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December 2, 2008

The Iowa Caucuses of Hoops

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 11:51 am

Four years ago when I started writing about college basketball, I termed the ACC/Big Ten Challenge the Iowa Caucuses of Hoops. Meaning: sure, this so-called Challenge is a contrived made-for-TV event that comes far too early in the season/campaign to have anywhere near the significance that is commonly attributed to it. And yet, the ACC’s comically total hegemony notwithstanding, it really is a genuinely compelling object of interest, isn’t it?

Exhibit A here arrived last night in the form of Wisconsin‘s tumultuous but impressive 74-72 win at Virginia Tech. Watching this game’s final ten seconds, I couldn’t help but think of Texas coach Rick Barnes, of all people. It just seemed like this was the first time in recent memory that the always delicious timeout-free dagger-counterdagger sequence had been played out in a game’s final seconds without Barnes on the scene.

In case you missed it: the Hokies did their distinguished alum Ken Pomeroy proud, mounting a furious three-fueled comeback from nine down in the final 1:15 and tying the game on a forced and ungainly but nevertheless accurate three by A.D. Vassallo with seven seconds remaining. (On a night when Jeff Allen was seemingly hit with a foul every time he exhaled, Vassallo came up big, scoring 30 points on 17 shots.) Whereupon Trevon Hughes took the ball, methodically weaved his way 80 feet forward, and, with the fans in Blacksburg still celebrating Vassallo’s three, sank a 12-foot runner from the paint with one tick remaining. Ballgame.

If you’re thinking you’ve seen this before, you’re right. The best recent March example took place in the 2006 Sweet 16, when West Virginia‘s Kevin Pittsnogle sank a three with five seconds remaining to tie Texas, only to see Kenton Paulino, sans timeout, turn right around and, off a feed from A.J. Abrams, win the game for the Horns with a three of his own as time expired.

Not that a two-act drama in the closing seconds has to involve two shots. Barnes was also on hand last December, when Wisconsin’s Michael Flowers drained a three with 2.7 seconds left to put the Badgers up by one. As you may remember, Flowers then intercepted the ensuing inbounds pass and, incredibly, had the presence of mind to loft the ball high in the air as he fell out of bounds. There were actually two seconds left when Flowers threw the ball toward the rafters of the Frank Erwin Special Events Center in Austin, but because he put so much air under the rock, Texas could only watch helplessly as time expired. Moral of the story: Rick Barnes must be present for there to be this kind of closing-seconds two-stage excitement. Um, until Virginia Tech-Wisconsin in the 2008 ACC/Big Ten Challenge.   

Last night’s contest was one of the better looking really slow games you’ll come across. There were only 54 possessions here but both teams were taking care of the ball (there were a total of 13 turnovers) and making their shots (the two teams combined to hit 68 percent of their threes–what new three point line?). It’s rare that you’ll see a mere 146 points scored in a more efficient and aesthetically pleasing fashion.

Tonight the Challenge commences in earnest, headlined by Duke at Purdue. It’s something of a tribute to the Devils that they’re a slight favorite in a true road game against a top-10 opponent. Then again Mike Krzyzewski‘s team, which limits opponents’ threes and takes care of the ball, would appear to be well-suited for a foe that thrives by hitting threes and forcing turnovers. We’ll see.

In other-29-conference news. Word arrived yesterday that Casiem Drummond has announced his intention to leave Villanova and transfer to another program. Though he started three games last February, Drummond saw his minutes taper off after that, meaning his absence will not materially alter the picture of the Wildcats that you formed last March. As for Drummond, his enigmatic quality will endure for yet another season. Indeed, in our book (buy it today!) we limned the lad as follows: “Drummond continues to be something of a hovering mystery, like Ralph Nader or the future of newspapers.” 

BONUS sociable note! I’ll be doing the live online chat thing tomorrow, Wednesday, at 1 Eastern. We’ll be raking the ashes of Duke-Purdue (whatever those may be), previewing North CarolinaMichigan State, and, heck, maybe even talking about some of the other 29 conferences too. You can post a question ahead of time and/or just join me then: step right this way

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