Friday was not the night to be a basketball player from Illinois named Williams.
First, in Syracuse, N.Y., Kent Williams, star guard for Southern Illinois, missed all five of his three-pointers and nine of his 11 shots overall on the way to seven points as the Salukis, one of this Tournament's underdog darlings, finally got sent home, losing to Connecticut, 71-59.
Then, in Madison, Wisc., Frank Williams, an even bigger star guard for the University of Illinois, missed his first six shots and his last one, an open 17-footer that would have tied Kansas with five seconds left. In between he made six of 11, including three three-pointers, for a team-high 15 points, not enough to prevent a 73-69 loss.
Kent Williams is a junior who will no doubt return to Southern Illinois next year, where he will team with one of his two co-stars from this year, forward Jermaine Dearman, but not the other, graduating 6-foot-6 center Rolan Roberts, whose dominant inside play was the only thing that kept the Salukis in the game with UConn Friday. Frank Williams' bid to tie the Illini-Jayhawks game in the waning moments was his last shot in blue and orange. Also a junior, he's already said he'll enter the NBA draft next year.
It's hard to say what would have happened had Kent Williams played better against Connecticut. The Huskies were obviously deeper, faster, more athletically gifted than the Salukis. But they also had no inside players who could stop Roberts, who scored his team's first four baskets against little resistance and eventually accounted for 24 points, almost all of them from within 10 feet. If Williams, an outside shooter, were dropping in a few three-pointers, the Huskies would not have been able to collapse down on Roberts, and those two weapons, along with Dearman, a slasher who scored 17, might have been enough to get the job done.
Then again, probably not. I have a feeling Connecticut would have found a way to win. They're just a better team.
Having said that, I'd like to try to convince you that Southern Illinois was no Cinderella. Yeah, they're an 11th seed in the Sweet 16, but, as I said Friday, you can throw everybody from about the fifth through the 12 seeds into a hat and pick them in just about any order you want. There's no way the Salukis were not one of the 40 best teams in the land this year. These guys won 28 games. They beat Indiana at home and they almost beat Illinois on the road. I'm convinced their first-round win over sixth seed Texas Tech was no upset at all, and they didn't look like plucky underdogs when they came from behind to beat No. 3 seed Georgia in the second round. They just looked like a good team erasing a deficit.
I would not argue with someone who said Southern Illinois was one of the top 16 teams in the country this year.
The problem for Southern Illinois now, of course, is that we're down to eight teams, who will get themselves down to four over the weekend.
Saturday No. 2 Oklahoma will meet No. 12 Missouri in the West region final in San Jose and No. 5 Indiana will go up against No. 10 Kent State in the South region final in Lexington, Ky.
It would seem from the seedings that Missouri is the Cinderella team of the Elite Eight, but the Tigers aren't riding in any pumpkins either. They're a talented, gritty team that was vastly over-praised as a top-five team early in the year, only to stumble through the season, winning consecutive games only twice after Jan. 19. But they've picked the right time to wake up, and they've looked almost as good as their autumn hype in beating Miami, Ohio State and UCLA, all good teams, in the Tournament.
Kent State is an unusual visitor to the Elite Eight, but the Golden Flashes aren't the big surprise here either. Their first-round "upset" over Oklahoma State wouldn't have been an upset if the seedings had been switched, which would have raised no eyebrows. Beating No. 3 Pitt was a surprise, but not as big a surprise as Indiana beating Duke, right? The Hoosiers are the pinch-me team of the year so far, seedings be damned.
The other side of the bracket, playing Sunday, is all powerhouses: No. 1 Maryland vs. No. 2 Connecticut in the East, in Syracuse, and No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 2 Oregon in the Midwest, in Madison.
Connecticut and Kansas are my only Final Four picks still standing, so they need to win if my pathetic pool entry is going to beat the possibly just-as-pathetic entry of Sports Illustrated's "council of wise guys," with whom I'm in a fierce competition that they don't know about, whoever they are. They picked three more first-round winners than I did, but then we got the same number of teams into the Sweet 16 (eight), and I picked four of the Elite Eight, while they only got three. (Not that I'm gloating, but three of their Elite Eight were bounced in the first round.) On the other hand, they have three Final Four teams still alive to my two. We both picked Kansas to win it all.
If Frank Williams had had a better game Friday, or even if he'd hit that game-tying jumper, that pick might not be looking nearly so good right now. But the Jayhawks showed how many weapons they have in holding off the Illini, and with Duke gone, they have to be considered the team to beat.
There's just one thing: Is it just me or is Kansas a better team when Kirk Hinrich isn't playing? In their opening-round struggle to beat Holy Cross, the Jayhawks were losing when Hinrich went out with his sprained ankle, then played better after his injury and came back to win. Against Stanford in the second round, Kansas' decisive 15-0 run to start the game happened with Hinrich on the bench. Against Illinois, Hinrich spent long stretches sitting with foul trouble. He scored three points in 17 minutes -- and freshmen guards Keith Langford and, especially, Aaron Miles bedeviled the Illini with more athleticism than they could handle, and more than Hinrich can provide.
I know this is an eccentric theory. Hinrich is a good player, and all he's done this year is put up 15 points and five assists a game while providing leadership on the floor. Maybe there's nothing to it at all. All I'm saying is that over the last three games it's seemed to me that Kansas plays better with Hinrich sitting.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Compare and contrast
We got to see two different approaches to the same situation Thursday and Friday. Texas trailed Oregon by two points and were on defense with about 40 seconds left Friday, and the Longhorns fouled intentionally. The previous night, Duke, also down by two and on defense with about 40 seconds left against Indiana, hadn't fouled intentionally, though the Blue Devils did end up fouling unintentionally with 11 seconds left. (That foul, by the way, looked like a clean strip of the ball on TV, but for the moment, and pretty much this moment only, we're not talking about incomprehensible officiating.)
Indiana sank two free throws with 11 seconds left for a four-point lead Thursday, so that only a three-point play and a foul could beat them -- a preposterous possibility, except that it almost happened. (Jason Williams, who had made the clutch trey, missed the free throw. Would someone check on Andy Williams, please? I'm suddenly worried about him.)
Oregon missed the front end of a one-and-one Friday, which allowed Texas to get the rebound, go down and score the game-tying basket. A missed free throw on that end deprived the Longhorns of a one-point lead.
As it happened, neither strategy worked. Duke and Texas both lost. Still, I like the Longhorns' strategy better. Even if the Ducks had made two free throws, there would have been plenty of time left. I feel better down by four with 40 seconds left than I do down by two with 10 seconds left. Don't you?
I guess not, if you're Mike Krzyzewski, but what does he know?
I only wrote that lest sentence to get people who have strong feelings about Duke to send me e-mails, which is not exactly a difficult thing to get them to do. I can't seem to say anything about Duke without Dukies writing to chastise me for my obvious anti-Duke sentiments and Duke haters writing to yell at me for being part of the nationwide pro-Duke media conspiracy.
Mentioning Duke is like holding up some kind of crazy mirror to readers. They always see their opposite. Their reactions say more about themselves than about whatever bonehead thing I've said. Now that Duke's been eliminated, I worry about these people. I'm hoping their ranting e-mails to me will provide them some sort of therapy between now and next season.