by Adam Sobsey
GREENSBORO COLISEUM/ GREENSBORO, N.C.—The thing is, North Carolina was really looking like the real deal. John Henson, back from his sprained wrist, brought energy and attitude back to the Tar Heels, a generally cool-customer team. He got into a little flap with Creighton's Grant Gibbs after he felt that Gibbs was intentionally hacking at his wrapped and taped left wrist down on the low block as Henson tried to get a shot up. Henson's jawing at Gibbs, who later flatly denied any injurious intent, earned him a technical foul about six minutes into UNC's relatively easy 87-73 win over Creighton.
The Bluejays' Doug McDermott made one of two free throws awarded for Henson's technical. That gave Creighton what would turn out to be its last lead of the game, 12-11. North Carolina, angry, scored the next nine points. And while an eight-point lead isn't really all that much, especially with 31 minutes of basketball left to be played, the game became the Tar Heels' to win by the time Henson sank a jumper to make it 20-12. And win they did.
By the time it was over, UNC had netted 87 points on 50.8 percent shooting (including 8-16 three-pointers), put five players in double figures plus a sixth with nine points (James Michael McAdoo), and held Creighton to seven points below its season average on 41.2 percent shooting. The Tar Heels turned the ball over a mere nine times, just five of them in the game's final 36 minutes after some loosey-goose offense early.
In the general hometown happiness of UNC's cakewalk win over Creighton (there was a loud partisan Tar Heel crowd in Greensboro), no one seemed to worry or really even notice when, with about 11 minutes left to play, Kendall Marshall absorbed hard contact from Creighton's Ethan Wragge while driving to the basket for a transition layup attempt and landed on the hardwood with a loud crunch. Why should the fans fret? Marshall sprang back up, and after an official timeout he went and took his free throws. In fact, he played most of the rest of the game.
But Kendall Marshall worried. He was in pain, and trying to tough out what turned out to be a fractured wrist.
Marshall will apparently have surgery today, and there is no word yet on the recovery time and type. There are rumors that he is done for the season, and there are also rumors that he could play as soon as next weekend in the regionals in St. Louis. (The scaphoid bone is apparently rather vulnerable to breaks, but perhaps with the potential to heal quickly.) It is no rumor, but verifiable, that the name of the orthopedic surgeon who looked at Marshall's wrist is—you ready, ironists?—Dr. Alex Creighton.
As it happens, the upset bug has bitten quite hard elsewhere on North Carolina's bracket, and UNC's next game was going to be against inferior competition regardless of who they met. The teams playing for the right to face the Tar Heels in the round of sixteen were a No. 12 and No. 13 seed, South Florida and Ohio. The latter beat the former after having surprised No. 4 Michigan on Friday. The Ohio Bobcats are, by most rational measures, and by a wide margin, the worst team among the 16 that remain in the NCAA Tournament. North Carolina should be able to beat them on Friday night with some combination of Stillman White, Justin Watts and Johnny 99 running the point.
If they do so, they will then play either No. 2 seed Kansas—UNC coach Roy Williams taking on his old program—or, um, North Carolina State, the No. 11 seed, which knocked off No. 3 Georgetown earlier Sunday. (It is fun to imagine the Tar Heels and Wolfpack on the same flight to St. Louis.) In either case, it's hard to picture North Carolina prevailing over either team in the regional final without Marshall, especially since UNC could face the difficult task of beating N.C. State four times in a single season.
But let us stop speculating on this for now. There is simply no knowing now what we will learn about Kendall Marshall on Monday, and then Friday, and perhaps again on Sunday. Roy Williams was bitter and drained of color at the start of his postgame comments. He did not recover his irrepressible, dadgum humor until one of the players he brought to the stage with him, Reggie Bullock, was asked no questions by the media—mainly because the other player was John Henson, and everyone wanted to ask Henson a) how he felt coming back after his wrist sprain on March 8 and b) what happened with Gibbs that got Henson angry and teed up by the referee.
So Roy impersonated a reporter and asked Bullock a question himself: "Reggie, how did you feel like you did on the backboards today?" Everyone laughed, after which Bullock—who scored 13 points on just seven shots, making three three-pointers—gave a standard-issue answer. Then a reporter asked Bullock a baiting, mean-spirited and frankly stupid and shameful question about whether getting to the Sweet 16 was sweeter because Duke had been eliminated by Lehigh.
Roy Williams, annoyed, leaned away from the microphone and said to Bullock, "Don't answer that." Bullock deflected the question smoothly—"We just are really looking forward to our next opponent," etc.—and with that the players were dismissed, but not before Roy told Bullock, in jocular fashion, "Reggie, you did a great job with those answers."
