March 21, 2009 in Sports

Playing or protesting, he’s performance artist

By Correspondent
 
Jesse Tinsley photo

Austin Daye’s shot-blocking ability, here sending one back against Patty Mills of Saint Mary’s, is one of his biggest assets on defense.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

PORTLAND – With all of 200 pounds stretched across 6 feet, 11 inches, Austin Daye doesn’t so much post up as unfurl – legs splayed, one arm telescoped out like Elastic Man hailing a cab.

Akron’s Chris McKnight was the poor unfortunate trying to defend this Gumby in baggy shorts late in the first half of the Zips’ NCAA tournament first-rounder with Gonzaga when Daye collected a pass and started to wheel to the basket – only to get whistled for an offensive foul that was immediately eligible for the Dubious Hall of Fame.

At which point CBS caught another familiar unfurling – Austin Daye with his arms cast east to west, his expression fixed somewhere between a grimace and do-you-believe-this?

Apprised by yet another person – the count is in the thousands by now – of his reputation for, uh, interpretive body language, Daye sighs and nods.

“I’m trying,” he said. “I really am.”

The irony, of course, is that all the tut-tutting over his on-the-court reactions to various officiating affronts is pretty much the fan equivalent of one of Daye’s palms-up protestations – that is to say, much ado about not much. Imagine if CBS was beaming out images of your couch gymnastics and epithets as you watch a Zags game.

Austin Daye would come off as Buddha in comparison.

“Really, I’m so into the game, I don’t think about the fact that the camera’s on me,” he said. “Some guys do – they don’t want a bad image. I don’t really want a bad image, either. I’m just out there playing basketball and I’m passionate about it when things are going well and when things aren’t going great.

“I’m trying to hold it in more, but people can take it how they want.”

This is hardly Austin Daye’s only distinction. The Bulldogs are an uncommonly telegenic basketball team, from the bullish drives of Jeremy Pargo to Josh Heytvelt’s rattling dunks to the slashing of Micah Downs to the smooth stroke of Steven Gray and the all-around wonder of Matt Bouldin’s game.

And yet there’s little question that because of his unique skill set and immeasurable potential, the most-watched human on the floor whenever the Zags play is Austin Daye.

The temptation, as the Zags ready for today’s second-round game against Western Kentucky, is to suggest that their hopes for a deep tournament run depend most heavily on a certain level of production and consistency from Daye – the biggest matchup nightmare in a lineup of them.

Such declarations are convenient, though not always valid. These Zags don’t really have an as-he-goes-so-go guy. Most nights, they can survive a negative game from one of the regulars. But Daye senses some responsibility to be better – and he’s trying there, too.

Against Akron, it was subtle, but noteworthy. On defense, he mostly matched up against the rugged McKnight brothers and helped hold them to a combined 15 points – Brett, the team’s leading scorer, shooting a rugged 1 of 8. Daye blocked four shots early that surely left the Zips gun shy inside – almost half of their 57 field-goal attempts were 3-pointers. Coach Mark Few was happy with how Daye recognized Akron’s different approach to guarding ball screens and found open teammates.

No, the Zips aren’t UConn, or even Arizona. You play who they put in front of you, and the Zags grasp they’ll need better stuff against the Hilltoppers – and that they’ll be judged as harshly if they lose to the 12th seed as if they’d lost to Akron.

The judgments dog Austin Daye, too.

“The guy is always going to score, so it’s the other areas he has to get better at – defensively, rebounding,” said Bulldogs assistant coach Ray Giacoletti. “Everybody when they come from high school to college, they’ve never really been asked to defend for 35 seconds and then go rebound the basketball. You can’t not do it twice in a row and expect to stay in the game in college. He’s gotten better. You look at his rebounding numbers in conference compared to early in the year and you see it.”

And his demonstrativeness?

“Everybody asks that – NBA scouts, everyone,” said Giacoletti. “The sad thing is, people think that makes him uncoachable and he’s not at all. He’s a sweetheart of a kid.”

Ah, yes, NBA scouts. Daye is certainly a tempting talent, but has hardly won everyone over in a season that began with a false-alarm knee injury and has seen its share of spikes and valleys. And yet the league has never been a model of restraint when it comes to waiting for a player to be ready.

“I have thought about it – I’m not going to lie,” said Daye, who once again insisted he had made no decision and would sit down with his family and advisors after the end of the season.

“If I was averaging 40, it wouldn’t really change my decision. I’ve had plans to stay and thoughts of leaving. It’s all in the air right now. It kind of matters how we do (in the NCAAs). I can see myself not being happy with how we did here and trying to come back and do better next year, or maybe we do something so good this year we can’t top it.”

Ooh. Just imagine the body language in that case.


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