It was a drab Thursday and Friday at the ACC tournament, but the drama of the weekend atoned in a big way. First, you had Carolina riding a wave of favorable calls to a close win over NC State, then a brutal FSU win against a game but under-talented Duke team, and finally the explosive championship, with the Noles holding off Carolina (sans John Henson) for a three-point win. The weekend games were good enough to make this the best Power 6 conference tournament of 2012.
But what stuck out to me, more than the results and more than the close finishes, was the excellent pressure play of three players — Austin Rivers, Kendall Marshall, and Michael Snaer.
I thought so. First, let me say that I was unfortunately sitting on the side opposite the team benches, so for these I have to stand on the shoulders of media giants. The first comes via Twitter, from Jim Young of ACCSports.com, during Duke-FSU. Jamie Luckie was the ref, and FSU wanted a goaltending call.
FSU bench: That was goaltending!
Luckie: Not even close.
FSU bench: How do you know?
Luckie: Because I'm very, very good.
The next one is a bit more harsh, and it came from Adam Smith (again, via Twitter) during UNC-NC State, with referee Brian Dorsey presiding. When Marshall made his final basket, State coach Mark Gottfried wanted a charge.
Gottfried: That was a charge!
Dorsey: Shut your fucking ass up!
Apparently, Gottfried didn't even react, just turned and started yelling at a different referee. Afterward, when someone asked him about the second-half officiating, he said, "I can't comment, because I'll get fined." Richard Howell, the NC State player who was at the center of a few of the questionable calls and had to be restrained by teammates at the end of the game, had tears in his eyes after the game and begged off all interviews.
One More Thing That Might Amuse You
In the press conference after Duke lost to Florida State, Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski was very gracious and calm about the whole thing until one particular question. "Coach," a reporter behind me asked, "can you break down tomorrow's championship game?"
Immediately, you could hear the air go out of the room. Knowing everybody would be turning to look in my direction in approximately one second, I ducked out of the way so nobody would mistake me for the man about to be embarrassed.
"Are you kidding?" Coach K said. "That's a bad question."
"I thought it was a fine question," the reporter mumbled, but the microphone had been taken away and his face was red.
"I don't mean to insult you," Krzyzewski said, when he'd cooled down. "But that's not a good question. I couldn't care less about tomorrow right now."
Kendall, Austin, Michael
Here's a strange thing. These three guys have been incredibly clutch all season, and continued that trend in the ACC tournament. But they're also the most interesting players to speak with after the game. What's the deal there? Is there some kind of correlation between having an intriguing personality and carrying yourself well under pressure? I won't speculate; it's there for your consideration.
Let's start with Rivers, because I know what everyone's thinking — his on-court demeanor doesn't necessarily suggest a cool dude. In fact, it might suggest just the opposite. As weird as it sounds, Rivers was easily the most expansive, smart, and interesting guy I interviewed all weekend. I was a bit stunned by the whole thing, so I checked with some media guys who had been around him a bit more during the season (and weren't Duke homers), and they confirmed the feeling.
What's unique about Rivers among athletes is that he'll actually hold a conversation with you. For the most part, even the bright players tend to keep things simple, answer questions, and get on with it, while the worst of the bunch speak in PR sound bites. But it's so rare to see a college player actually respond to the question and bring it to the next level, to hold court for minutes at a time without interruption as he philosophizes about himself, his team, and the game. If you'll indulge me for a second, check out this excerpt from Rivers's postgame interview after the FSU loss, when he made several big shots before missing a desperation 3 against Snaer. I spoke with him one-on-one, after the rest of the media left, and I asked him if he could identify something in Snaer, who has hit huge shots all season, that makes him so strong under pressure.
"He's a fearless guy," Rivers said. "Snaer's just not scared to take shots. Whether you're very skilled or not, when you're not scared to take a shot, when you're confident, you'll be fine. And I think the biggest thing with Snaer is that he accepts failure. That's how I am. You've got to be able to accept that if you miss a shot, so be it. If you don't make a play you were supposed to make, move on. And I think he's willing to do that, and that's why me and him hit shots like that. You shoot shots. It's basketball. He's a competitor, he's fearless, and he shoots his shots and makes them."
Fair enough. But it got really good when I asked him what the secret is to not being scared.
