Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Renaldo Balkman Is Not Rolando Blackman (Ode To Ray Meyer)

The world said goodbye to Ray Meyer on Tuesday – and while I was unable to attend his memorial in the Midwest, I held my own special sacred secret ceremony in the place in my heart where Ray Meyer will live forever.
Smitty sez that Ray Meyer will live on in his memory as someone who exited the Big Dance in the first round.
“You take that back, you bastard!”

Anyway, ever since they told me that Ray Meyer passed away last Friday at the age of 92, I can’t get the 1981 tournament out of my mind. Truth is, the ’81 tourney always springs to my mind any time we see a Big Dance wherein the opening weekend features a No. 3 or No. 4 seed getting knocked off or the requisite No. 12-over-No. 5 upset.
Actually, you could have all No. 4’s losing to No. 13’s and I still wouldn’t rank it ahead of ’81, the greatest (in terms of wacky and zany) opening weekend in NCAA tournament history.
And Ray Meyer was in the thick of it.

Hard to imagine that Ray Meyer’s passing occurred almost exactly 25 years to the day that his No. 1-ranked DePaul Blue Demons were knocked off, 49-48, by St. Joe’s on that wild first weekend.
(Sidebar: It’s interesting to note that the 48-team tourney in ’81 was the last one which was played before CBS declared TV b-ball domination, not to mention the last season played WITHOUT the posession arrow).

For a coach whose career spanned the seasons of 1942-43 thru 1983-84, it’s difficult to gauge the impact that the three-year stretch of first-round tournament collapses in ’80, ’81 and ’82 had on the question of whether Ray Meyer was a great coach or merely a great recruiter.
That ’81 defeat to St. Joe’s – every one of us remembers that photo inside S.I. wherein Mark Aguirre was cradling the basketball as his face was melting with total despair and anguish.
A team which entered the tourney with a 27-1 record had just authored one of the most important chapters of “One And Done.”

Of course, on the cover of that aformentioned S.I. (I probably have it in a box in the basement) was the photo of K-State’s Rolando Blackman shooting that pull-up, baseline 15-footer which sank No. 2-ranked Oregon State, 50-48.
Only moments earlier (or maybe it was slightly later) on that Saturday, many of us looked on in utter disbelief during the final moments of the Louisville-Arkansas game – a game which seemed to be clinched for the Cardinals when Derek Smith hit that off-balance, 10-footer in traffic in the paint with something like three seconds to play, giving the defending national champions a 73-72 lead that all but locked up a berth in the Midwest semis against top-seeded LSU.
That is, until the ball was inbounded to U.S. Reed and he took those two or three dribbles and let fly with that prayer which he launched 10 feet beyond the midcourt stripe.
When that 50-plus-foot prayer found its mark and went in the basket at the buzzer, well … nobody – not the butcher, not the baker, not the candelstick maker – could believe what they’d just seen.
While it was only two years before N.C. State’s Lorenzo Charles scored on his historic putback of an airball and more than 10 years before Christian Laettner sank his near-miracle, 20-foot turnaround at the buzzer, nohhhh-buddddee has banged home a 50-footer at the buzzer.

Sad to say, a reminder of U.S. Reed’s shot came almost 10 years ago when Derek Smith (then a Washington Bullets assistant coach) died of a heart attack in Aug. 96 (doctors later diagnosed that he’d had an enlarged heart).
Derek Smith’s basket should’ve been the one which was the game-winner, alas … ’81 didn’t stick to any script.

I mean, I went into that ’81 tourney believing that the No. 2-ranked Beavers of Oregon State were going to make a statement in the Big Dance, given that center Steve Johnson was a 74-percent shooter (74 percent!) and the supporting cast was formidable (a solid backcourt of Mark Radford and Ray Blume to complement the forward play of swingman Lester Conner and the homely-lookin’ scrapper named Charlie Sitton).
Those Beavers were 26-0 until losing their regular-season finale to No. 3-ranked Arizona State – the other team that I figured would bring home the title if Oregon State didn’t.
With Alton Lister in the low post and a dandy backcourt of Lafayette Lever and Byron Scott, the Sun Devils were going to do some damage, no question.
Oh, there was some damage done, all right.

As Kansas State was ending Oregon State’s dreams of a title, someone named Tony Guy of Kansas was pumping in 36 points in leading Kansas to the 88-71 rout of ASU (which got 32 not-enough points from Scott).
By the way, it was the second round in ’81 when BYU All-American Danny Ainge raced baseline to baseline in the final seconds and put in the layup at the buzzer to knock off Digger and N.D., 51-50 (suck on that, Orlando Woolridge and Kelly Tripucka!).

