Frank Hoops: Thursday Thoughts

Thoughts on Stoudamire's sweet stroke, Louisville's statement, West Virginia's history-making mission and Illinois' dazzling guards.

It's like this:

Earlier in the evening, the lead of this column was going to touch, ever-so-snidely, upon the Louisville Cardinals' "statement" made against the University of Washington's Huskies Thursday night in the Pit in Albuquerque, N.M.

Later I thought "hmmm ... those Illinois guards were sure at their dazzling best against Wisconsin-Milwaukee ... I better incorporate them right near the top of this thing."

Then, with Texas Tech and West Virginia trading leads down to the wire in the most unlikely of Sweet 16 games Thursday night, I knew that – be it Bob Knight's Red Raiders or John Beilein's Mountaineers – the winner of that Albuquerque regional affair was going to deserve a hunk of my writing time.

Then I watched the final few minutes of Arizona vs. Oklahoma State and, as each team traded gut-crunching baskets down the stretch, the column began to write itself ...

So ... how about that Salim Stoudamire, eh?

He's stuck a lot of left-handed jumpers into opponents during four years at Arizona, a bunch of them game-winners this season.

But none of them were as stiletto-like as the one he sliced up the Cowboys with Thursday night from the left wing with 2.8 seconds to play.

Coming some 15 seconds after Joey Graham's short shot in the lane at the other end of the floor had given Oklahoma State a one-point edge in the Chicago regional semifinal, the flick of the left wrist by Stoudamire – after a wicked right-to-left crossover dribble that just might have been palming – sent the Wildcats into a Saturday final against No. 1-ranked Illinois.

But not, of course, until a turnaround jumper from the left corner by John Lucas bounced tantalizingly off the iron as the buzzer was sounding.

The 79-78 victory by Lute Olson's team didn't feature the heart-pounding, end-to-end pace that the second half of West Virginia's double-overtime upset of Wake Forest had Saturday night in Cleveland.

What it was, though, was a game that could have been dropped into that late-night, April 4 slot in the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis and people would have been debating whether it was the most thrilling and well-played national championship game of all time.

And to think … I didn't TiVo the darn thing …

If the Louisville team was trying to make a statement Thursday night, I say "touché!"

The message – that the Cardinals were seriously short-changed by the NCAA tournament committee on Selection Sunday when it only gave Rick Pitino's team a No. 4 seed – was delivered as succinctly as Francisco Garcia and Taquan Dean were dropping three-pointers on the University of Washington Huskies' defense en route to a 93-79 victory.

Following Louisville's 22-point victory over 2004 national championship runner-up Georgia Tech on Sunday and the two-touchdown (with a couple of conversion kicks) victory against the Albuquerque region's top-seeded Huskies, those who believe that the Cardinals were worthy of something a notch or two or three better than a four seed couldn't have any more ammo.

The Cardinals couldn't have looked any better, could they? And even as Garcia and Dean were hitting five threes apiece, it was senior center Ellis Myles (eight points, 13 rebounds and six assists) who was the most critical element for Louisville Thursday at both ends of the floor.

In the second game in the Pit Thursday night, West Virginia beat Bob Knight-coached Texas Tech 65-60 and is a victory over Louisville Saturday away from playing in a Final Four for the first time in only 46 years.

Think about it: The last time the Mountaineers played in a Final Four, Jerry West was their All-America guard and Dwight Eisenhower was holding down the fort at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in the District of Columbia.

The TV Talking Head Brigade seemed more than willing to hop on that Cardinals' Express for the jaunt into St. Louis next weekend. West Virginia seems willing and able to knock that bandwagon asunder.

Lost in all of the late-night hysteria and in the resounding nature of Louisville's drubbing of Washington was the nearly business-like fashion in which Illinois and the Terrific Trio (Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head) & Co. continually kept a very game Wisconsin-Milwaukee club at bay.

The details of the nation's No. 1 team's game with Stoudamire and Arizona – with that all-expense-paid trip to St. Louis at stake – will not be so quickly dismissed Saturday.



Recently elected to the USBWA Hall of Fame, Frank Burlison is Scout.com's National Basketball Expert and also covers college basketball for the Long Beach (Calif.) Press-Telegram. He can be reached at frank.burlison@presstelegram.com.

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