There is a disease making its way through the college basketball world right now. Debilitating and highly contagious, it’s infecting smart, good players on championship contenders, rendering them more helpless than than Chuck, Muggsy, Grandmama, Patrick Ewing, and Shawn Bradley after the MonStars sapped their talent. Most recently crippling Florida and Arizona, this horrific plague is known as late game-itis.
Either the coaches are not doing their jobs, or the players are not doing theirs, but the management of Florida’s final possessions in regulation and overtime was abysmal.
Butler’s Matt Howard missed the back end of a trip to the free throw line, leaving the game tied, and the ball in Florida’s hands with 31 seconds left in the second half. Gator point guard Erving Walker (shooting a robust 0-8 from the field thus far in the game) stalled the offense just in front of halfcourt, spreading his teammates out around the arc in an apparent clearout situation. With the isolation that he seemed to be looking for, Walker still didn’t move, watching the clock tick down. With four seconds left, he finally began the play, coming off a high screen and releasing an off-balance three-point attempt that had little chance of going in.
In overtime, after a defensive rebound, Florida coach Billy Donovan called timeout. Down one with 30 seconds remaining, he had to be telling his team to be smart; in the wake of Walker’s ill-fated jumper, the Gators had time to look for a good shot, work the ball inside to dominant center Vernon Macklin, do anything but put up a contested deep three with plenty of time left. Of course, that’s exactly what Kenny Boynton did, fading away from 25 feet out, with 19.7 seconds still on the clock and Ronald Nored’s hand in his face. After Butler grabbed the rebound and hit their free throws, the game was over.
Any coach, especially one with a multi-championship pedigree and an appearance on many NBA watch lists, cannot let his team falter like that in clutch moments. Neither situation necessitated three points, and Donovan used timeouts to talk to his team and set them up before both plays. Somehow, needing only one point to win in regulation, and two to win in overtime, they settled for contested, off-balance three-pointers. Meanwhile, Macklin (who did not attempt a field goal in OT), was sitting on 25 points, shooting 11-14 from the floor. Forward Alex Tyus scored 10 points in the second half, but also was notably phased out in crunch time. This is symptomatic of an alarming trend in college basketball, as many guards are attempting more than half of their shots from beyond the arc, making them easy to defend while sinking their teams’ offensive efficiency and ability to get to the free throw line.
In Anaheim, Arizona’s second-year coach Sean Miller called time to organize his team, down two with 18 seconds remaining, with the ability to either play for the win, or send the game to overtime. Despite the Wildcats hitting only four of 19 from downtown at that point, star forward Derrick Williams took an early, off-balance, contested shot — notice a theme? — from the top of the key, then after a scramble and an offensive rebound, forward Jamelle Horne missed an open three to give Connecticut the game. Even if Miller told Williams to try to end the game, the players can still be held accountable for their actions on the court. When Horne took his shot, there were still more than four seconds remaining, and in front of him he had an easily avoidable defender flailing out of control towards him, then eight feet of freedom to create a better look. These teams, these players, made their decision to play for heroics, attempting wild, low-percentage shots instead of making smart, sensible plays that win basketball games. The disease grows stronger.
For the record, Florida and Arizona shot a combined 7-35 from three-point range, and 42-83 from inside the arc. You tell me what the smart play was.