After attending my first NIT game last night, I now know why nobody cares about the NIT. It’s not because people are disappointed that their favorite team missed the NCAA tournament, or because they’re too busy paying attention to the NCAAs. It’s not even because the NIT isn’t an actual national championship, the ‘National’ in the name notwithstanding. No, the reason nobody cares about the NIT is that, by and large, these teams aren’t very good.
See, when you get two basketball teams together that aren’t very good, as we did last night at Haas Pavilion, what you get is a not-very-good basketball game. I don’t care what the teams are playing for, almost nobody wants to watch the kind of ugly basketball on display last night, and judging by the sparse crowd that actually showed up, almost nobody did.
A sparse crowd of curious onlookers wandered into Haas Pavilion only to find a basketball game going on.
Being that the game was televised nationally on ESPN2, perhaps many of you watched the game from the comfort of your own home. Perhaps. You didn’t come to Berkeley, that’s for sure. A crowd of just 1,906 turned out to watch this game. To put this in perspective, just a few months ago, fellow Mountain West foes San Diego State and Utah drew crowds of 7,590 and 7,387, respectively. To be sure, some of those announced crowd totals were buoyed by season ticket holders who chose to stay home, but there’s no question that interest in this game was somewhere between ‘lackluster’ and ‘non-existant’.
Anyway, for those of you who still care about Cal Basketball, but somehow plumb forgot that there was a game last night, here’s what you missed:
It was immediately obvious that J.R. Giddens was the Lobos’ best player; he was as good as advertised. The kid is a heck of a ball-handler, and he can make all the shots. The rest of the team? Basically, they’re just a bunch of guys. They run the offense well, providing screeners, decoys, and distractions, making the occasional three in the corner.
However, this team has a whole has virtually no inside game. They probably attempted something like 6 shots in the paint all night, most of those off of rebounds. To their credit, they still managed to act as though they had something going on inside. The typical play went something like this:
1) Ball handler penetrates off the dribble into the paint.
2) Cal defense collapses effectively on the ball handler.
3) Ball handler kicks out to a teammate outside.
4) Wide-open 3-point shot.
Somehow, this continued to work, over and over. Cal’s defense continued to collapse, leaving shooters open on the outside, and the Lobos continued to take advantage. Towards the end, it got really frustrating to watch Cal continue to leave shooters open over and over, when everybody in the building knew that the guy driving to the bucket was just going to pass it out again.
And the Bears? With their size and skill advantage in the paint, you would expect them to continue to feed it inside and feast on some easy layups. Well, you would be half right. The Bears continued to pass the ball inside, but they had an amazing amount of difficulty in actually completing those passes. Passes would be bobbled, batted away, or intercepted; one pass from Randle went right through Hardin’s legs. I was surprised when I looked at the box score today and found that the Bears turned the ball over only(!) 15 times. It was pretty ugly, and honestly I think it would have been worse had the Bears not been bailed out by some rather favorable foul calls.
The end of the game was tight, but it was not pretty. Jerome Randle made a 3 with seven and half minutes left to break a 53-all tie. From that point on, the Bears took only 2 shots the rest of the game. 2! In seven minutes! However, despite not having any sort of offense whatsoever, they managed to continue getting to the line, drawing seven fouls down the stretch.
Once again, the Bears’ excellent free throw shooting saves the day, as Cal goes 10-13 from the charity stripe over the final seven minutes, enough to seal the deal. However, it still took a big-time hustle play from Jamal Boykin to pull this one out. With the game tied at 66 with only 36 seconds left, Ryan Anderson gets to the line to shoot 2. An 87% free throw shooter, you gotta figure the Bears look pretty good to take the lead, and even after he misses the first one, everyone assumes he’ll make the second. Not Boykin. When Anderson inexplicably misses them both, Boykin is johnny-on-the-spot in grabbing the rebound, giving the Bears a fresh shot clock and the ability to just about take the last shot. On the ensuing possession, the Bears’ offense once again goes nowhere, but with time winding down, Boykin drives to the hoop and manages to get fouled with just 4 seconds left. His two subsequent free throws turned out to be the difference in the game.
My other shout-out from this game goes to DeVon Hardin, who’s taken some grief from Cal fans this year for what we perceived as his ‘failing to live up to his potential’ - i.e. not playing like a lottery pick. Well, in his final, final game at Haas, Hardin had a heck of a game. Yeah, 10 and 6 isn’t that great, and fouling out with more than 6 minutes to go (on a stupid push, even) seemed to really sum up his career at Cal, but let me tell you, he was a beast on defense. Not only was he a big reason why New Mexico had no inside game whatsoever, but he played a pretty mean perimeter defense on Giddins, as well. Not an easy thing to do. Man, if he had come out like that every night, I think the Bears could have pulled out a few more games this year.
Still, if this game convinced me of one thing, it’s that not only did neither team present have any business ever being in the NCAA conversation, but whichever team won (thankfully, Cal) was going to have no chance against Ohio State on Monday. An ugly, ugly game from two teams that really aren’t all that good. But then, I suppose that’s the NIT for you.