When we started 3MW three and a half years ago, we did it for one simple reason: because we loved college basketball. We knew we were going to constantly talk about the sport with each other regardless, so why not make it a little side hobby? After a year of just writing and trying to find our “voices” (still an ongoing process), we added actual voices – a podcast, hosted in Ky’s living room. Again, like anything, we weren’t very good when we started (someone destroy our first 10 episodes, please), but we had a lot of fun with it, so we continued.
Three years later, we’re lucky enough to have a following with whom we get to interact and, just like when we started, talk hoops. Saturday, I got the amazing opportunity to cover the CBS Sports Classic at the United Center in Chicago, a step into “legitimacy” that I always dreamt about but was never quite sure we’d achieve. What followed was a whirlwind of a day, one I attempted to document below (along with some thoughts on the games that actually took place).
I arrived at the United Center just after 12:00pm, making my way in through the media entrance on the north side of the arena. The UCLA dance team was also arriving at the time, a nice “whoa” moment to start the day – ya know, California Girls and all that jazz. I then nearly started cackling when the lady at check-in said she recognized my name from the stack of media credentials in front of her. Me? Seriously? Well alright then! I took my pass and wandered into the winding depths of the United Center, eventually stepping out into the empty arena in awe. What a long ways our site had come:
I finally made my way into the Press Room, again trying to take everything in all at once while attempting to stay out of everyone’s way. This was a place I’d long hoped to be, covering a major event, and suddenly it was a reality. To top off that feeling, the legendary Bill Raftery entered the room soon after me, and I gave him a quick hello as I went to the buffet line (oh yeah, free food!). Rather than simply nod back, Raft approached me, shook my hand, and talked to me about my background, announcing multiple games in a row, and the energy of highly-anticipated neutral site games. I’ve never heard a single bad word uttered about Raftery, and now I see why; as he walked away, I melted into a puddle of joy, beside myself at yet another moment of total absurdity to the fan in me. The UC staff had to come clean up my remains, and that’s the end of the story, thanks for reading.
I ended up finding my way up to my seat in the West End Press Box, a bird’s eye view of the game - a far cry from the front row, courtside status of the journalist elites, but I was ecstatic. And in my eyes, it’s easier to see the game strategy play out from that angle - the movement of all five guys, offensive actions, etc. Before the game started, though, I had one last item on my own pretend to-do list: introduce myself to some of those big name writers whose work I had read/listened to for years and years. Heading back to the press room, I happened upon Matt Norlander (CBS Sports) and Jeff Goodman (Stadium) eating together and shakily interrupted their conversation to say hi. To my surprise, they both were extremely gracious and even knew of Three Man Weave, another “jaw-drop” moment for me in a day full of them. They let me bug them for a few minutes, gave me some tips, and overall proved to be excellent guys - thus showing that “never meet your heroes” isn’t always words to live by.
Alright - enough about my day, because there was also some excellent hoops played. Below are some thoughts - I missed the OSU/UCLA presser because I’m a dunce, but I did get to attend UK/UNC…
Ohio State vs. UCLA
A sparse, slow-arriving crowd welcomed the “undercard” to the court, as Ohio State and UCLA tipped to only a few thousand fans (read: UNC and UK fans who had purchased tickets to the two-game session weren’t in any rush). In fact, even from my post up in the press box, I could clearly hear Ohio State’s coaching staff urging their players on defensively and calling plays on the other end. One fun fact: the Buckeyes have a zone overload set called “Kentucky”; that one probably would not have worked so well were the opponents in the event swapped.
UCLA’s 2-3 zone was the story of the early going, forcing Ohio State into poor shots and multiple unforced turnovers as the guards struggled to move the ball around the perimeter. It was a clever move by the much-maligned Alford, using the data to put the Buckeyes in an uncomfortable situation:
This led to a choppy first half, full of turnovers (8 by OSU, 12 by UCLA) and relatively poor shot selection by both teams (neither cracked 1ppp). Jaylen Hands lived up to his name on that end (4 steals in the first half), and Kris Wilkes made enough plays to have the Bruins right in the game.
The hoops got better in the second half, though, especially as Ohio State started to figure out the 2-3. The Buckeyes clearly made an emphasis at halftime on using the baseline area as a weapon, firing incisive passes through the zone for easy buckets:
This quick touch pass from Wesson is especially astute, and he gets rewarded with a tough two points:
The Buckeyes’ steady dismantling of the zone in the second half (48 points after the break) was of course accentuated by some perimeter jumpers, but to me, it was the intelligent passing that keyed the offensive onslaught.
