Illinois didn’t win last night. Actually, it had no business coming back and almost giving itself a chance to win in the final minutes. It had no inside game to speak of. When it mattered most it couldn’t connect its three-point shots, which was only fair because without inside scoring no team deserves to win in basketball. North Carolina reasserted its huge “physical” advantage, made a key steal, and that was that. It had controlled most of the game, and clearly was the deserving winner.
If anyone hugely cared. There was an oddness to the game’s “feel,” no doubt generated in part by the Chapel Hill team’s obvious superiority. Add to that the normal petering out that affects both teams in the finals of a long and (mentally) tiring march through the tournament. Finally, maybe everyone was discombobulated by the nonstop yapping of CBS’s announcers, Billy Packer and somebody named Jim. They talked as if each would get paid by the word, with a bonus going to the one who outmouthed the other.
Radio announcers usually work solo as the listeners’ eyes and ears. There was a time when TV sports announcers didn’t need to say half as much (one reason why it was never fun to have Vin Scully doing televised games). Now it’s the other way around. Who are you going to believe? Your eyes or the announcers screaming at you from the opening tip. You’d think they were coaches riding the referees in the hopes of a favorable call somewhere down the road.
Oddly, only when the game got close in the final minutes did the CBS team slow its delivery. In a moment of potential drama, our dynamic duo had no cliches left on its bench.
For what it’s worth, or should I say not worth, there was nothing political about the event. Dean Smith, the former North Carolina coach nonpareil, was caught on camera during Saturday’s semifinals. But no one, not even Bonnie Bernstein, mentioned that Smith is a Tar Heel state super-liberal. Early in the tournament a Cincinnati player by the name of Jihad Muhammad played on national TV against Kentucky. No one wondered how a player with such a name could focus on his game during the War on Terror. Needless to say, Rome last night could have been galaxies away.
What if Georgetown and Villanova had played instead? As Catholic schools, would they have postponed their showdown, much as places like Italy and Poland have suspended all extraneous activities until after the Pope’s funeral? We’re not a Catholic country, so of course there’s no reason to expect any comparable gestures on our part. Twenty-four years ago, Indiana and North Carolina played the for the NCAA championship the day President Reagan was nearly killed by John Hinckley. There was talk that maybe the game would or should be postponed. After Indiana’s victory, one of its top players was asked whether he would have agreed with a decision not to play. He replied that much as he and his teammates were upset by what had happened to the president, it was important to play the game, because “we had a championship on the line.” In America, the show must go on. Indeed, recall that Illinois’s head coach lost his mother at the start of this year’s March Madness. He didn’t miss a game.
Recall too that Georgetown and Villanova did play for the NCAA championship 20 years ago this year. HBO recently ran a special hour on that game, in which the heavy underdog Villanova performed as perfectly as one could to defeat a titanic Georgetown team. If Illinois had had Ed Pinckney last night, maybe it would have won. The HBO tape showed something else. Trunks were shorter and there was no shot clock or three-point line. ‘Nova triumphed because it consistently hit the intermediate range jump shots that no one takes anymore.
One thing is certain: twenty years from now no one will be showing replays of last night’s game. Which doesn’t mean Billy and Jim’s motor mouths won’t be disturbing the peace somewhere else.
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