KINGSTON, R.I. – March Madness brings out the best of the best, even when it comes to clever phrasemaking.
Bill Raftery’s “onions,” is one example. Most of what comes out of Raftery’s mouth, really.
Kentucky women’s basketball coach Matthew Mitchell is a bit of a phrasemaker himself. He’s dubbed his high-pressure defensive system “40 minutes of dread,” – and Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves is inclined to agree, even if he isn’t dreading anything about his team playing another game.
“Is that what they’re calling it? That’s what I’ve been calling it as I’ve been watching it. I didn’t realize it had a name,” Graves said Saturday prior to his team’s final practice to prepare for the 11th-seeded Bulldogs’ Sweet 16 dance with the second-seeded Wildcats Sunday night at the University of Rhode Island’s Ryan Center.
That’s definitely what they’re calling it – and for good reason.
The Southeast Conference champion Wildcats (27-6) are quick, deep on the bench, they’re sharp shooters from 3-point range and they systematically do a stellar job of making teams uncomfortable with a full-court defense that led the nation with 911 forced turnovers this season – which averages out to more than 27 a game. In four of their games this season, the Wildcats forced 30 or more turnovers.
“I’ve been really impressed and with each game that I’ve watched I get less and less confident if you want to know the truth,” Graves added. “Hopefully, we can combat ’40 minutes of dread’ with 40 minutes of good, solid basketball.”
Fortunately, that’s been Gonzaga’s brand so far during this year’s tournament run.
In their first-round victory over sixth-seeded Rutgers, the Zags (28-5) got a dialed-down, dress-rehearsal version of the pressure defense they’ll see today and – especially in the first half – handled it with apparent ease. They had to battle to get into the half court more in the second half – but they were able to do so and never completely let Rutgers get into the game.
Against No. 3-seeded Miami in the second round, they saw more of the same physical, defensive-oriented style of play. And they responded the same – by breaking through the pressure and setting the tone.
All of this, as many like to point out, was accomplished at home – with the full backing of a Gonzaga crowd. Even in last year’s run to the Elite Eight, Gonzaga didn’t have to leave the state of Washington, or the city of Spokane. Now the Bulldogs find themselves in uncharted territory.
But Graves isn’t buying into the hype.
“To some degree, that’s a little overrated – where you play,” he countered. “We all know ‘Hoosiers.’ The dimensions are always the same. This actually is kind of interesting. Nobody on our team, except for myself, including our coaches, has ever been to Rhode Island. But I think if we make that a big deal it becomes a big deal.
“I certainly don’t talk about it with my team … it’s going to be a great experience.”
And this time of year, on a bigger stage, experience matters even more.
But the Bulldogs have it. They’ve got three senior starters with 11 previous games of NCAA tournament experience on their resume – which includes three straight trips to the Sweet 16 and an Elite Eight appearance last year.
And they’ve got another player who has been there in junior starting point guard Taelor Karr, who played last season for Kansas State in a first-round tournament loss to Purdue.
So four starters – Karr, Kayla Standish, Katelan Redmon and Kelly Bowen – have been there, and done that, as they like to say. And the fifth starter – Haiden Palmer – seems to be even more in her comfort zone in big-time games.
As Graves put it, that’s “nothing to sneeze about.”
And playing in the Sweet 16 – as the title suggests – is nothing to dread.