Friday, March 18, 2011

8-Seed Stuns 9-Seed

It felt like an upset. George Mason coach Jim Larranaga gave a rousing locker room speech to pep up his team before the game that could have been a scene from Hoosiers. However, his pre-game words were no match for Villanova. The Two Coreys combined for 24 points, playing in their potentially final collegiate game, and Larranaga’s Patriots trailed by as many as ten points. His undersized “underdogs” had no answer for Villanova’s 6’10 big man inside, Mouphtaou Yarou, who grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked 2 shots. George Mason took a six-point deficit into the locker room at halftime, when Jim Larranaga mustered up another epic locker room speech in front of the television cameras to inspire his troops and will them to victory.

There were no cameras in the Villanova locker room. We didn’t hear Jay Wright’s pre-game speech, but I’d imagine his halftime speech went something like this: “Alright guys, we have the lead, so let’s hope the score remains the same, and just try to run the clock down to zero. Take nine seconds to walk the ball across half-court, then play hot potato and pass the ball casually around the top of the key for another fifteen seconds. When the shot clock gets down to ten, Fisher or Wayns, one of you can dribble around frenetically then launch a contested fade away jumper at the buzzer. Got that? Good. Now repeat that for twenty minutes and hope for the best.”

Corey Fisher shot 2-7 in the second half. Corey Stokes, 1-8. Maalik Wayns, 0-4. Yarou grabbed just two rebounds. And they were all tough shots. This game wasn’t lost because Stokes missed a baseline jumper. It wasn’t lost because the referees missed a foul call on Maalik Wayns. Or because Luke Hancock hit a clutch 3-pointer. It was lost well before that because of the offensive game plan Jay Wright employed at the start of the second half. I was willing to forgive it in the previous games because of the gluttony of injuries Villanova had suffered; however, all week Jay maintained that his team was finally 100% healthy. And I believe him. Stokes, Fisher, and Yarou were in top form in the first half. If the team played 40 minutes like that, they would have cruised to an easy double-digit win. For whatever reason, Jay decided his best strategy was to try to shorten the game and run the clock down on each possession. I don’t understand it, you’re only making it tougher on yourself trying to score that way. The most frustrating thing is that Villanova did not lose this game because of great George Mason defense, or because the Patriots got lucky shooting the ball, or because Nova played poor defense, or even because the refs blew a call. Villanova lost because they failed miserably to execute on offense, and they have no one to blame but themselves.

Seniors Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes, and Antonio Pena had great careers at Villanova, making the NCAA Tournament every year and advancing to a Sweet Sixteen and a Final Four. I feel bad for them that it ended on a sour note, not just because they lost in the first round or because they lost six-straight games. I feel bad for them because they didn’t even get a chance to go down swinging. Like wise veterans, they did what their coach told them to do. Unfortunately, he held them back.

I’m not coming down hard on Jay Wright because I hate him and want him fired. I don’t. I love Jay, which makes this loss hurt all the more. I don’t know what he said at halftime, or what his logic behind the second half offensive strategy was. I do know that he is a better coach than he displayed. He’s proven as much through his impeccable track record over the past decade. I’m not sure what Jay needs to do to get his team to play 40 minutes of Villanova basketball in the future, but maybe he can start by watching sports movies and taking notes from the coaches’ locker room speeches. It worked for Larranaga.

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Can't believe Maalik Wayns only NBA player off that team. I thought Yarou would have a good shot, too.

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