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Tuesday, March 29, 2011
The success secret for VCU and Butler

By Tim Keown
ESPN.com

North Carolina's Harrison Barnes unknowingly provided the perfect metaphor for today's college basketball landscape. In Sunday's Elite Eight game against Kentucky, Barnes did something usually seen only on asphalt playgrounds or in Harlem Globetrotter games or dunk contests. Or, every so often, in an NBA game, but only by a player at the very top of the food chain.

What did Barnes do? He passed to himself.

Barnes angled into the lane and found his path blocked. He pump-faked, got the defender off the floor and then leaned in and tossed the ball off the backboard to himself. He mistimed his jump, though, so he didn't pull off the pass-to-yourself-slam so rarely seen in the confines of team play. With that failed maneuver, a play that would have been a staple of highlight shows for the next 50 years became nothing more than a missed shot that looked a lot like a turnover.

Barnes
He's a great player. Fun to watch. But UNC's Harrison Barnes might not have approached the NCAA tourney the way the players for VCU and Butler did.

And so, in one act of self-glorification, Barnes exemplified why everybody is so excited about VCU and Butler in the Final Four. He also provided a neat and clean synopsis of why the VCUs and Butlers are no longer the aberrations everybody believes they are.

Last year: Butler.

This year: Butler and VCU.

You say Cinderella; I say trend.

Nothing against Barnes. It's just that he's the one who thought to pass to himself in an Elite Eight game at a time when it's becoming increasingly clear that balancing team basketball and future NBA plans is not the simple act we once supposed. For what it's worth, I'd pay to see Barnes play before I'd pay to see any single player on VCU or Butler.

But the thing is, I'd pay to see VCU or Butler before I'd pay to see Barnes.

Barnes is emblematic of the supremely talented freshmen in the NCAA tournament whose gifts are on loan to college basketball at the behest of David Stern's ruling against preps-to-pros. They're exciting to watch, capable of putting a game in their own hands and remaking it in their image. When they get it going, as Barnes did for a good part of the second half Sunday, the results can be nothing short of beautiful. Evidence from that half: Barnes' impossible right-to-left reverse layup, during which he seemed fully capable of remaining in the air long enough to float over his team's bench and into the second or third row. It was breathtaking.

Butler Celebration
It sounds old-school, but it's true: Butler's sum is greater than its parts.

But there are times when the floor isn't open and the flow isn't there and the strain shows. Kyrie Irving is another fabulous freshman talent, but his play against Arizona is the main reason the Blue Devils' season ended before most people thought it would. (Coach K's willingness to hand the game over to Irving had something to do with it, too.)

It was nearly impossible to believe that Duke's game plan was to have Irving take over while the best player on the court -- Nolan Smith -- was reduced to an innocent bystander. That's what happened, though; and even though Irving scored 28 points and often looked pretty doing it, the game drifted away from Duke and never came back.

Here's the deal: When I'm watching these guys play, I can't help but think I'm watching an audition, players playing to improve their draft status. If they can do that and help their teams win, all the better; but all too often, it looks like it's more important to get shots than play team basketball.

Nearly everyone falls in love with Butler and VCU because their sum is greater than the parts. It's rare to find a team relying on a one-and-done player who displays the same kind of camaraderie and share-the-ball philosophy we see in the upstarts. There are some players -- Kemba Walker this year, Derrick Rose in years past -- who manage to combine transcendent talent with the ability to make their teammates better. I'd put Arizona's Derrick Williams in that category, too.

More often, it's Barnes passing to himself, Irving forcing up shots while his teammates stand and watch, Jimmer Fredette bombing off-balance, contested 3s even though someone else has the hot hand.

Kyrie Irving
It's as if Duke's Kyrie Irving tried to beat Arizona all by himself.

VCU and Butler have tremendous talent, too. It's just an aggregation of talent rather than separate elements. Every VCU player is a threat to drain a 3, but every VCU player is also a threat to pass up an open 3 to find a teammate who has a better look. Butler's Shelvin Mack is a great scorer, but he rarely stagnates his team in search of a shot.

It's the difference between teams playing together and guys on the same team taking turns shooting.

This is nothing new. Coaches have been fighting this for a while now. Youth basketball, dominated by a dysfunctional AAU system run by shoe companies and shady characters, erodes the team concept beginning at -- or before -- the high school level.

The pressures come from all angles -- parents, friends, street agents, AAU coaches. It takes a rare individual to be able to withstand the attendant pressures to become an individual star within the team concept.

Irving and Barnes are two of the best NBA prospects in a shaky draft year. They'll be better in the pros than college, and they'll continue to be fun to watch.

In other words, their best days are ahead. The same probably can't be said for the guys at VCU and Butler. Doesn't matter, though; it's becoming increasingly clear that March is a month dominated by teamwork.

Get used to it.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.

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