King Kaufman's Sports Daily

NCAA Final Four: UConn should beat Georgia Tech for the title unless Huskies coach Jim Calhoun gives the game away -- which he almost did against Duke.


Salon Staff
April 6, 2004 4:00AM (UTC)

History is going to remember Saturday's Connecticut victory over Duke in the NCAA Tournament semifinal as UConn coach Jim Calhoun's conservative strategy working and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski's gamble backfiring. That's wrong, and it's unfair to Emeka Okafor, who carried UConn to Monday's Championship Game against Georgia Tech, winners of the other semifinal over Oklahoma State.

Calhoun sat Okafor, his star center, for the last 16 minutes of the first half with "foul trouble" -- two fouls. After an initial 8-0 run by UConn, Duke outscored the Huskies 37-19 for a seven-point halftime lead. That was partly because of the play of Duke's inside men, especially Shavlik Randolph, who were playing with their own foul trouble. That was Coach K's gamble, letting Randolph and Shelden Williams play after they both picked up their second fouls midway through the first half, their third well before halftime.

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By the end, though, all of Duke's big guys had fouled out of the game, which was officiated under a mysterious set of foul rules, though one not favoring either team. And there was Okafor, still eligible, taking over down the stretch as Connecticut scored the last 12 meaningful points of the game for a stunning comeback win.

Duke was helpless against Okafor at the end, history will remember, because Coach K's reckless gamble didn't work and his big men, Williams, Randolph and the marginally valuable Nick Horvath, all fouled out. In this case, Henry Ford was right: History's bunk.

Calhoun wasn't right so much as he was lucky. He sat his best player long enough to turn a rout into a close win. If he'd sat the big guy any longer -- if Okafor had picked up his second foul in the game's third minute, say, rather than its fourth -- Calhoun would have turned a win into a loss.

Remember, Duke outscored UConn 37-19 at the end of the first half. Is it conceivable that anything like that would have happened with Okafor in the game? Even 37-27, the count that includes that initial 8-0 Huskies run, seems unlikely the way the two teams were playing.

It was great for UConn to have Okafor in the game at the end, playing magnificently at crunch time, but if he hadn't sat for four-fifths of the first half, the Huskies might have been coasting by that time. In the 22 minutes when Okafor was on the floor, Connecticut outscored Duke 49-37, and that's counting Blue Devil Chris Duhon's meaningless 3-point heave at the final buzzer. Okafor sat for about two minutes early in the second half after the aliens who were apparently controlling the officials signaled them that it was time to whistle him for his third foul. During the 18 total minutes he was out of the game, Duke outscored UConn 41-30.

Since Okafor finished the game with three fouls, Calhoun didn't get the maximum playing time for his star that he could have. Krzyzewski, by definition, got the maximum out of Williams and Randolph. They played until they were disqualified.

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While Okafor sat, Randolph, a reserve, played a little over six minutes and had nine points and five rebounds. With Okafor on the floor, Randolph played a little over seven minutes and had four points and no rebounds. The NCAA box score credits Randolph with six rebounds but the play-by-play only accounts for four. I counted five, so I can't say if the sixth happened when Okafor was playing. But what's clear is that Randolph had a monster game as long as Okafor was out. He played well but wasn't a force with Okafor in. Williams, with four points and six rebounds in 19 minutes, wasn't a major factor whether Okafor was playing or not.

The thing that saved Calhoun was that years ago, when he says he decided on his strategy of always sitting a guy with two fouls, he arbitrarily chose halftime as the cutoff, as opposed to some point in the second half. Well, really he just followed the vast majority of coaches who do the same thing. In other words, because it's somehow OK to risk a guy committing his third foul in the 21st minute, but not in the 20th, Calhoun put Okafor back in to start the second half, and the bleeding stopped.

The criticism that Krzyzewski is getting for his poor management of the end of the game is warranted. Duke chucked up some awful, ill-conceived shots down the stretch, and on the game's most important possession, outside shooting specialist J.J. Redick, of all people, drove the lane. Disaster resulted. A better plan at the end and the Blue Devils might have stolen this game despite being thoroughly outmanned.

But Coach K didn't roll the dice and come up snake eyes by playing Randolph and Williams. He realizes that points scored in the first half count just as much in the final score as points scored in the last minute, so it's foolish to take minutes away from effective players so that they can be around for the end. The reason Duke lost Saturday is that it got its brains bashed in by a far more talented team, except when that team's best player was languishing on the bench.

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Two years ago in a regional final against Maryland, Calhoun sat his star, Caron Butler, for the last five minutes of the first half with "foul trouble" -- Butler had two fouls. Maryland finished the half with an 8-0 run for a seven-point lead, and ended up winning by those very eight points. Calhoun didn't learn his lesson then, and not only won't he learn it this time, he'll point to Saturday's game as evidence that his sit-'em-down strategy works. After all, did UConn not beat Duke Saturday night?

Connecticut is ridiculously talented and finally putting it all together and playing well. Georgia Tech is also red hot despite its own star, B.J. Elder, being hobbled by a sprained ankle. The Yellow Jackets are a dangerous team, especially since center Luke Schenscher has lifted his game in the Tournament. They can score from inside or out and they play shut-down defense, mixing zones and man-to-man beautifully, as a puzzled group of Oklahoma State Cowboys learned Saturday.

But like anybody else, Tech has no answer for Okafor, who had 18 points and seven rebounds against Duke in a little over a half a game. You can dismiss Georgia Tech's 16-point pasting of UConn and an ailing Okafor in November as the preseason game it was.

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From the opening tip Monday night, Georgia Tech should do nothing but drive at Okafor on every possession. A brilliant defender but a risk-taking one, he might block 10 shots before the first TV timeout. But he also might commit two fouls, and if he does, Calhoun will sit him down until halftime and leave the door open for Georgia Tech to make a little history of its own.

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