Coach's Corner

Coach postulates that free-throw percentage determines longevity in the NCAAtournament, bitches about concession food at Frank Erwin Center.

Reflections on the NCAA tournament ... A new universal absolute. After many hours watching college basketball the past few weeks, I've identified an obvious but sometimes clouded physical law: Poor free-throw shooting teams rarely advance past two rounds in this tournament. Every team in the Sweet 16 made free throws at an impressive, economical clip. Michigan State, over 70% for the year, made 96% in their regional final win over Iowa State, who shot 83% themselves. Every team in Austin was over 70% for the season. The Texas Longhorns, year after year, die at the line. A message shrieks in the March breeze. It is this: In the end -- and the NCAA tournament is the end -- no matter how high you jump, no matter how accurate your jump shot, or how many games you win, or how devoted to defense you may be, in March all this will only cause heartbreak if you can't score consistently those uncontested points from the line. It's that simple. Erratic free-throw-shooting teams, playing tournament competition, won't go far. Ever. There's an overwhelming correlation between charity success and winning. UT coaches always maintain this skill is mental. In which case, if I were Rick Barnes, I'd check real carefully into the diets and water composition in East Lansing, Gainesville, Stillwater, and Tulsa...

After decades of watching basketball, it's my thoughtful observation that there are two kinds of referees in the college game: bad and worse. The officiating for the NCAA tournament has been awful. Iowa State coach Larry Eustachy finally lost his shit entirely -- drawing a double T at the end of the Cyclones' frustrating loss to Michigan State. I understood. Incompetence at this high level shouldn't happen, but it does ... over and over. As is the college custom, these part-timers consistently call harmless touch fouls on the perimeter and make poor or incorrect calls inside. And this isn't an attack on poor fellows just trying to do their job. In fact, that's the problem. The NCAA has a net income greater than the entire Southern Hemisphere, yet uses car salesmen and insurance adjusters to officiate its games. This is one place the pros do it better. Pro refs generally let the players dictate the game, not calling fouls unless an advantage is gained. (An exception being the "Malone Flop," performed every time the 285-pound, heavily muscled Karl Malone is again tossed violently to the floor by some spindly point guard.) Why not use full-time officials, with a ref-czar and one set of player/fan-friendly rules?

A heads up. The NBA is reportedly ready to start serious discussions on an issue guaranteed to further define the term "highly controversial." League execs will consider funding a professional minor league. The rub: Future Duke guards and UCLA forwards can choose to forgo that oft trumpeted "quality education" for a more direct path toward what many athletes really want: an NBA roster spot. And they'll get paid for it. This issue will bring every college coach, David Stern, parents of teenage athletes, pro coaches, university presidents, and no doubt Alan Dershowitz into direct, heated conflict. Money to cause an Arabian potentate to blush (not to mention common sense) will be at stake. This is a complex issue (for sports) worthy of a full column as events develop.

A moment for bitching. Anyone visiting the Erwin Center on a regular basis in the last ... oh, say 20 years, knows how poor the quality and service are at the concession stands. I've long been convinced that the concessionaire never throws out a hot dog bun or pretzel or Snickers bar; it's just served the next day, the next game, or next year. Out-of-towners got a taste of our little secret at the regional final this weekend. By 9pm CST, Friday night, the concession infrastructure had utterly collapsed, buried beneath the weight of -- of all things -- business. Hot dogs were available, if you liked sans bun. Ice disappeared. Flavorless popcorn became a valued commodity, worthy of a 30-minute wait. A wild craving for a Dogies Saucer Bar (two cookies with ice cream in the middle) sent me on a fruitless circumnavigation of the entire arena, upstairs and down. Not one was to be found. My lovely wife, filled with pride, came bouncing down the aisle with a happy success story. For dinner she found us three cookies (baked in the time of Moses) and a warm Diet Pepsi. The human tooth is simply not meant for this abuse. Kelly found a way to masticate the cookie by shoving Corian-like chunks in her mouth until they found her strong molars. Not wanting to incur any new dental bills, I opted for breaking the thing, with two hands, each time spraying people in front with cookie shrapnel. On the hated running trail the next morning, I overheard three different sets of fans from North Carolina and Tulsa one-upping each other on what happened to them last night when they tried to eat in our Erwin Center. What to do? Look at the airport, where free enterprise, tightly regulated by central authority for quality control, provides travelers with a wide range of interesting food choices. Then again, even the current circa-1950 carnival food would be acceptable if you got the feeling anyone in the organization cared.

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