Half measures

The last few minutes before halftime are too valuable to keep your best player on the bench. Coach Jim Calhoun didn't realize that, and his UConn Huskies are not in the Final Four.

By King Kaufman

Published March 25, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Here's what I think: Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun lost his team's East region final to Maryland at the end of the first half Sunday.

The Huskies are not the same team when Caron Butler is not on the floor. Not even close. With 5:15 to go in the half and Connecticut up 32-30, Butler picked up his second foul, and Calhoun sat him down to keep him from getting his third before halftime. Fair enough, and UConn did all right for a while. With 2:43 to go, it was 37-36 Huskies.

Calhoun should have thanked his lucky stars that he got away with a Butler-less lineup for two and a half minutes and put him back in there post-haste. A national quarterfinal game is no time to get cautious and keep your best player off the floor for an extended time, especially when he's not even in real foul trouble, you're just trying to keep him out of foul trouble. At that point, after all, Butler had committed a foul for every eight minutes, 38 seconds of action. At that rate, he wouldn't have fouled out.

And anyway can't you count on your star to play for a couple of minutes without committing a foul? Butler, back in the lineup, didn't commit his third and last foul until the 19th minute of the second half.

I guess Calhoun can't. Butler stayed on the pine and UConn fell apart. Maryland finished the half with an 8-0 run and its biggest lead, 44-37.

I know what you're saying. You're saying the Terrapins had the last three points of that lead because of Tahj Holden's no-way -- way! -- shot at the buzzer, which Butler probably couldn't have done anything about, and anyway Connecticut came back in the second half, even had a three-point lead late. All true.

But isn't it safe to assume that with their best player not sitting on the bench for one quarter of the first half -- 13 percent of the game! -- the Huskies, already leading by two, would have had a decent shot at being up or tied or at least within a point or two at the break? If UConn's close at the half, that Steve Blake three-pointer that put the game away in the final minute might only have, say, brought Maryland even.

You can never really know that, of course, but as a coach, how can you leave yourself, in an elimination game, open to that kind of question? Play it cautiously in such a game, and you deserve to lose.

It seems to me that the last minute or two of the first half are desperately important. Have you ever noticed how really good teams always seem to go on a little run right at the end of the half? A lot of times you don't even notice it when it's happening. An underdog is playing a better team about even throughout the half, and when the buzzer sounds -- whoops, the favorite's up by 12. How'd that happen?

The West region final Saturday provided a good example, though it was hardly one of those not-noticeable ones. Oklahoma led Missouri by three with 45 seconds to go in the half when the Tigers came downcourt and Kareem Rush forced up a three pointer that missed. On the long rebound, center Arthur Johnson committed a silly foul going over the back of 6-1 guard Quannas White. After White hit two free throws for a five-point lead, Rush committed an offensive foul (thanks to a flop by Oklahoma's Blake Johnston). The Sooners played for the last shot and Hollis Price, their most dangerous shooter, left inconceivably open, buried a three at the buzzer. A gruesome sequence for Missouri and, just like that, an eight-point lead for Oklahoma, which won by six.

Watch that last minute or so of the first half.

I sometimes wonder if TV people watch their own product. Is CBS ever going to figure out that when it switches to that camera right below the basket, which it likes to do when a fast break is coming downcourt, we can't see what happens on the play? Every single time, we miss whatever happens. If there's a foul, a blocked shot, pretty much anything around the rim other than a slam dunk, we don't get to see it, because the bottom of the backboard gets in the way.

Then there's that shot through the backboard employed when someone's shooting free throws. If the free throw's no good, whatever happens next, we can't see it. Do you understand, CBS directors? We can't see it! We are sitting through your endless commercials. Show us the basketball game. All of it. Go make movies if you want to play with camera angles.

I have to admit that of all the major networks that cover sports, CBS is the best at avoiding that trap of switching to artsy camera angles that make TV people coo and purr but keep fans at home from seeing the game. (Fox is the worst, by a factor of dozens.) But CBS does have these couple of artsy affectations. On that fast-break below-the-basket shot, I keep rooting for the biggest player on the floor to come barreling down and flatten the cameraman, putting that shot out of commission, at least on one end of the floor. Sorry, cameraman, but you've got to go. I hope you have insurance.

CBS's other sin is focusing its cameras on the crowd, the bench, the coach or the guy who just scored, blithely trotting down court, when, meanwhile, back at the ranch, there's a game going on, which we're missing. Again, CBS does this less often than the other networks, but it's just as annoying every time it happens.

Not as annoying as those promos for CBS's new show "Baby Bob," though. Let me get this straight: This is a show about an ugly baby that through computer animation says unfunny things? I don't know if that's a real baby or a computer-generated one, and I refuse to exert any effort to find out, but how hard is it to cast, or create, as the case may be, a baby that doesn't look like Billy Packer after he's gotten ahold of some bad seafood?

Packer, the CBS color man working the East region games in Syracuse, N.Y., is on a crusade about the "in the cylinder" offensive interference rule. An offensive player is not allowed to touch the ball if any portion of it is still within the imaginary cylinder that extends upwards from the rim. Basically, every "tip-in" since World War II has violated this rule, and it's never called. I mean like never. I mean like I think I've shaken hands with more presidents (one, but it was only Gerald Ford) than I've seen offensive interference calls. Wait, I take that back. I did see it once. The culprit was Wilt Chamberlain. I've spent the last few decades assuming this rule doesn't even exist anymore.

But here's Packer, in each game over the weekend, poring over a replay of a tip-in and arguing with lead announcer Jim Nantz over whether the ball was in the cylinder or not. "It's been a consistent no-call by the officials," he said Sunday. Billy: Let's get over it, shall we? You'll see Michael Jordan called for steps before you see offensive interference called.

More nonsense from Packer: The Big East had the best record of any conference in the nation against non-conference foes, he informed us Sunday. Well, OK, but you need to say the rest of that sentence. Big East teams would be strengthening their non-conference schedule by playing the Little Sisters of the Poor.

I don't mean to beat on Packer. He is cuter than "Baby Bob," as long as he stays away from the day-old oysters.

King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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