Saturday, March 17, 2007 Updated: March 18, 3:46 AM ET
Blue Raiders win 27th straight -- and a new fan
By Graham Hays ESPN.com
If you watched Middle Tennessee's 85-46 win against Gonzaga, you know how much the NCAA Tournament needs this team.
Players like Chrissy Givens, the star with the "sublimely smooth game," make you want to root for Middle Tennessee.
No offense to Candace Parker or the denizens of Rocky Top; any chance to watch CP do just about everything a player can do on the court is time well spent. And no offense to the defending champs from Maryland, yet another team standing in Middle Tennessee's way on the road to Cleveland and the Final Four.
We need America's Team to show up every few years. We needed it when Jackie Stiles and Southwest Missouri State went to the Final Four in 2001. And we needed Lindsay Whalen and Minnesota when they did the same in 2004.
Like those two squads, this Middle Tennessee team has a quality that's more important than rebounding margin, field-goal defense or assist-to-turnover ratio.
The Blue Raiders make basketball fun. They make you want to root for them.
They don't win by squeezing the clock and squeezing the fun out of the game. They come at you for 40 minutes, pressing, harassing and generally making you work like a sadistic aerobics instructor. They're the middleweight who hears the opening bell against a heavyweight and starts throwing haymakers.
Halfway through the opening 20 minutes Saturday, the Blue Raiders had already forced Gonzaga into eight turnovers, converting those into 12 points. And they didn't let up. A team has done its job defensively when it forces 500 turnovers in a season -- the Blue Raiders had forced 844 turnovers in 32 games entering the NCAA Tournament.
There are teams still playing basketball that couldn't come up with 844 turnovers forced if they started counting practice stats.
As Jimmy Dykes pointed out during the broadcast, Gonzaga practiced against seven defenders this week, trying to simulate the pressure the Blue Raiders would apply. The Bulldogs should have made it eight. Or nine. Was Dan Dickau busy?
The Bulldogs looked like a team trying to kill an opponent's power play for most of the night. At times, simply throwing the ball into the frontcourt might have made more sense. After all, there's no icing in basketball.
We need two weekends worth of Chrissy Givens, the star with the sublimely smooth game. Givens is the eye of the storm for the Blue Raiders. Pandemonium reigns around her, but the game slows when she gets the ball and calmly spins and cuts her way into the lane for a turnaround jumper or a kick-out pass for an open 3-pointer. We need more of a star who ruefully admitted earlier this season that she still gets chewed out by her coach at times for having a pass-first mentality.
For that matter, we need at least two weekends worth of cutaway shots to Mattie Givens, the proud mother, celebrating in the stands.
We need more stories about Rick Insell, high school coaching legend who made this program Final Four material, in part, by saying he wanted to make it Final Four material. Need it be pointed out that he's coaching in the same state as Pat Summitt? That's like someone moving from high school to UC Santa Cruz when John Wooden was at UCLA and talking about competing for championships against the Bruins.
We need Starr Orr racing, sprinting down the sideline like a football gunner on punt coverage, poking the ball away from a Gonzaga player, pivoting like a hockey player heading into the corner and launching a full-court chest pass to Givens for a layup.
Somehow these teams always have the right supporting cast, basketball versions of the guys in "Entourage," who fill roles so well that they become essentially indispensable and entirely entertaining. For Stiles, it was point guard Erica Vicente running the show or Carly Deer providing an interior presence. For Whalen (and Janel McCarville), it was Shannon Schonrock dropping shots from behind the arc.
Middle Tennessee has them. There is Amber Holt, the underrated sidekick of an underrated superstar. And there's the shooter spotting up for backbreaking 3-pointers when teams collapse on Givens and Holt -- take your pick, you've got three to choose from in Johnna Abney, Brandi Brown and Jackie Pickel. Everyone who plays, and a bunch of people play, fills a role.
One weekend isn't enough with a group this much fun to watch. This is the book that needs to be reread or the movie you want to see again, just to make sure you didn't miss anything the first time around.
It's the right time for this team, and the Blue Raiders don't deserve to be in the wrong place.
"I wanted to be a part of a program that was on the move and to say I was a part of that," Givens said earlier this season. "A lot of people think Coach Insell is crazy when he says they'll be in the Final Four one day. I believe it. After playing for him, I totally believe it. They will be there. And when I'm at home, watching them play in the Final Four, I can always say I was part of where it started."
That might be the only mistake Givens has made this season. Because if she's at home watching the Blue Raiders play in a Final Four, it ought to be a return trip.
She deserves that. And as college basketball fans, we need that.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.