Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Fairfield?

That was, without question, the worst championship game ever played. On any level. In any sport. The South Dakota eight-year-old Little League final? The Arkansas small school tennis final? Whatever, it was better than what Butler and UConn did last night.

If you told Butler 24 hours ago that all of these things would happen:
* Kemba Walker would shoot 5 for 19, 0 for 4 from three-point range
* UConn would score 53 points
* UConn would shoot 1 for 11 from three-point range
* Butler would have a six-point lead after the first possession of the second half

... then the Bulldogs would have figured that they would have an easy win and a national championship.

Unfortunately for Butler, all of these things were true too:
* the Bulldogs were 3 for 31 on two-point shots, including 1 for 25 in the paint
* the team shot 27 percent from three-point range, and that was actually much better than its 18.8 percent overall
* Matt Howard was 1 for 13 from the field
* Shelvin Mack was 2 for 2 on three-pointers in the final two minutes and 2 for 9 in the first 38

Add it up, and it was a brutal game to watch. And good defense doesn't explain it all.

After awhile, it became almost comical to watch Butler get either open looks from three-point range and brick them or get the ball into the pivot and watch see what happened next.

It's a shame, too, since Butler was such an easy team to want to see win. And maybe VCU could have done better.

As TigerBlog watched the game, he kept having the same thought that he figures many other Princeton fans were having:

Fairfield?

As everyone knows by now, Sydney Johnson left Princeton yesterday to become the head basketball coach at Fairfield.

The feedback that TB got from everyone who called him last night - reporters, friends - was the same. Fairfield?

And it's not a knock on Fairfield, which went 25-8 last year while winning the MAAC regular-season title by three games before losing in the semifinals of the league tournament to St. Peters to fall into the NIT. And the Stags did this with a young roster, so they should be pretty stocked for the next few years.

It's also not a question of whether or not this is a lateral move. The MAAC is a really strong, competitive league, and it's also through the years been a stepping stone for its coaches. The former Fairfield coach, for instance, just left for Providence and the Big East.

Oh, and for those who asked what Fairfield's average home attendance was last year, it was 2,726. And Princeton's? It was 2,952.

Who knows what was going through Sydney's mind as he made this decision, which presumably wasn't easy? More money? Perhaps his stock would never be higher? Hey, all that is the nature of coaching.

And none of that is what the main issue was for Princeton fans.

No, it's the whole idea that not quite three weeks ago, Sydney Johnson broke down in tears at the NCAA tournament postgame press conference, overcome with the emotion of having brought Princeton back from last place in the Ivy League to the biggest stage in college basketball.

And then here he was, last night, off to Fairfield. To go from tears in Tampa to joy in Connecticut in such a short time seems incongruous, and it doesn't make Johnson's love for Princeton look genuine anymore.

That, not the move itself, is what has most people scratching their heads.

Is it a legitimate claim? Yes and no.

TigerBlog has known Sydney Johnson since before the first game he ever played at Princeton, back at the old Philadelphia Civic Center in November 1993. That night, Johnson put up no points in seven inauspicious minutes, but his coach, Pete Carril, sent him back out there in the next game and everyone after that.

In Johnson's four years as a player at Princeton, TB saw every game he played except for one. There has never been an athlete here who could talk to the media the way Johnson could, and there have been few here who had his leadership ability and toughness in the clutch. In many ways, he was almost too good to be true as an undergraduate.

On TB's list of favorite Princeton athletes that he's dealt with here, Sydney Johnson's name could very well be at the very top.

The Sydney Johnson who came back here as head coach wasn't quite the same person. He was much more guarded, much less willing to let people into his world.

Of course, his task was a huge one. Princeton was at an all-time low when he got here, and he committed himself to bringing the program back.

And he did that. Princeton's 2011 run to an Ivy League co-championship, followed by the drama of the playoff win over Harvard to get into the NCAA tournament and then the near-miss against Kentucky was epic stuff, even for a program that has so much history.

When Johnson talked during his four years as head coach about his love for Princeton basketball and for his desire to give his players here the kind of championship experience he had here, TB believed every word. Looking back, he still believes it was genuine.

In fact, TB said yesterday that the case could be made that Sydney looked at the current situation here from the point of view of having lived up to his end of the deal. Maybe if Douglas Davis' shot didn't go in at the buzzer in New Haven, Sydney Johnson would still be the coach.

There were really two factors at play in the situation.

The first is the issue of whether or not he was being genuine in what he was saying about his love for Princeton basketball. TB, as he said, gives him the benefit of the doubt, even if there's no way to look from outside the situation and think that it's the case.

The second issue isn't about Sydney Johnson; it's about Princeton basketball fans.

Pete Carril was the head coach here for 29 years. Since he left, Princeton has gone through four head coaches, none of whom stayed for more than four years.

Each time a new one came in, TB thought they'd be here forever, and in case, forever came around within four years.

In each of the first three cases, there was a perfectly logical reason why the coach left.

With Sydney Johnson, though, everyone wanted to believe that he'd be a lifer, that he'd be here for the three decades that Carril was. And then, when he was so emotional about the program on such a national stage, nobody could see that and think that Johnson wasn't in it for the long haul.

And now, less than three weeks later, he's on his way to Fairfield and the search for a successor begins.

The good news is that next year, there will once again be Princeton basketball.

Princeton has made five NCAA tournament and three NIT appearances since Carril left 15 years ago. If anything, that time has shown that Princeton basketball is bigger than any one person, even Carril.

And it'll be bigger than Sydney Johnson, who leaves Princeton fans a bit skeptical as he heads to Connecticut.

TigerBlog? He's as cynical as it gets, and yet he doesn't have it in him to ever root against Sydney Johnson. There's just too much history there.

Maybe TB is just being nostalgic. Maybe he's thinking back to the skinny kid from Baltimore who came here and did so many great things as a player, who was in so many ways an athletic communications dream come true.

TB will always remember that Sydney Johnson, and the Sydney Johnson who took Princeton back from the abyss as its head coach.

And he'll always like Sydney Johnson, even if he didn't like the way he ultimately left here.

1 comment:

Wally said...

Basketball and football coaches in D1, to a person, look for the "next" deal at all times. I've never met him, but the fact that this is, in most observers' view, at best a lateral move, means he's just another basketball coach. There's nothing special about him at all.