more physically.

The Cal - Washington State game was like a Tournament game. It was intense half-court basketball with excellent defense and lots of big plays. It doesn’t matter that these two teams have losing records: the style of play was a reminder of why fans love the NCAA Tournament.

Teams that run up and down the floor and try to outscore their opponent might have a great season. They might even win their conference title. But they probably won’t win six games in a row in March.

It may be the oldest cliché in the book, but defense really does win championships.


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The WSU game was not only exciting, it was also interesting. Maybe any game against a Dick Bennett team is going to be interesting. (Remember the NCAA tournament game against Wisconsin-Green Bay?) The Cougars have to be one of the most difficult teams to play against in the country. WSU reduces the number of possessions in the game by running down the shot clock on offense, getting back on defense to eliminate the transition game, and playing tough half court defense. A few weeks ago they lost to Arizona in Pullman 57-56 in overtime, in a game in which they completely controlled the tempo. It was 49-49 at the end of regulation against an Arizona team that averages 79 points a game.

The Cougars did the same thing to Cal. The Bears trailed for much of the game, falling behind 30-21 with 16:50 remaining. Cal rallied by ratcheting up their own defensive intensity and getting the ball inside. It was the established Ben Braun formula for success. The Bears caught the Cougars at 47, took the lead by three, and survived Thomas Kelati’s late three that sent the game into overtime.

Cal made an interesting adjustment in this game. During the last 15 minutes of play, the Bears played with only one “big”. For most of the season, Cal has gone with two post players, usually Rod Benson and David Paris. Down the stretch against the Cougars, Benson was the lone post player, teaming with Dom McGuire and Marquise Kately in the frontcourt.

This lineup opened up the offense, especially for Kately. With the added room, he was able to post up and get to the basket, and he had his best game of the season. His reverse lay-up with 1:26 to go in overtime gave Cal the lead for good.

Watching Wazzou play is a reminder of the reason that college basketball is so compelling. As the old saying goes, there are a lot of different ways to skin a cat, and college basketball allows them all.

Which style you enjoy watching is a very subjective thing. Coaches like Bennett, Braun, Ben Howland and Jim Calhoun have built their careers on emphasizing the defensive end. Coaches like Roy Williams and Lorenzo Romar are known for their teams offensive execution, and pushing the ball up the floor. In this writer’s opinion, it’s no accident that Williams has never won the big one (although he’ll never have a better chance than this year.) His teams have never yet defended well enough to win a national championship.

It’s a little more than a week until the start of the NCAA Tournament. The last two champions, Syracuse and Connecticut were outstanding defensive teams. Syracuse controlled games with their 2-3 zone, and Connecticut wore teams down with their defensive pressure and shot blocking. In the Tournament, games slow down, timeouts are longer (so team depth means less), and the referees usually let teams play more physically.

The Cal - Washington State game was like a Tournament game. It was intense half-court basketball with excellent defense and lots of big plays. It doesn’t matter that these two teams have losing records: the style of play was a reminder of why fans love the NCAA Tournament.

Teams that run up and down the floor and try to outscore their opponent might have a great season. They might even win their conference title. But they probably won’t win six games in a row in March.

It may be the oldest cliché in the book, but defense really does win championships.


©Copyright 2005, BearInsider.com and Scout.com. All rights reserved.

If you haven't done so already, subscribe to The Bear Insider so you can participate in this very active online Cal community and get access to the members-only content from the nation-wide Scout.com network.

Bear Insider staff writers visit the Insider discussion board regularly, and are available to discuss questions you may have about this article and Cal Athletics.

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