Monday, April 07, 2008

"Rock, chalk, championship!"

A fantastic American national championship game last night saw the University of Kansas Jayhawks claim their first championship since 1988 with a 75-68 overtime win over the University of Memphis Tigers. Funnily enough, current assistant coach Danny Manning was the star of that Kansas team 20 years ago, which was appropriately known as "Danny and the Miracles" and pulled off a stunning upset of Oklahoma to claim the title.

It was a great run for this year's Jayhawks, but they didn't go without their struggles, almost losing to Cinderella team Davidson in the Elite Eight when the Wildcats' Jason Richards missed a crucial shot at the buzzer. For much of last night, it looked like the Jayhawks would come up short again, especially when they were nine points down with just over two minutes left. They went on an incredible late run, though, and forced overtime off a tremendous contested three from Mario Chalmers with only 2.1 seconds left.

That Chalmers shot deserves its own paragraph. Hell, it deserves its own column, perhaps its own book someday. It should be forever enshrined in NCAA tournament lore. Joe Posnanski of the Kansas City Star absolutely nailed it with this column, impressive considering that he filed it almost right after the gmae.

"As soon as Mario Chalmers’ shot went up in this wild Kansas-Memphis championship game, you could feel that crazy twist in your stomach," he wrote. "It’s going in. It’s the same feeling that every sports fan has in the last second, when the last Hail Mary is thrown, when the last fly ball is hit, when the last putt is curling toward the hole. Of course, most of the time the Hail Mary is knocked away, the last fly ball dies at the warning track, the last putt breaks left of the hole. And the last shot usually hits the rim and bounces away. Great finishes, like straight flushes, rarely come through."

This great finish did come through, though. Chalmers took a kick-out pass and got off what looked like a partly off-balance shot with two Tigers in his face, and it hit nothing but net. "We got the ball in our most clutch player's hands, and he delivered," Kansas coach Bill Self told CBS after the game. Boy, did he ever deliver, sending the game to overtime and paving the way for the eventual Jayhawk triumph. Posnanski properly called it "the greatest shot in Kansas basketball history".

Memphis looked rattled after that, almost destined to lose. They were getting decent looks in the overtime period, but couldn't hit a shot when it mattered. Kansas pulled off a great steal, several key rebounds and even an alley-oop to seal the deal and give Self his first national championship.

Another interesting part of this matchup was the presence of Roy Williams. Williams, now the UNC coach, famously took over the Jayhawks program in 1988, right after Larry Brown led them to their last national title and then left for the NBA. He brought the program through the sanctions levied on them for recruiting violations under Brown, and led them to terrific success. They qualified for every NCAA tournament between 1990 and 2003, made the Final Four three times and won an astonishing 80.5 per cent of their games.

Still, Williams was never able to take that last step, and flew the coop right after his high-water mark with the Jayhawks, the 2003 title game where they lost to Syracuse. He soon won a championship with North Carolina, but left a bitter taste with some Kansas fans. That made the Kansas - North Carolina semifinal even more epic, and the Jayhawks' win seemed to provide an opportunity for Kansas fans to get their grievances with Williams out. Indeed, Williams was present and welcomed in the Kansas cheering section during this game, a classy move on both his part and the part of the Jayhawk fans.

The game also marked the dawn of a new era: Kansas basketball is no longer about getting even with the old coach, as he's since been eclipsed by the new coach. Bill Self cleared the knock on his record of failing to make the Final Four, and went on to join the pantheon of Kansas coaching legends with names like James Naismith, Forrest Allen and Larry Brown. It additionally demonstrated the circular nature of NCAA coaching: Self started at Kansas as an assistant to Brown in 1985, filling the position recently vacated by John Calipari. He then left to take an assistant's position at Oklahoma State, and then had head coaching jobs with Oral Roberts University, the University of Tulsa and the University of Illinois before returning to Kansas to take over from Williams. Calipari, of course, eventually wound up at Memphis, and found himself facing both his old program and the man who filled his shoes.

This year's tournament had everything: star players like Michael Beasley, underdogs like Davidson, an eventual Final Four of top-seeded teams, and storylines galore. Yet, to top it all off was a nice CIS connection. Neate wrote before the game that Kansas is planning a pre-season match against the Carleton Ravens on August 30. That will be something, to see the NCAA champions in Canada against our greatest dynasty, even if the game's unlikely to mean much. Now, if only they could be convinced to go play Brock for the North American championship. Even the Jayhawk scrubs could probably win in a heartbeat, given the disparity in program resources, but you never know: as this year's CIS championships showed, the clock doesn't always strike midnight on Cinderella.

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