And welcome to Phoenix, where in a little while I’ll be boarding a bus for the 30-minute ride out to Glendale, and University of Phoenix Stadium (quite large) for a couple of basketball games this evening. First, in one semifinal, we’ve got Gonzaga and South Carolina.
And then the nightcap: North Carolina, in the Final Four for the 20th time, against Oregon, which is in the Final Four for the first time since 1939. The winners will play on Monday night, in the national championship game, and the Tar Heels all season long have been focusing on returning to that point.
But first things first: Oregon, tonight. Before we get to some thoughts about the match-up, the journey and the overall experience out here, a quick look at what we’ve been writing this week:
Now for some thoughts:
1. Joel Berry will play, we all knew that, but how effective will he be?
The question of the day. The question of many days. If Berry had been handed a dollar every time someone asked him about his ankles this week, the NCAA would find a way to make him permanently ineligible based on its impermissible benefits rules.
But no, really: It has come up a lot. Berry will play. Anyone who ever doubted that either knows little about Berry or wasn’t paying attention when he played through the pain of two sprained ankles last weekend against Kentucky. After that game, he said he was in a great deal of pain.
The good news for UNC: He’s in significantly less pain now than he was then. The bad news, though, is obvious enough: He hasn’t done a whole lot of practicing this week (to be expected), and it’s impossible to know how his ankles will react to the full speed and intensity of a Final Four game.
Here’s what Berry said on Friday about his status and presumed effectiveness:
“I did the whole practice, which is good, and I came out of it with no injuries. And I felt like I was 85 percent today and so overall I felt pretty good. So I was just happy to get up and down the court just to see how I felt, and I felt pretty good.
“I think I’ll be pretty effective … just get lost in the game, and not worried about it is the biggest thing. And the only thing that scares me is just re-injuring it. I don’t want to do that but other than that, I feel pretty good about being effective out on the court.”
He had a Friday afternoon and Saturday morning of continued rehab work ahead of him.
“Sometimes I just went to go back and lie in my bed,” Berry said. “I just keep telling myself: It’s only four more days left for the season, and I’ve got to give it my all, and do whatever it takes to get my body right.”
2. On the Tar Heels and pressure.
Saw a good thought on Twitter from the crew over at Tar Heel Illustrated: That every team here wants to win the Final Four, but UNC feels like it has to win. That’s a good way to put it, and it’s probably true: The Tar Heels do feel that way.
All the talk about redemption, about getting back to this point, about winning a title for not only themselves but for the coaching staff and for Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson and the other guys who were around last year … and here they are, just about on the precipice.
But it must be said, too, that this seems like an incredibly loose team. If the Tar Heels are feeling weighed down by the burden of pressure and expectations, I haven’t seen it this week. The attitude hasn’t been one of overt seriousness, though obviously the team knows what’s at stake.
Even so, players have repeatedly talked about embracing this ride. Enjoying it. I thought Theo Pinson put it well on Friday. Here’s Pinson talking about this:
“You don’t want to take these moments for granted. I know teams might take everything so serious – be like, all right, we’ve got to be mean faces all week. You don’t got to do that. I mean we’re kids – enjoy the experience and have fun.”
3. Matchups, pace and all that good stuff.
I was just perusing some of the interview transcripts from Friday, and it’s true – someone really asked Oregon coach Dana Altman if it was “safe to say” that he wanted to try to speed up the Tar Heels and get them into a transition game.
Um. Come again?
Sometimes I wonder about my media brethren. There probably isn’t one head coach in the country, among the nation’s 351 Division I teams, that wants to play at a faster pace than Roy Williams does. So if Oregon would like to run, then Williams and his team would welcome it.
That said, there are a couple of caveats: One, Berry’s ankles. Can they withstand the steady punishment of an up-and-down, back-and-forth, high-tempo game? My guess is “probably,” given how Berry managed to keep up last week after spraining his left ankle against Kentucky.
The other: Oregon’s spread-it-out-and-drive approach. The Ducks are without 6-10 senior Chris Boucher, their shot-blocking menace of a big man who tore his ACL during the Pac-12 tournament. How has Oregon changed without Boucher? It hasn’t, really.
Even so, this is a game in which his absence might be particularly noticeable. The Tar Heels have a clear advantage on the inside. On the perimeter, Oregon’s twosome of Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey will test UNC’s defense in a way that it has rarely been tested this season.
▪ Spent a while speaking the past couple of days with Isaiah Hicks, who is seeking a bit of individual redemption in the Final Four after a rough go of last weekend in Memphis: Said Hicks: “I would say, as a senior, I feel like I know what type of player I am. Teammates know. Everybody knows, coaches know – they tell me all the time. And I feel like I was just out there not producing.”
▪ This is how Justin Jackson described the defensive blueprint for UNC this evening: “For us we have to make it as hard as possible on their guards. We have to make it hard for them to catch the ball, make them catch it away from where they want to catch it. Because if you don’t, it’s hard to stop those type of players.”
▪ Jackson with another interesting thought, about the oft-talked about pursuit of redemption, and how last season ended: “I think I stopped thinking about it probably five months ago. You know, other than y’all bringing up the questions again, it was motivation in the off-season. It definitely was. And we wanted to get back to this point – not necessarily to get revenge, or whatever, but we knew how much fun we had here.”
▪ How is Phoenix as a Final Four city? Good question. Haven’t seen much of it, given that media headquarters is outside of the city, and that University of Phoenix Stadium is in Glendale, which is even farther outside of the city. Makes me appreciate the set-up in Indianapolis, with everything centralized, and downtown, that much more. Among the Four Final Fours I’ve covered – in Atlanta, Indianapolis, Houston and now here – I’d rank this at the bottom as a Final Four city. Tough to create a full experience with everything so spread out.
So there you have it. A little more than seven hours, and counting, until tip-off ...