"To realize that there's always — that if you're out there and you're healthy and playing basketball, there's always tomorrow, man," he said. "That's how I look at it. I always think, before I get in a position like that, I always think: Alright, this is basketball, this is a game I've played my whole life, this is a shot I've made my whole life, and I'm going to make it. And if I don't, I'll make it next time. It's that simple. People aren't going to blame you. And if they do, so be it, they're not in your position. So you just got to be confident, and be willing to accept that your shot might not make it. If you do that a lot of times, you will make it if you're not scared to fail. It'll make you feel more confident. I think that's what people have to do in those situations.
"That's just something you learn from experience and being in those situations. I made a lot of those shots before and I missed a lot of those shots before. And I got that quote from Jordan, being able to accept failure to succeed, and it's a true statement, man, you have to be in those situations a lot to be able to understand."
And this dude is 19. If every athlete had Rivers's perspective (and sense of humor: He talked at length about the ESPN game update app on his phone, and even hummed the SportsCenter jingle at one point), no game story would ever be boring. The rest of his locker room interviews were fascinating too, and I wish I could run a whole post with Rivers quotes, because it's startling how conversational and bright he is. But that would probably be pretty annoying for everyone else.
And he's not the only one. There was also Marshall, the prodigious passer who has emerged as North Carolina's no. 1 option in the clutch. That player used to be Harrison Barnes, but his lackadaisical style (Sunday's fast start was one of the few strong first halves he's had all season) and his struggles to make shots late in the game (a stark contrast to last season, when he had a string of regular season game-winners) have put Marshall on the spot. He hit the game-winner against State, on a drive that had Wolfpack fans and Gottfried demanding a charge, buried a big 3 to pull UNC within one against Florida State in the final minute, and then missed a 3 that would have put the Heels ahead.
Marshall is far from the most athletic player on his team, and he's often less physically gifted than the opposing point guard. But his on-court intelligence and vision give him an edge over almost everyone, and he came a vote shy of making First Team All-ACC this year. After the NC State win, I asked him about the bond between himself and the fans, and whether he thought it had to do with his gifts beyond athleticism.
"A little bit, but at the same, it's my teammates," he said, which sounded like the beginning of a very boring quote. But true to Marshall's style, it got good. "They're starting to think like me, and when you see that, they know what passes I want to make, and they're getting out and running, so it makes my job a lot easier. So when you get a team that's all thinking on a high level, we're going to be tough to beat."
In a heartbeat, Marshall went from banal praise of his teammates to a complex idea about everyone gathering on the same wavelength, with him as the ringleader. I asked if he exerted some kind of subconscious influence on them, to choreograph them, for lack of a better term, into a dance of his design.
"You could say that," he said, "but again, it's the experience of playing together. I start to learn my teammates' tendencies, where they want to drive, where they want to shoot, and they learn my tendencies, where I want to pass."
Last, I asked if his risk-taking tendencies, which drive North Carolina coach Roy Williams crazy, are part of his personality, and whether they might take away from his game if he were to change. "Without a doubt," he said. "Six turnovers is horrendous, but at the same time, some of those passes I probably don't make, you know the pass to Reggie going long, I maybe don't make that pass. But when I do, it pays off for us. And if we're making 12 shots [with more turnovers] as opposed to five, we're at a greater advantage."
Snaer, the Seminole guard who never plays a close game without making at least one huge shot, might be the most fascinating of all. Coach K praised him as the most competitive guy in the league, and in the postgame press conference after the Duke win, FSU coach Leonard Hamilton told stories about his work ethic. According to Hamilton, Snaer is the only guy he knows who swears at himself while taking foul shots, and who, if he makes 19 of 20, will kick the ball to the other side of the floor on his one miss. "And then he'll get it himself," Hamilton said.
At the same presser, Snaer admitted that his emotions get the better of him at times, and tried to downplay his competitiveness, giving credit to his teammates. FSU guard Luke Loucks interrupted him. "He's the most competitive person I've ever met in my life," Loucks said. "He hates to lose more than he likes to win."
Loucks went on with his praise for another minute, and when he finished, Snaer was smiling. "Aw, shucks, Luke," he said.
Snaer is the only one of the trio who can call himself a tournament champion, but with three players as compelling as he, Marshall, and Rivers, this year's ACC is an embarrassment of riches.