Saturday, March 29, 2008

From Kansas City Star

Kansas will have to deal with Stephen Curry to get to Final Four
By: Joe Posnanski

DETROIT - Nobody wanted him. That’s the amazing part. Stephen Curry, the new face of college basketball, the Babyfaced Larry Bird, could not find a big-time school that would take him just two years ago. Even Virginia Tech, where his father Dell was a basketball-scoring machine and his mother Sonya played volleyball, would only take him as a walk-on.

Stuff like this always boggles the mind. How can people who study the games — build their whole lives around these games — miss this kind of genius? How could every team in major-league baseball pass on Albert Pujols 12 times in the draft, and then 18 months later he’s one of the greatest rookies in baseball history? How could every single NFL team look at Tony Romo and determine he was not even worth drafting?

No answer will do. Sometimes, apparently, we just miss what’s right in front of our eyes. College basketball teams did not just miss a good player with Stephen Curry. They missed a prodigy. They missed the most exciting college basketball player in years. They missed one guy good enough to carry a team, a real life Jimmy Chitwood in Hoosiers.

See, it wasn’t just that Stephen Curry played another ridiculous game Friday night — though he did, 33 points, four assists, four steals. It wasn’t just that he drove Davidson to another stunning tournament upset, this time a 73-56 destruction of third-seeded Wisconsin.

On Sunday afternoon he’ll try to repeat the feat against No. 1-seeded Kansas in the Midwest Regional final.

The Wildcats have now beaten the West Coast Conference champ, the Big East champ and the Big Ten champ in succession. Curry scored 103 points in those three games.

No, it was something more. Take one play in the second half. Curry had already broken Wisconsin’s spirit. The Badgers all year had been known for their piercing defense, their ability to frustrate opponents, their almost mystical ability to get opponents to miss “open shots.” The reason was simple: Those shots were not really really open. They were usually a couple of feet too far from the basket. They were usually shot by the wrong guy. They were usually shot out of rhythm. That was Wisconsin basketball.

And so, Badgers coach Bo Ryan came up with simplest plan — he had his best defender, Michael Flowers, hound Curry for 40 minutes. That’s just what Flowers did. Everywhere Curry went, Flowers was in his shirt. Every time Davidson tried to set a pick against Flowers, he fought through and got back in Curry’s face. It was impressive to watch, at least for a while. If Curry had been a normal player, it would have frustrated him to no end.

But this is the point: Curry is not a normal guy. Maybe he learned something from watching his father score more than 12,000 points in the NBA. Maybe he developed a certain determination because so many scouts and college coaches could not see just what made him special. Curry grew up in Charlotte, N.C., the heart of basketball country. He loved ACC basketball. He ended up at a small, private liberal-arts college just north of his city, a school for future politicians and authors.

Whatever the reason, Curry’s face never showed any frustration. He would work and work for a shot; if he got a small opening he would shoot. If not, he would keep Flowers away from the other four so that Davidson’s offense could run smoothly.

“I try not to force anything,” he said. “It’s hard for a defense to sustain themselves for a whole 40 minutes. Eventually you’ll find yourself open.”

At halftime, the score was tied. Curry appeared to be shut down, but he wasn’t at all. He had 11 points, a couple of assists, a couple of steals. And he knew something — it was Wisconsin that was about to get frustrated. It has happened the whole tournament. Gonzaga had led Davidson at halftime; Curry had scored 30 second-half points to lead the comeback. Georgetown had Davidson down 17 at one point; Curry scored 25 points in the second half to lead the comeback.

Wisconsin scrambled and fought and cut the margin to three points. Curry made a ridiculous three-point jumper — if the defender is even 6 inches away, he cannot get his hands up in time to block Curry’s shot. The ball swished, giving Davidson a six-point lead.

And then he made the play.

Davidson’s Jason Richards stripped the ball away from Wisconsin’s Joe Krabbenhoft. And now there was a mad scramble — Davidson players were running down the court, and Wisconsin players were searching for Stephen Curry. He was standing in the corner, by himself. Richards — who leads the nation in assists, in large part because he knows how to find Curry — found Curry. He threw a bullet pass.

Curry caught it and was about to shoot his lightning quick shot. Nobody was around him. He could have gotten it off. He was looking at the basket. And then, instead of shooting the ball, he just stopped. He stood there for one beat, two beats, as if he was waiting for something.

He was waiting for something. On the third beat, Krabbenhoft — one of the best defensive players in the country — came running like a mad man, and he jumped, and he flew right by. Curry waited for him to go by, as if he were the wrong bus. Curry then calmly shot his beautiful jump shot, swished the three-pointer, gave Davidson a nine-point lead.

The game would never get any closer.

It was genius, that’s all. There’s no way to know how he saw Krabbenhoft coming, or how he could know that Krabbenhoft would just rush by like the wind. But he did. Later in the game, he hit a reverse layup that got NBA superstar LeBron James to jump to his feet. Later in the game, he had done so much that even a few heartbroken Wisconsin fans stood and applauded. How could they not?

And all the while, no doubt, there were coaches staring at their television Friday night and muttering, “How did I miss that?” There’s just no answer for that.

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