Our lives have changed a lot in 25 years, except that Digger picks games about as well as he coached 'em ... and the coach who won it all in ’81 just completed his 40th season as a college coach (his fifth as head coach of the O’Reilly Auto Parts team in Lubbock, Tex.).
That coach (who hosts ESPN’s “Knight School”) opened my eyes a lot in ’81, mainly because when I looked at a bracket which featured LSU and Indiana, I envisioned the Tigers trouncing the Hoosiers by 20, no doubt about it.
Maybe by 25 or 30.

IU had beaten Maryland by 35, UAB by 15 and had ended St. Joe’s Cinderella run by clubbing the Hawks by 32. This, though, was LSU … a team with Durand Macklin and a backcourt of Ethan Martin and Howard “Hi C” Carter which had scored 100 points against Lamar and 96 against Wichita State.
The Tigers were going to do some damage.

There was damage, all right. Although LSU led, 30-27, at the half, IU suffocated LSU in the second half – and, after that 67-49 outcome which was LSU’s lowest point total since 1964, I began to realize that there was a lot more to the loudmouth with the plaid sport coat than merely the loud mouth itself and the sport coat with the plaid print.

It was ’81 when I learned that a team can win with a certain “style,” as opposed to five great athletes on the court, which, I suspect, is how Ray Meyer ran the show.
In that loss to St. Joe’s, DePaul did not attempt a shot in the final 6:30 (St. Joe’s was playing stall-ball in the absence of a shot clock) – and the only reason that it came down to an unknown named John Smith at the end was because Skip Dillard missed the front end of a one-and-one with 12 seconds to play.
It was a little later in the ‘80s when we came to learn of Dillard getting’ some prison time for his role in a series of gas-station robberies in which he used a sharpened screwdriver as a weapon.
That won’t convince anyone to put ya on the all-tourney team, Money.

Recently, I blogged about how when DePaul lost to Indiana State in the ’79 Final Four, Ray Meyer did not substitute once.
Not once.
His five starters played the entire game in the 76-74 loss.
The thing is, DePaul teams always seemed to play under some sort of black cloud – so it was not exactly unexpected that when Ray Meyer’s team was ranked No. 2 in the nation going into the ’82 tourney that he would lose, 82-75, to Boston College and see FIVE of his players foul out.

Whether he was losing in the NIT finals in ’83 to Fresno State or bowing to Wake Forest in the SECOND round of the ’84 NCAAs (in his final game), Ray Meyer was – as Mike Krzyzewski said in the AP story from the other day – “a coach’s coach and a man’s man.”
That was Coach K’s way of saying something without saying anything (like he often does) … y’know, adding an empty dignity to an empty existence.
It’s like watching Ray Meyer’s final team at DePaul and remarking that “Dallas Comegys is a Dallas Comegys lover’s Dallas Comegys.”
(Personally, I like any time that I can type “Dallas Comegys” that many times in one sentence)

If nothing else, any thought I have of Ray Meyer has always made me re-connect with 1981. Although he went 79-3 during the regular seasons of ’80 thru ’82, that 0-3 tournament record was real groundbreaking stuff.

Obsessing again with '81, I was taken back there again as I watched the final five minutes of Tuesday’s NIT contest between South Carolina and Florida State. When I saw USC’s Reynaldo Balkman doin’ what he does as ESPN color commentator Tim McCormick performed his color commentatin’, I was flashin' back to the final years of Ray Meyer's career.
First of all, Renaldo Balkman is NOT to be confused with Rolando Blackman, difficult though it may be.

And, as long as we're combining "South Carolina" and "1981," it might be of interest to note that, in '81, the nation's leading scorer (28.9 ppg) was USC's Zam Fredrick, who entered his senior season averaging 8.1 ppg (and who averaged 36 ppg in his final 13 games in '81).
Zam Fredrick is the dad of current Georgia Tech guard, Zambolist "Buck" Fredrick.

Tim McCormick? No doubt he laments that eBay was invented too late, considering that his MVP trophy as MVP of the '84 NIT is probably stashed away in a box somewhere and can no longer fetch top dollar in an on-line auction.

Ray Meyer, though … you’ll always be my NCAA tourney also-ran.
Right there alongside Digger (who helped Tim McCormick win that NIT MVP) …

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