So the mood had been restored, and Williams managed to remain reasonably upbeat even while saying things about Marshall like "you just hate it for the kid."
As it happens, the kid, who (we were told initially) was not going to be available to the media, did indeed speak to the media in the North Carolina locker room just minutes later. He remained reasonably upbeat himself while talking about his injury. His eyes, as you can see from Al Drago's photo in yesterday's post, were red, yet he was calm, equable and smiling, even making some mild jokes about the first serious injury he has ever suffered. Here's audio of his comments.
I was not in the locker room at this point, largely because I had gone in when it was opened up to the media about 15 or 20 minutes earlier and within seconds found it in a state of absolute (March) madness—and this was before anyone knew about Marshall's injury—with perhaps as many as 50 slavering reporters crowding in on players in a space not much larger than an ordinary suburban living room. So thick was the throng around John Henson, you could not see him. P. J. Hairston barely had room to eat his sandwich, and he wasn't even being interviewed.
I left and went into the media room (which I believe is called the Odeon Theatre or something equally silly), where at least the environment was intended for interviews, even though it feels uncomfortably like an interrogation room, what with its stenographer clicking away and its cameras pointed almost accusingly at the players and coaches who sit captive under stage lights while reporters try them from the comfort of darkness in the seats.
I learned later, from another reporter, that the hordes still in the locker room were abruptly told to leave so that coach Williams could talk privately with his team. A few minutes later, after he broke the news to his charges that their point guard had broken his wrist, the media were allowed back inside the locker room, where they found a very different mood from the happy and confident one they had left just minutes before.
Now why, a reasonable person might ask, were reporters permitted to go back into the North Carolina locker room after Williams had dealt this surprising blow to the players, who were by all accounts visibly shaken by what he told them? They were allowed back in because the NCAA rulebook mandates 25 minutes of open locker-room interview time after the game, and the allotment had not been fulfilled when Williams interrupted.
Rulebooks are nice, but this seemed a good time to throw this particular one away and leave the Tar Heels alone so they could regroup and recover in private. If Williams is the father figure of the UNC basketball program, then Marshall is its favorite son. Losing him for the rest of the NCAA Tournament is like a death in the family, and not just any death. He is probably the least replaceable player on the team, "the straw that stirs the drink," as Creighton head coach Greg McDermott put it after the game. Or go back two weeks, when this was a distant hypothetical, and recall this line from Roy Williams: "No team has someone who is indispensable. But if we do, it's Kendall."
After Williams told his players privately about the severity of Marshall's injury, which he had shrewdly kept hidden from everyone, he went to the media room to address reporters and the Tar Heel locker room was reopened for the remainder of the required 25 minutes. I wasn't there anymore, but I can only assume that it was only because it was "necessary" to satisfy this requirement that the media wound up with access to Marshall, who spoke for about 10 minutes. It was embarrassing for everyone involved (except the players, of course, who almost always manage to handle this vulturous mob rapacity with extraordinary aplomb and grace) that a dubious technicality was solely responsible for making an injured, devastated, 20-year-old player available for questions, after the media had originally, justly been told that he would not be. Marshall was red-eyed and shaky for the first moments of his interview time in front of his locker.
(That North Carolina as a whole is still maintaining any kind of composure at this point is remarkable. The team has lost four of its five starters to injury this season. One, projected starting swing guard Leslie McDonald, tore his ACL before the season even began. The other swing guard, Dexter Strickland, suffered the same, season-ending injury in mid-January. Then there was Henson's wrist sprain, which probably kept the Tar Heels from winning the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament. And now the indispensable one, Marshall, has also been hurt. If UNC makes it to the Final Four without him, they deserve to be remembered as one of the toughest and most resilient teams in program history.)
The issue of media access to college basketball players had been on my mind all weekend, not only because of how many more reporters were on the scene in Greensboro than there were in Cameron Indoor Stadium this season (and there were a lot of them in Cameron, too), and how theatrically the players are forced to present themselves—under bright lights, on stages, the day before games, the moments after games, and so on. The issue was also on my mind because of another team in Greensboro.
If you had heard of the Xavier Musketeers at all this season before they came to play in the Greensboro pod this past weekend, it was probably because of the national headlines that arose in December when Xavier played its annual rivalry game against the crosstown Cincinnati Bearcats. A Bearcat had intimated days before the game that star Xavier guard Tu Holloway wasn't good enough to start for Cincinnati, so it was already on before the game even started, and these two teams have a long history of intra-city dislike anyway. There was some jawing at the end of the first half, after which Xavier pulled away and led by double digits for most of the second stanza, just the sort of malodorous, seething, brooding environment in which really bad things can happen.
