DENVER – If you were wondering, Bobby Knight can be just as polarizing a figure as a studio analyst as he was as a basketball coach.
The Washington State Cougars caught his act on ESPN the other day. They did not come away informed, enlightened or amused.
“He was talking about the Pac-10 being an overrated conference,” recalled junior forward Caleb Forrest. “Then he talked about how he picked us to get upset by Notre Dame because he didn’t think our defense could sustain long enough the entire game with the way they run the floor.
“We usually don’t get into that stuff, but hearing that gets under your skin a little bit.”
But not as much as the Cougars got under Luke Harangody’s skin – or anyone in one of the Irish’s black uniforms, for that matter.
Yes, black. Tradition is supposed to be as much of a religion as, well, religion at Notre Dame, but the Irish did not wear the blue and gold Saturday. Perhaps they were dressing for a funeral, not comprehending it was their own.
It cannot rank as one of the bigger upsets of the NCAA Basketball Tournament because by rule it wasn’t an upset at all, the fourth-seeded Cougars beating the fifth-seeded Irish 61-41. But beating them so thoroughly, unraveling the very thread that knits together their style of play, humiliating the Big East’s Player of the Year and college basketball’s newly anointed cuddly rhino of a mascot – those were all upsets, indeed.
Then there’s this: Wazzu’s in the Sweet 16, boldly going where no Cougs have gone before.
Yes, yes, the school was in the championship game in 1941, but it was only an eight-team tournament in those days. This team has won as many tournament games as that one did.
“And there’s no point in stopping now,” said senior Kyle Weaver.
More. Even knowing how big a step a Sweet 16 is for their program – “I can’t stop smiling,” said forward Robbie Cowgill – the Cougars want more. They also know how to get it.
By surrendering less.
Has there even been a better clinic delivered in this tournament in the art of less than what the Cougs staged this weekend?
Forty points they allowed Winthrop. Two free throws in the last 25.5 seconds let the Irish top that by a single point. Until Saturday, Notre Dame had not scored fewer than 64 points in a game this season. The Irish weren’t going to get to 64 against Wazzu unless game officials let them play another 40 minutes.
There were multiple elements to this triumph. Derrick Low’s fire and aggression from the opening tip made for a dramatic 180 from his start against Winthrop. Weaver was at his versatile, elusive best.
But nothing mattered more than less.
It started with the Cougars squeezing the life out of Notre Dame’s beloved transition attack – as they do with most every opponent – and making the Irish play in the halfcourt. Apparently, the Irish don’t play as well there – Wazzu made them look even worse – and 3-Point Jesus was no help this night.
The Irish offense was so inept you’d have thought Charlie Weis was coaching it.
“We didn’t have a chance,” acknowledged Irish coach Mike Brey. “The knockout punch came early.”
Hmm. The better analogy was that it should have been stopped on cuts.
And no Irish player came away feeling more punch drunk than the formidable Harangody, a baby bull of 250 pounds who posts and pops and prowls for 20 points and 10 rebounds a game.
On Saturday, he had a triple double: 10 points, 22 boards – yes, 22 – and 14 missed shots.
“I kind of feel like I let the guys down,” he said. But mostly the Cougars didn’t let him pick his guys up. Cowgill bumped him. Aron Baynes banged him. And even Caleb Forrest got up to block one of his shots.
“If you’re behind him, between him and the basket, he’s going to have a hard time shooting over you,” said Forrest. “That’s not his strength. He’s good at angles.”
“If he’s in the post and we’re shading him on the high side, they can lob it in and get an angle to the basket,” said WSU assistant coach Matt Woodley. “We wanted him to have to play over bodies. He’s only about 6-foot-7. What we saw is that not a lot of teams had trapped the post, so we brought that a couple times early, then took it off, then brought it back. I thought we had him off balance, and contested every one of his shots – and didn’t go for all the spin moves and shot fakes.
“Plus, (referees) let you play in this tournament a little bit.”
Harangody didn’t get so much as a shot off until the game was nearly eight minutes old and then missed over Cowgill on three straight trips down the floor as the Cougs were putting together the 12-0 run that broke open the game.
“I sensed the frustration in him early,” Forrest said.
But no frustration for the Cougs. Not from letting a Sweet 16 slip away with a double-overtime loss to Vanderbilt last year. Not even from Bob Knight’s discouraging words.
“He doesn’t know,” said Forrest. “He probably hasn’t watched that many games of ours. We usually joke about stuff like that. But the more we think about it, we think, ‘Why not us?’ “
Good question. Now there’s one more week to see if anybody can answer it.
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