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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

John Gasaway - Heartbreak Hotel

April 8, 2008
Heartbreak Hotel
Kansas 75, Memphis 68 (OT)

by John Gasaway

So many things have to go right to lead by nine in a national championship game with a little more than two minutes left.

If, like Memphis, you're not a member of a "major" conference, you have to first build the program. Recruit a coach, then he recruits the recruits. He then has to find a way to keep his players focused throughout a conference season that doesn't challenge them. Next, if you're lucky, you'll taste some tournament success, build on consecutive trips to the Elite Eight, get one additional spectacular recruit, secure that one-seed, survive a strangely tough second-round game, and blow away three highly-ranked opponents. Only then will you find yourself here: up by nine with 2:12 left.

So many things have to go wrong to then lose a national championship game.

This game was a lot like this season. It refused easy categorization or, especially, the labeling of a favorite or an outstanding individual performer. Just when you thought you had this game figured out, it changed dramatically. In the end, of course, there could be only one outstanding performer: Mario Chalmers.

You could hear the ledes and, indeed, whole paragraphs being deleted all along press row when Chalmers sank the three that tied the game with 2.1 seconds left to play in regulation. In an unevenly played game, Chalmers provided one play that rose to the occasion. Chalmers is right-handed and he was going to his left, and he had Derrick Rose draped all over him. He made the shot anyway and tied the game at 63 going into overtime. With Joey Dorsey having already fouled out of the game for Memphis, the Jayhawks went on to win this game by seven.

Chris Douglas-Roberts will be remembered for missing three free throws in the final 75 seconds of regulation. That's fair, but keep in mind that his two missed free throws with 16 seconds remaining were offset by Robert Dozier's offensive rebound of the second miss. (Had this game gone differently, Dozier would have been one of the heroes. In the final three minutes he made both his free throws and recorded two offensive boards.) The Tigers could still have scored two points on that particular possession. As it happens, however, they didn't. They got just one point. Derrick Rose missed the first free throw and made the second. You know the rest.

Still, the endgame here was a little misleading. Memphis may have opened the door but KU still had to go through it and forcibly win this game. They did it by doing four things:

See "Mario Chalmers," above.
On offense, the Jayhawks insisted on twos all night long, and they made them. Usually when Memphis takes away their opponent's threes, it matters. Last night it didn't because KU made 60 percent of their twos. It's remarkable that the same network that displayed a graphic tallying something as wholly meaningless as a team's "rebounds per game" could also capture the essence of the Jayhawks' triumph in one statistically-based visual. Remarkable but true: the shot chart that CBS put up coming out of halftime showed how relentlessly Bill Self's team was pounding the ball into the paint. As I said earlier this year, that's your only shot against Memphis. You will not beat the Tigers with threes.
Kansas didn't foul. The sizeable, reputation-inflating defeats that Memphis laid on Michigan State and Texas were aided in no small part by 71 total free throws. Last night, conversely, the Tigers went to the line just 19 times and even that modest total was, of course, increased by intentional late fouling by KU.
Self's team took care of their defensive glass. As noted above, Dozier was a pest as far as KU was concerned--he recorded five offensive boards--but no other Tiger had more than two offensive rebounds.
You wouldn't know it from the halftime score (Kansas led by five), but the Jayhawks actually came out tight, while Memphis came out confident. Sure, the Tigers' half-court offense looked lifeless but, for all the talk this year about their innovative offensive scheme, the fact is that half-court offense is not the strength of this team. Their strengths are defense and points in transition. As it happens, there were very few points in transition. This game needed 45 minutes just to get to 72 possessions. By contrast, Saturday night's track meet between KU and North Carolina stuffed 79 possessions into just 40 minutes.

After about 30 minutes in which both teams traded baskets, a game of alternating runs--eerily similar to the aforementioned track meet--broke out with about nine minutes left to play. When Brandon Rush made a runner off the latest Mario Chalmers steal (at the expense of Chris Douglas-Roberts), the Jayhawks led 47-44. Things were about to get ugly, however, for Self's team.

KU went scoreless over its next five possessions, as Memphis turned a three-point deficit into a six-point lead with a little more than five minutes left. This coincided with some long-delayed scoring by Derrick Rose, including an eye-popping banked-in 19-footer that beat the shot clock. This will doubtless be portrayed as Rose "taking over" the game. Make no mistake: if anything took over the game during this stretch it was the Jayhawks' ineptitude, to the tune of two fairly unforced turnovers and 0-for-3 shooting. It took Chalmers--and, before that, a nifty steal and then three by Sherron Collins off a Memphis inbounds play--to get this game to OT.

Chalmers was indeed the hero, but this was very much a team effort by Kansas. Darrell Arthur made two exceptionally tough shots in the last minute. The first was as long as a two can be without becoming a three. The second was a turnaround with Shawn Taggart right in his face. Arthur's team needed both tough shots to fall and they did. They set the stage for Chalmers.

The talk coming into this game was that Memphis would limit the scoring of the Kansas guards, just as they'd done to Michigan State, Texas and UCLA. Apparently, Self simply told his backcourt to either feed the post or get there themselves. Indeed, Kansas made just three threes all night. Two of them came in the final two minutes and, as you may have heard, one of them came in the final three seconds.

You'll forgive Memphis if they never want to see the Alamodome again. Last year they lost in the Elite Eight to Ohio State in the building. Now this. The Alamodome has become synonymous with heartbreak for the Tigers. No wonder Memphis has now left the building.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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