Sure enough, with 9.4 seconds left to play in the game, more pushing led to a full-scale brawl. Xavier center Kenny Frease (seven feet tall, 275 pounds) was punched in the face by Cincinnati's Yancy Gates and then kicked while he was down on the ground. He got up, bleeding from his eye socket like a prizefighter, and wound up with nine stitches. Gates continued to look for people to punch, the game was called right then and there, and suspensions followed—although they should probably have been more severe than they were.
What stood out the most from this ugly incident, to me, was that Xavier head coach Chris Mack allowed, or perhaps ordered, some of his players to go to the press room afterward and speak to the media about it. This struck me as an absolutely terrible idea, and sure enough Holloway described his team as "gangstas" and he and a teammate basically continued to talk defiant trash while sports journalists of America recorded every last word.
On no account should these players have been permitted to speak to the media, if for no other reason than that a judge would later consider criminal charges, thus the players may potentially have been further inculpating themselves with their words, which could be construed as motive.
These are kids. They are liable even in the calmest, most lucid moments, such as right after an easy win like UNC's over Creighton, to say things they shouldn't. (Ask yourself what your judgment about your public behavior was like when you were 20 years old.) I winced when John Henson was asked about his technical foul last night, fearing the worst, although he handled it well. Asking them to talk publicly after—right after—a season-ending loss, a terrible brawl or a devastating wrist injury is almost malevolent. The only other thing it's really asking them to do is regurgitate the cliches, truisms, blandness and bromides that fill obligatory quote-space for sportswriters.
I'm unsympathetic to the counter-argument that some of these players like talking to the media, because their interest in doing so stems generally from enjoying the attention, which merely flatters their egos, not from having anything they really want to say. (On the contrary, the ballplayers in the media room generally looked like they'd have preferred to be just about anywhere else, and usually gave short, terse answers to questions.) And to argue that college basketball, as a nationally televised entertainment event, demands that its participants meet our gaze and respond to our questions, is to defend one of the causes of the problem: the NCAA's hypocritical stance on the rights and responsibilities of players.
That is to say that these are amateurs in their field, and it is unfair to amateurs to subject them to professional scrutiny, which seldom yields anything of interest anyway. The vast majority of the things athletes say is, truth be told, of little interest—hackneyed, deliberately unrevealing, often inarticulate—so why must we insist on hearing them? Most of their comments are really fabricated by the reporters, who pose them as questions, making it easy for the athletes to repeat back to them precisely the copy they want for their game stories.
And there is the silliness of piecing through contradictory evidence. Lehigh raced out to a 15-point lead over Xavier last night, and maintained that margin through the 17th minute of the game, leading 35-20. The Musketeers made a critical run very late in the first half, though, pulling to within four points at the break. That poised them—the bigger, stronger and ultimately better team—to take control of the game in the second half, which they eventually did, wearing down the Mountain Hawks, who shot a Butler-tragic 14.7 percent (5-34) in the last 20 minutes, sealing their doom.
Both teams were asked about this late-first-half stretch of the game, of course, and the focus of the question had to do with Lehigh star C. J. McCollum committing his second personal foul with seven minutes remaining in the first half and missing five minutes of action. First McCollum:
Personally I felt like they just went on a little run... I don't think me getting into foul trouble had anything to do with the outcome of the game.
(His teammate, Mackey McKnight, then came up with the best solecism I've heard in a long time: "We wintered the storm.")
Then Xavier head coach Chris Mack:
We could have gone into the locker room down 15 or 17 points, and we were able to get some stops I think in part because C. J. McCollum was on the bench.
So who is right, and who is wrong? Did McCollum's absence cause Xavier's run, or merely correlate to it? Over four of the six-plus minutes during which McCollum sat late in the first half, Lehigh actually increased its lead: They were ahead 29-16 when he left at the 7:01 mark, and led 35-20 after Gabe Knutson made a jumper with 3:11 left. It was actually a pair of final-minute three-pointers by Xavier, which were in fact sandwiched around a Knutson dunk, that sliced most of the fat away from Lehigh's lead. The last of these, with just three seconds left in the half, was made by Xavier's outstanding guard, Tu Holloway. In some trouble on the right wing with the clock nearing 0:00, Holloway double-pumped, got his defender in the air, tried to draw contact—and did, although there was no call—and then, still hanging in the air, tossed the ball into the basket from 20 feet. A big-time shot.
