SAN FRANCISCO – Remember college basketball?
The freeform grace, the deft and flowing footwork. Running and jumping and at times the athletes start to look as if they’re taking flight.
It was great, wasn’t it?
Yeah, well, we didn’t see much of that Thursday night in the Chase Center.
This was a kind of Greco-Roman basketball, with rugby scrums in the lane, full nelsons and submission holds in the backcourt.
And in the end, we were left to watch the sad faces of large young men realizing that the competitive endeavor they’d devoted the previous six months of their lives to had come to a sudden end.
Tons of credit to the Arkansas Razorbacks, who overwhelmed Gonzaga, 74-68, in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. They did it with a physical defense that choked the Zags off at 20 points below their season average. Their 37.5 field-goal percentage was their worst shooting of the year.
Arkansas coach Eric Musselman made this the plan from the start: To be physical, as physical as they could get away with. “We wanted them to feel bodies.”
They surely did.
It might remind some of the Arkansas defense of coach Nolan Richardson, who called it “40 Minutes of Hell.” This was more like “94 Feet of Hands,” with a constant grabbing and clutching on defense.
Musselman’s Southeastern Conference played a rugged style all season long and, as he said of the Zags, “… it’s been a long time … since they faced a team like us.”
Not exactly, as the Zags managed to overcome a 12-point deficit against a powerful Memphis team in the round-of-32 game last week in Salt Lake. But Musselman’s point was valid regarding the typical night in the West Coast Conference.
The inability to find offensive rhythm, a rarity for the No. 1-ranked Zags, was the difference in the game, coach Mark Few said. The Razorbacks, in key moments, also were able to root out loose balls and make the Zags pay.
After the game, Few didn’t object to the way the game was officiated, or to the physical play. But he had indirectly addressed this kind of play during his Wednesday media session. “… college basketball has kind of morphed into this, where it’s pretty rugby-like in a lot of instances, off the ball or on the ball (with) what you’re allowed to do.”
At the time, he was answering a question about his all-American freshman center, Chet Holmgren, when sometimes “it’s hard to truly manifest all the skill that (he has),” when he’s being pushed around by players who may outweigh him by 50 pounds.
Holmgren played just 23 minutes, fouling out with 3½ minutes left in the game. For the occasional assault and battery that was perpetrated on the floor, Holmgren was whistled for a couple fouls that seemed mere misdemeanors by comparison.
The Zags started the season ranked No. 1 in the country and finished the regular season with the No. 1 ranking. They won 28 of 32 games. This was the first time they had lost in the Sweet 16 since 2016.
But if you think the growing pile of accolades the players have collected was any consolation Thursday night, you didn’t see the players afterward. Especially junior big man Drew Timme.
Timme has made himself a favorite of fans with the relentless joy he takes from the game. He also revealed during this tournament a steel will, with other parts presumably constructed of pure brass.
Two massive second-half offensive detonations by Timme helped the Zags advance to this round. He scored 25 points or more in all three games this tournament, and is GU’s all-time NCAA tournament scorer.
For my money, he’s earned a place on Gonzaga’s Mount Rushmore.
I know it’s against the best interests of reporters, but I hate to see these guys have to come and sit there and try to not cry in front of us.
Timme was asked what he had said to his teammates after the game. Great question but a dirty trick. Too hard, too raw. He had just played 37 minutes, often tangled up in freeway pileups in the lane.
He welled up. It took him some time to catch his breath.
“I just said that I was – sorry.”
Seriously, he apologized to his teammates. As if anybody could have played harder or with greater heart. He apologized that somehow there wasn’t more he could have done.
He went on to thank them, too. “They’re my brothers to the end,” he said.
And there you have the very best of the game in a single moment. The exultant joy on one side and the tearful, bleeding hearts on the other.
Arkansas beat Gonzaga this night. By the rules of the game as they’re currently interpreted.
The Razorbacks deserved to win even though it didn’t look much like college basketball.
The Zags will go home and put together another contending team. And the ones who leave will nonetheless still be a part of the brotherhood they have constructed.