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Bringin’ it

SoVaNow.com / April 03, 2019
» Family and friends of South Hill’s Keldon Johnson must be mighty proud of how he and the Kentucky Wildcats performed in the NCAA men’s tournament, advancing all the way to the Elite Eight before losing a heartbreaker to Auburn on Saturday, 77-71. The main spotlight on Kentucky fell on teammate P.J. Washington, who was injured in the first two rounds of the tournament and came back like gangbusters in the Wildcats’ Sweet 16 win over Houston and against Auburn. But Johnson was an integral part of Kentucky’s success all year long, and he finishes the season with some big decisions to make on the NBA draft. He’s a surefire pick, with many draft watchers projecting Johnson to go in the top 10 or 15, an opportunity no player could ever be expected to pass up. By fall, fans are likely to see Johnson back on the hardwood wearing an NBA uniform.

This, of course, would give Mecklenburg County two claims to NBA fame — with the late Jerome Kersey of Clarksville accounting for the other. One thing that always arises in these situations is all the guys who ever got play against a future NBA player can tell their children and grandchildren about the time when they got the better of the matchup … or not. (Fidelity to the facts is optional.) Keldon Johnson played one season at Park View, setting the state record for most points by a freshman before transferring elsewhere to continue his hoops development. (He graduated from Oak Hill Academy, a nationally-famous prep factory.) Lots of kids around the area have matched up on the court against Johnson, and surely they will have their stories to tell about the experience.

I can identify. I was a member of the Comet varsity basketball team at Halifax County Senior High School at the same time Jerome Kersey played for Bluestone, and the Barons were on our schedule twice each season. So I played ball against a future NBA great … and have no real recollection of how it went, except that we beat Bluestone pretty regularly. (Jerome Kersey famously did not become THE Jerome Kersey until he went off to Longwood College and tore up the joint as the greatest player in school history.) Yet just because Kersey didn’t particularly stand out during his high school playing career doesn’t mean I haven’t spun a few tales about our “encounters.” One of my best buddies from college is from Seattle, back when the town was home to the Supersonics. He’s a huge sports fan — we once went to a Sonics game together, in which I had the pleasure of seeing Shawn Kemp play in person, a mind-blowing sight. (Kemp has since faded into obscurity, but he may have been the most physically gifted player of his time.) Being a Sonics fan, my friend also got to see Kersey play during his heyday with the Portland Trail Blazers, just down the highway. So naturally I had great fun recalling the time I blocked Jerome Kersey’s shot in high school, which, to be clear, is plausible if not exactly supported by an abundance of evidence. (I didn’t have great basketball skills, but I could jump and defend pretty well in my teen years.) “No way,” my friend said. “Cheap seats,” I replied. And so we’ve gone and forth at it for years. It’s always a thrill to have a connection to sporting greatness, if only in the approximate sense of earning a participation trophy.

More likely than not, Keldon Johnson’s buddies and basketball rivals around the area will get the chance someday to relive their own memories.

» I could get to age 101 and never tire of watching the finish to Saturday night’s Virginia-Purdue game, especially the last-second shot in regulation play to send the game into overtime. Kihei Clark, the Cavs’ diminutive point guard, chased down a tip across halfcourt on a missed foul shot, whipped a long pass to 6-9 teammate Mamadi Diakite, who made a perfect floating jumper as time expired to tie up the game and force OT. Diakite looked like he might faint on-court after saving the Cavs’ season. For a description of the sequence, let’s turn to Rodger Sherman, writing for The Ringer:

Your average buzzer-beater is one guy making an amazing shot. This play has about four perfect plays:

• Ty Jerome pops the free throw off the front of the rim. Jerome says he was trying to hit the shot, but I have chosen not to believe him. Virginia should have been trying to miss this shot down two points with under six seconds remaining, and the type of miss he got was perfect, popping right off the front of the rim and floating a few feet in front of the rim, over the heads of the rebounders closest to the basket.

• Diakite taps the ball downcourt—and while he was just wildly whacking at the ball, he taps it the perfect amount. Any closer and it runs the risk of being snagged by a Purdue player; any farther and there’s no way the Cavaliers can execute the play in time.

• Kihei Clark grabs the ball, looks up, and almost instantly recognizes Diakite is open. All he has to do is sling a one-handed pass 40 feet with enough speed to give Diakite enough time to get the shot off. Clark’s pass might actually be more impressive than the shot.

• BUT THEN THERE’S THE SHOT. Diakite catches the ball with under a second left, and then sets and releases in that one second. And swishes it.

The miss: perfect. The tap: perfect. The pass: PERFECT. And the shot, well, it was good too.

» Speaking of perfect, how about that Carsen Edwards kid? Purdue’s star player put on a show for the ages, draining three pointers from everywhere on the court en route to scoring 42 points against Virginia’s stout defense. One three-pointer, I kid you not, came with Edwards cranking a jumper from the mid-court logo. It was a Seth Curry-worthy display of bombing accuracy. (Edwards broke Curry’s NCAA scoring record for the first four rounds of the tournament, established back in 2008 when Curry played for Davidson.) The Virginia-Purdue game was an amazing, incredible display of basketball. I hope everyone got to see it.

After prevailing in one of the most exciting contests in NCAA tournament history, Virginia moves on to the Final Four … and sportswriters, per usual, are complaining that any game featuring the Cavaliers is destined to become a grinding, ungainly bore. Huh? Writing in Slate, Nick Greene considers the prospect of a national championship matchup between Virginia and Texas Tech, which would bring together two of the best defenses in the land. (It could happen, as Virginia and Texas Tech are seeded in opposing brackets.) “A game between Virginia and Texas Tech would be like a rock fight with boulders,” writes Greene. “Sure, there’d be a winner, but do you really want to watch five dudes spend 40 minutes methodically constructing a pulley system to move the stones into place?”

After the excitement of the Virginia-Purdue game, not to mention Texas Tech’s epic run through the tournament, this passage raises a perennial question: Do sportswriters actually watch the games they write about?

» The other massively enjoyable part of college basketball tournament weekend? DUKE LOST. Boo-yah!

Yes, I’m a Duke hater — nothing against an undeniably great school, it’s just that Coach K drives me nuts. There was also a time when I didn’t much like Dean Smith, UNC’s legendary coach, until it gradually dawned on me that Coach Smith was a genuinely great man, on and off the court, and I should let go of my loathing for his signature innovation, the Four Corners offense. Mike Krzyzewski, on the other hand, will always rub me the wrong way with his big-brain whininess and grating success (to be fair). So it was with some glee that I read another piece this week on The Ringer (terrific website, by the way) on Krzyzewski’s recent run of NCAA tournament flops: “Duke’s Greatest Recruiting Class Is Coach K’s Ultimate Failure.”

The story in short: Duke compiles the best talent in the land year after year, but Krzyzewski hasn’t figured how to mold a collection of one-and-done wonders into a coherent unit after ditching concepts of long-term team building and player talent development. The piece, by Jonathan Tjarks, makes a convincing argument on how Coach K has paid a high price for his recruiting success, which partly is a function of his personal fame and reputation. And frankly, who in this Age of the Obnoxious One Percent can’t get behind that idea?

Zion Williamson, Duke’s star freshman, is plainly an awesome player, a basketball unicorn. Duke’s other freshman stars? Yet to be determined. Their status won’t be settled this year, nor at the college level, in all likelihood.

» My pick in the Final Four to win it all? I’m rooting for Virginia, obviously, but I fear Texas Tech. Bring on the rock fight!





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