And then Lehigh went ice cold in the second half, missing almost everything they tried. I had tweeted that Lehigh wasn't Cinderella, they were Dorothy: they had flattened Duke, the Wicked Witch of the South (Bracket), and were off down the yellow-brick road. It was bound to get bumpy in a hurry. There was a neat moment on their bench early in the second half. Xavier took a five-point lead, its largest of the game, thanks to another three-pointer by Holloway, and then there was an official timeout. The Mountain Hawks went to their seats and sat in slumped, dejected silence, looking for the first time all weekend like they sensed the possibility that they might lose.
Lehigh Coach Brett Reed, after consulting with his assistant coaches, approached them, took in the scene of unsmiling, diffident players before him, smiled and chirped: "Hi!" Having pushed a smart little reset button there, he paused a moment and then went on, genially reminding them that they had expected a close game, a real game, and now they had one, and it was time to man up, reach down and get to another level of competition. He addressed his players individually, eye to eye, and then set to the X-and-O board.
It was a pleasure to watch this young, intelligent coach interact with his players. At the next media timeout, Lehigh still trailed by five points, and this time Reed gave a hortatory, almost military lecture: We will FIGHT! We will NOT LET DOWN! And so on—after which the UNC fans sitting behind me agreed that they wished that they, too, could suit up and play for this man, so fired up were they by his gusto.
To Lehigh's credit, they fought back to tie the score. It was 52-all at the under-8 official timeout, but Lehigh managed just six points over the final 7:33, missing 13 of 14 field goal attempts. Elton John played Raleigh's RBC Center on Friday night. I don't know if the set included "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," but for Lehigh's sake it would have been appropriate. When are you going to come down? When are you going to land? Sunday night, as it turned out. The Mountain Hawks were ultimately outmanned not just by Holloway and backcourt mate Dee Davis, but also by big, bruising Kenny Frease, whose seven feet and 275 pounds were far too much for anyone Lehigh threw in his path. He led everyone on the floor with 25 points (11-13 FGs) and 12 rebounds, playing what his coach would later call the best game of Frease's Xavier career. You wonder, in retrospect, why Duke didn't get the ball to the Plumli more often on Friday against the undersized Mountain Hawks' front line.
But back to this question of media access: Late last night, about half an hour after Xavier sent Lehigh back to the howling old owl in the woods, an NCAA media representative came into the press room to announce that he was about to close both teams' locker rooms to reporters for good. "You guys need anything else?" he barked. No, all good, went the common assent, and we were done. Need? We need to go back in there and get one of these guys to say something they haven't already said? Is it really their responsibility to meet our needs? Aren't they already doing that with their bodies when they go out there before us and do the thing they are trained to do? We do not require actors or musicians to give press conferences after they perform, and you can make the argument that sports are as fictitious as theater: For two or three hours, the game absorbs us, pulls into identification with heroes and hatred of villains, takes us out of the ordinary and into the great impossible, provides great comedy or tragedy, may manufacture catharsis for us, and then sends us back out into the realness of our lives. That is in fact the greatness of sports.
An old anecdote on this subject. Joe DiMaggio once said (to a reporter, I bet): "I can remember a reporter asking me for a quote, and I didn't know what a quote was. I thought it was some kind of soft drink." It's sad to think of a "quote" as nothing more than a mere disposable junk-object that an athlete should be expected to serve up to a thirsty reporter on demand. A quote is not a thing; at its best, it is a deliberate and shapely act of language, the peculiar and spontaneous evidence of an examined life, and it requires an improvisatory gift which, for most athletes, is reserved for their ability to hit curve balls, hit running floaters from 16 feet away and throw touchdowns on busted plays.
Anyway, there is already plenty of free soda in the media rooms of sports venues, so here, then, is a modest proposal in the spirit of Triangle Offense editor David Fellerath. In December, he suggested temporarily abolishing the shot clock in "guarantee games" so as to give hapless underdogs like Western Michigan a fighting chance to beat Duke. How about the NCAA barring the media from talking to players? Beyond all of the benefits this would confer upon the athletes, here is another one it would confer upon reporters and, by extension, you the reading public: It would force us to write better sports stories.
At 11:00 p.m., Greensboro Coliseum was mostly empty. High up in the rafters, workers took down the banners that festooned the place over the weekend, and in short order they would start prying up the hardwood floor on which Duke's tournament run, Lehigh's dreams and Kendall Marshall's wrist were broken. They had to get right to work, and fast: Bruce Springsteen takes the stage in Greensboro about six hours from now. He is the appropriate singer/songwriter to take the baton from Elton John as we dismantle our NCAA pod, because no one is better than the Boss at writing about how it feels to wrest, or even wrist, disillusionment from hope—how the one is always tangled up in the other; and how, although we were born to run to the Promised Land, it's so hard to get there.