Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NCAA Tourney 04 [Print without images]

Monday, March 22, 2004
Just take it two wins at a time

By Jay Bilas
Special to ESPN.com

As a player, there is nothing better than the NCAA Tournament. But winning a national championship can be a pretty daunting thing to wrap your head around.

When you look at the bracket, there are so many good teams and so many difficult matchups. You almost can't help but let your mind wander from the game in front of you, and let the other possibilities creep into your skull.

But competing in the NCAA Tournament is much like climbing a ladder. You can't get to the top in a single step, but you sure can get to the bottom in one step.

Similarly, you cannot win the national championship on the first weekend, but you can let it slip away. Ask Kentucky, Stanford, Gonzaga and Mississippi State -- the highest seeds bounced from the field in the second round. There is no longer walk than the one from the floor to the locker room after a loss in the NCAA Tournament.

When I was a player, a certain coach named Mike Krzyzewski used to break things down to their essence or simplest forms.

We weren't told to play hard for 40 minutes, because doing so seemed like such a long time; we were bound to pace ourselves. So, we broke the games down into four-minute segments and played from TV timeout to TV timeout, and we played harder over the course of the game by looking at it that way.

We also broke the regular season down into "segments." In theory, we would have intermediate goals to concentrate upon. We would take natural breaks in our schedule and divide up the season into groups of games. After each segment, we would evaluate our play, our record during that segment, and start the next segment "0-0." That actually became a part of our vocabulary, to say that we were "zero and zero," and we would play hungry without anything to lose or protect.

In 1986, I was fortunate to play on a Duke team that was tabbed the No. 1 overall seed entering the NCAA Tournament. It was the second year of the 64-team field, and we had lost in the second round of the tournament the prior two years as a 3 seed.

Prior to the 1986 NCAA Tournament, Krzyzewski decided to break the tournament down for us, to make it conceptually easier to handle. We were the No. 1 seed in the East, and Coach K looked at the 32 teams opposite our bracket and told us that he couldn't care less what happened on that side of the bracket. Sure, there were a lot of good teams over there, but we didn't have to play all of those teams, because only one team would survive that side of the bracket to meet us in the NCAA championship game.

On our side of the bracket, Coach K broke it down even further. He handed us the enlarged bracket for our sub-regional in Greensboro, N.C., and tabbed it the "Greensboro Invitational." He told us that we were going to Greensboro to play in a four-team tournament, and that was all we needed to concern ourselves with. The top of our bracket was irrelevant, because only one team was coming out of there to meet us in the Regional final. Let those other teams beat each other up -- we only need to beat four teams -- and we'd be heading to the Final Four.

Looking at the NCAA Tournament in these terms didn't seem so daunting and nebulous. We had a focus, and it was on the rung of the ladder right in front of us.

After winning the "Greensboro Invitational," we set our sights on our next "four-team tournament" in the Meadowlands. We beat DePaul and David Robinson's Navy team to reach the Final Four in Dallas, which was, coincidentally, another four-team tournament.

I had never heard anyone approach the NCAA Tournament in such a way before Coach K in 1986, although it wouldn't surprise me a bit to learn that it had been broken down in such terms by other coaches at the time. But, for a player, it remains a great way to keep your mind on the task at hand, which can be difficult.

When teams are trying desperately to win a national championship, they cannot afford to lose their focus on the next possession, let alone the next half or game. To navigate something so complicated, sometimes it makes a daunting task more simple by keeping things as simple as possible.

Forget seeds, look a matchups

The NCAA Tournament is one of the reasons I have the utmost respect for the golfers on the PGA Tour.

In tennis, football, baseball and basketball, teams or players have to beat only the opponent in front of them, and they don't have to play everybody in the field. In most PGA tournaments, golfers have to beat everybody in the field, without regard to a bad matchup. That's tough, and the best man always wins over the course of four days.

Tiger Woods can survive a tough matchup or a hot player having a great day over the course of a four-day tournament. On the flip side, in match play, Tiger can play the second-best round of golf in the entire event and lose in the first round!

The same is true for teams in the NCAA Tournament, except the opponent is trying to stop you from doing what you want to do. This is why I think that the NCAA Tournament is arguably the toughest event in sports.

In golf, nobody is actively defending Tiger from hitting his shots, and there is no official to interpret his mistakes to disqualify him for fouls. Basketball is the only sport I know of where your star can foul out for making five mistakes.

That's why the seeds in this year's tournament mean so little relative to the matchups. Here are some examples:

  • Stanford had an outstanding team, one worthy of reaching a regional final, not to mention a wonderful season that should be remembered forever in Palo Alto. However, the committee did not do Stanford any favors as a No. 1 seed, putting Alabama and/or Southern Illinois, and potentially Maryland/Syracuse and UConn in the Cardinal's path. Stanford had some relative struggles with speed and quickness (I say "relative" because a team with only one loss doesn't truly "struggle" with anything!). And Stanford's path included several teams with very good overall quickness, athleticism and length.

  • On the other end of the bracket, Saint Joseph's had a great draw, because the Hawks did not draw a team before the regional final that was a drop-dead great rebounding team, or a team that had a super tough matchup at small forward. Still, Saint Joseph's almost got clipped by Texas Tech, a team with very little rebounding strength or back-to-the-basket presence.

  • Gonzaga got a bad break having to play Nevada instead of Michigan State in the second round. While Michigan State seems like the tougher matchup based upon reputation, the Zags were bigger and stronger than the Spartans, and Tom Izzo's club was not among his better rebounding and defensive teams. Michigan State was vulnerable to Gonzaga, but Nevada presented a quicker and more athletic team that could really bother the Zags. Garry Hill-Thomas was dedicated as a defender to never leaving Blake Stepp, and Ronny Turiaf got into horrendous foul trouble. In the Zags' three losses on the season, Turiaf was either injured or in serious foul trouble.

    OSU-Pitt: Too good, too soon

    On Selection Sunday, we pointed out that while it was a fair call to honor the one-loss seasons of St. Joe's and Stanford, Oklahoma State could have easily been a No. 1 seed and Pittsburgh should have been a No. 2 seed. Now, as a result of the mis-seeding, Pittsburgh and Oklahoma State will meet in the East Rutherford regional semifinals.

    This matchup should have been in a regional final.

    Pitt's guards need to shoot the ball better if the Panthers hope to beat Oklahoma State. Carl Krauser and Julius Page are a measly 36-for-117 (31 percent) over their last five games, and their shooting woes put a ton of pressure on the Panthers' defense to get stops. Pitt is one of the best teams I have seen in surviving a bad shooting night. They pound you into submission on the defensive end, stand you up on your cuts and don't let you run anything except the "Single Wing."

    Still, I like Oklahoma State to win the "East" Rutherford region.

    Jay Bilas is a college basketball analyst at ESPN and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.