On the other end, UCLA was largely who we thought they were offensively, for better and for worse. Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands are tremendous talents, but the offense doesn’t have much creativity to it, instead relying heavily on those two to create for themselves and others from standstill positions. Hands finished with 9 assists and 4 turnovers, a solid ratio, but despite his high dime total, he doesn’t totally pass the eye test for commanding an offense. In my opinion, Hands is miscast as the primary ball-handler, but the die was cast once freshman Tyger Campbell tore his ACL before the season. Campbell is much more of a true point guard, and Hands and Wilkes would surely benefit from his table-setting. And again, not all of this is Hands’s responsibility - part of why Alford is on the hot seat is his inability construct even a Top 50 offense with his current collection of talent.
Ultimately, the more disciplined and better-coached team pulled away, and to me, that is reflective of these teams’ destinies this season. With Chris Holtmann at the helm, Ohio State looks primed to compete within the ridiculously deep Big Ten, possibly even for a conference title. UCLA, on the other hand, will have to hope for the Pac-12 autobid (and may need it to preserve Alford’s job). There simply aren’t enough big wins available in that league for the 7-5 Bruins to cobble together an at-large resume (case in point: barttorvik.com’s TourneyCast gives them just a 2% chance at an at-large bid).
North Carolina vs. Kentucky
We finally saw the Kentucky team we thought we might see in the preseason – a group of athletes that could set the tone defensively via ball pressure and dominate in the paint. Ashton Hagans was a total monster on D, getting his hands on everything, whether that be jumping passing lanes or picking unsuspecting pockets of ball-handlers. One sequence at the end of the game defined his maniacal pressure. With Kentucky up 80-72 and 24 seconds left, Hagans nearly stole the inbound pass, stumbling into his team’s bench while saving the ball:
UNC got it back and rushed down the court looking for a quick three, but Hagans was having none of that. At a dead sprint from the bench, he got back into the play and swiped a pass from Seventh Woods to Coby White, even smartly calling timeout before falling out of bounds to clinch the game:
When you match that level of effort with Hagans’ raw defensive ability, a thoroughly commanding performance results: eight steals, and the highest of praise from Roy Williams in the postgame presser: “I look down and Ashton Hagans is 2/6, 7 points, and I thought in some ways he was more dominating in the game than anybody.”
At 0.87 points per possession, this was the Tar Heels’ worst offensive performance of the year (yes, that includes the beatdown against Michigan’s steel curtain, where they managed 0.96ppp). Hagans was the linchpin for that on the perimeter, and the Wildcats’ dominant defensive rebounding – they grabbed 32 defensive rebounds to just 5 UNC offensive boards – characterized the toughness edge in the paint, as well.
Offensively, Kentucky looked promising, if not yet fully formed. Although they struggled with turning the ball over (they had 18 miscues of their own), they flashed some tremendous ball movement that resulted in getting more open shots than they had seen against Seton Hall two weeks ago. The big men in particular were impressive: the starting forward duo of Reid Travis and PJ Washington combined for 11 assists, with Travis smartly fanning the ball cross-court for open threes and Washington deftly making big-to-big passes to get Travis easy dunks or lay-ups. Calipari complimented this postgame, but also thought they had room to grow in this regard, missing a few “extra passes” that would have resulted in better shots. One such example that stood out to me came late in the first half, with Kentucky riding a small wave of momentum that seemed capable of building into an overwhelming swell, when Reid Travis took this three:
On its face, it’s not a bad shot – he’s wide open and stepping into it in rhythm. However, Tyler Herro had just buried a three on the previous possession, and he’s trailing next to Travis on his left, similarly wide open as the UNC transition defense is in shambles. The “right” play would be to feed the hot hand and better shooter, especially since Herro’s previous shot had been from nearly the same spot, also in semi-transition. Again, this isn’t selfish or bad basketball by Travis, but small details like that can nudge an offense over the line from “good” to “great.”
I left this game feeling confident in both teams. North Carolina does have three losses, but they’ve played a gauntlet of a schedule and have the talent to contend for ACC and NCAA titles (although finding more creation offensively outside of Coby White remains a concern). Kentucky, meanwhile, exorcised some early season demons as questions rained down following the Duke massacre, the Seton Hall loss, and iffy wins at Rupp against smaller opponents. Big Blue showed that it will once again be a player on a national level, a team that will continue to get more comfortable in its own identity (and I think Quade Green’s departure may help the team define its roles) and be a threat come March.
Ultimately, it was a day that I will never forget: the first true foray into being a part of big-time college basketball. To me, it was like a drug - all I want is to be in that environment all the time, experiencing the ebbs and flows of the game and finding ways to contextualize it via tweet and/or story. Getting to interact with people I have long looked up to was an incredible cherry atop the CBS Classic sundae. Of course, that’s not the finish line to our 3MW narrative arc, far from it - with continued hard work (and a few more lucky breaks), hopefully this is only the first of many events covered by the Weave.