The day started with an exploration of the United Center. Three hours before the Akron Zips took to the floor for the first of eight 40-minute practices being held on Thursday, I was ducking into every nook and cranny of the arena, getting the lay of the land. I cover NBA games here several times a month, but in many respects the familiar bowels of the UC have been transformed into something almost unrecognizable.
Early in the morning, the beat writers are already grumbling, even though there are less than a dozen on hand and nothing is happening. Wi-fi access is proving to be shaky. Passwords are not working. Computers are not recognizing networks.
"A technician is on the way," says a girl from the NCAA.
"It only gets worse from here," one sports writer says to another, typical of a beaten-down species genetically pre-disposed to always expect the worst.
I have a secret: Because of my Bulls' credential, I carry with me the password for logging onto their network and, yes, it makes me feel special. The disgruntled, those who have shuttled in from Akron or Jersey City or West Lafayette, glare at me as I merrily surf away. They take it as further proof that somebody is out to get them. I later find out that the powers-that-be don't care if I use my Bulls' access. The only problem is that I've already paid the $20 that the NCAA charges every media member that wants to use the Web. That is, every media member that actually wants to file a story. Oh well, I can write it off next spring. Perk of the trade.
After getting my computer up and running, I wandered over to the tables where stacks of press notes and media guides were spread out like a sports information buffet. I gathered them all up--I'm a compulsive collector of those things, even though all they end up doing is cluttering up my office and you can look up anything you need to know on the Web, often from electronic versions of the same publications I'm carting around. Old habits die hard.
I covered the regional in Kansas City two years ago, so I've seen how the NCAA transforms every arena in the spirit of obsessive-compulsive homogeneity. I've actually had a beef with this ever since the NCAA started the practice. When you are flipping from game-to-game on television, you can't immediately tell which region you're at by looking at the court. Once you could get a sense of who was playing at the United Center, for example, because of the big Bulls logo and the black-and-red color scheme. No more. It's all in the name of progress.
If you want to make a few bucks, land the contract selling black carpet to the NCAA. It's everywhere and this is just one of eight arenas currently fitted to the regional template. The media work room and interview area is all laid out on top of the stuff. The court is bordered by it on all sides, from the court to the stands. The court itself is standard NCAA issue--the organization logo at center court. The expensive front row seats that are so sought after for Bulls games have been replaced by long tables for the media. (I wish the Bulls would pick up on this setup, but it ain't happening.) When I slip out to watch practice, I sit in approximately the spot where Aretha Franklin was sitting the other night.
Things get started with a press conference involving a few Akron players. I sit in, but I have no questions. I've never seen this team play and until I read through their advance stats at kenpom.com, I couldn't have named a single player on their roster. The most interesting thing that was said was when Zips center Zeke Marshall, one of the country's top shot blockers, was asked if he was concerned about Notre Dame's size. He responded, "As an individual, I'm taller than anyone." I understood what he meant but gotta love his wording.
It's my goal to cover as much of the days' proceedings as possible. The format is rigid: For each team, it goes player interviews, coach interviews, 40-minute practice. With eight teams and many of the practice and interview sessions overlapping, it's more than one can cover alone. At first, I thought I'd skip further player interviews and try to catch as much practice as I could. That turned out to be a miscalculation. Why? Nothing happens at the practices.
First, Akron went through a lay-up drill with the school fight song playing over the UC sound system. Everything at the pod is timed down to the second, so the scoreboard clock was winding back from 40 minutes. After lay-ups, the Zips start to shoot. And shoot. And shoot some more.
For a moment, I get wistful, as I am prone to do. When I watch teams practice, that is when miss playing organized basketball. Games at the NBA level are such spectacles that they bear little resemblance to any kind of game in which I've played or even hoped to play. Practices, no matter what level you're talking about, are different. You have coaches. Drills. Regular gym clothes. It all seems so familiar. The games themselves are just the tip of the iceberg of how a player spends his time as an athlete. The reward.
I got lost in these recollections because the shooting never stops, not until the clock winds to zero and the buzzer sounds, which startled me because I hadn't expected it to go off. All Akron did was shoot. For awhile, they divided into two groups and switched ends, competing against the other group for most made baskets. That was sort of fun, but no one seemed very competitive about the whole thing. I guess all a team can really hope to do in 40 minutes is adapt to the rims and the massive backdrop of an arena far bigger than to which they are accustomed. One Akron player lamented missing 10 shots in a row and looked kind of worried. In any event, any insight into Akron's game-planning wasn't to be found in that practice.
I later watched Florida State go through its lay-up drill. The Seminoles were the subject of the one bit of news surrounding the first four teams to work out. Star forward Chris Singleton, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, has been out since Feb. 12 with a broken foot. He returned to practice recently but in his presser, Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton remained non-commital about the return of his top player. As Singleton went through the drills, I thought he was landing "funny." That is to say, instead of landing on both feet at the same time, he was trying to let his good foot touch down first to absorb the brunt of the force of hitting the court, which gave his landing a strange "thump, thump" sound. Whether or not it means anything in terms of his availability, I have no idea. It seemed problematic but, of course, I'm not a doctor--not with a last name like mine.
Really, the coaches' press conference are the only place any real insight is to be found in a set-up like this. Especially interesting are the mini-scouting reports coaches are invariably asked to give about their upcoming opponent. For example, Akron coach Keith Dambrot said of Notre Dame, "They're a simplistic team, which most good teams are. Terrific coach. There's not many motion teams anymore in the country. So that's probably the biggest adjustment for us is we haven't really guarded a motion team all year long. We had to get ready quickly in a four-day period."
There's a lot of good, interesting basketball stuff in that comment. Silly as it seems, good basketball stuff can be hard to come by in a press conference. However, the hum-drum of the whole process can be uplifted by a coach with personality, whether it's an affable wise-cracker like Wisconsin's Bo Ryan or a consistently crusty, angry sort like West Virginia's Bob Huggins. In Chicago, I found myself enjoying the peppy answers offered up by Notre Dame's Mike Brey.
A sample. When asked about college basketball critics like ESPN's Mike Wilbon claiming that the NCAA lacks star power, Brey said, "It's frustrating to hear that. The phrase that's been out there is that 'there's no great teams.' Well, I think we're a great team because we play like a team. I take it a little personal, you know, and I'm sure a lot of other coaches in college basketball do, too."
Later, Brey added, "I bet this tournament is going to be really good even though maybe there's no great teams. You know, that's the theme I've heard."
Another nice moment, just to remind us working folks what we're missing by covering practice instead of watching games, came when Mark Turgeon sat down at the podium. "You all just missed a great finish," Turgeon said. "Butler just won at the buzzer."
Anyway, that's the way things run behind the scenes at an official NCAA pod. Through the weekend, I'll be sending off dispatches from Chicago. They'll be much more basketball-oriented than this opening salvo, which is meant to give you a little flavor of the logistical effort needed to stage an event like this.
I've zeroed in one key storyline for each of the eight teams that will take the floor this weekend at the United Center: Notre Dame, Purdue, Georgetown, Texas A&M, Florida State, Virginia Commonwealth, Akron and St. Peter's. Later this evening, after all the practices are finished, and all the opening press conferences are complete, I'll check back in with those storylines, which I'll be following through Sunday's third round games. (The First Four games of Tuesday and Wednesday are now what constitutes the first round.)
And just now, Temple beat Penn State on a last-second shot for the third great finish in four games so far on Thursday. Come on, guys, save some drama for Friday.
Till later, happy hoops.
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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