Mike Pesca is a reporter who has covered economics, politics and the arts during his tenure at National Public Radio. He is currently NPR's Sports Correspondent.
The national championship game in men's college basketball is set. The Jayhawks beat Ohio State in a close one and Kentucky got past Louisville.
At the nine-minutes-to-go mark in games one through four of Kentucky's romp through the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats have had leads of 13, 11, 18 and 30 points. So it was significant that the Louisville Cardinals actually found themselves tied with Kentucky at that nine-minute juncture.
But John Calipari's Wildcats once more pulled ahead, and this time the Cardinal's desperate press was shredded by the Cats. Kentucky's last three field goal were dunks, each more emphatic than the last. After the game, Louisville coach Rick Pitino was gracious.
"To tell you the truth, I haven't always liked some of the Kentucky teams. I'm not going to lie to you ... but I really like this team a lot because of their attitude and the way they play," he said. "Louisville will be rooting for Kentucky, which doesn't happen very often, to bring home that trophy to the state."
In the second game of the double header, the Ohio State Buckeyes took a 9-point lead into halftime, but Kansas adopted a different attitude upon exiting their locker room, as summarized by their coach Bill Self.
"The second half, it seemed like to me that, OK guys, enough of the nonsense. Let's go play and at least give ourselves a chance," he said. "And, God, we played good the second half."
A 13-to-4 run in the first six minutes tied the score. But Ohio State raged back and retook the lead. Kansas made a layup and all four of its free throws down the stretch, and then with 4 seconds left, Self decided to foul Ohio State's Aaron Craft with the Jayhawks up three. This meant that craft would have to make a foul shot, then miss intentionally and grab the rebound, which he could not do.
The game was over. That coaching move — to foul rather than allow a tying three pointer — is not Self's usual style.
"Well, you know, we don't ever do that. ... We never do that, but I told our guys foul him," he said.
That decision reveals a lot about Self. First of all, fouling in that situation usually is the right move — the best study on the subject was co-authored by a former coach and a math professor at DePauw University. Coaches often defend their decision not to foul by saying, "I don't believe in that" or "we never foul," as if consistency equals the optimal play. It does not.
So Self showed flexibility. And, of course, the Jayhawks famously won a championship after a rival coach's decision not to foul up three late. The opposing coach was Calipari, who took note.
Monday night he gets his chance to show what lessons he's learned.