Last night I managed to watch most of the NCAA Elite Eight men’s game between Kansas and Villanova. It wasn’t easy. The men’s game has been hobbled for more than a decade by the usual signs of the times: early departure of the top talent to the NBA; massive overdoses of ego and self-celebration (and I don’t just mean the players); drill sergeant coaching and training tactics that leave the players on the floor a bundle of overstuffed muscles and over-hyped nerves.
The result, in big game after big game?
Exactly what you got with Kansas and Villanova.
Brick city. And a bunch of glassy-eyed young men who made me want to cover mine.
Every player on either team looked like he was on a search-and-destroy mission in Fallujah instead of playing a game that’s supposed to be fun.
All of which makes the hot story of the women’s tournament that much more refreshing.
The University of Washington’s women’s team just became only the second in tournament history to advance to the Final Four without being ranked at the end of the regular season. The coach is a two-time heart attack survivor who seeks his players’ advice during time outs. The power forward is a leukemia survivor. The silky smooth small forward is coming off two knee surgeries. The sleepy-eyed center, who caught the coach’s eye when he wandered into the wrong gym by mistake a few years back, sits out warm-ups (apparently to preserve energy) and shoots flat-footed threes with deadly accuracy when she’s not dominating the paint. The All-American point guard, Kelsey Plum, pictured above, winks at the camera (or her teammates, or the sidelines, or whoever else is available) in between pressure free throws (which she then proceeds to make with remarkable regularity). There is no chest-thumping, no screaming to the rafters, no bluster, and no attitude of false euphoria when they win games they aren’t supposed to win, including the last three. It’s not so much like they are from another time as from another planet. Apparently hanging around with heart attack and leukemia survivors puts certain things (like basketball) in perspective.
When Plum was asked, in high school, if she was considering attending Connecticut, the sport’s current New York Yankee-style behemoth, she said “I want to beat Connecticut for the national championship.”
She’ll probably get her chance.
If so, her team will have about as much chance as the similarly loose and free-wheeling Roberta Vinci had against the similarly dominant-to-the-point-of-suffocation Serena Williams at last year’s U.S. Open.
Lightning probably won’t strike twice. Dominant teams are harder to beat on a given day than dominant individuals, who are, after all, only human.
But I’ll definitely be watching.