HANSEN

Greg Hansen: Crimson coach Amaker understands underdogs

2013-03-23T00:00:00Z Greg Hansen: Crimson coach Amaker understands underdogsGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 23, 2013 12:00 am  • 

SALT LAKE CITY

Everybody in college basketball knew Tommy Amaker in 1986, even Arizona assistant coach Book Richardson, then a 14-year-old wannabe point guard in Queens, N.Y.

"He was one of those guys down at Duke, slapping the floor, wearing those little shorts," Richardson was saying Friday, smiling at the memory.

Amaker was a point guard among point guards in the '80s, leading Duke to the '86 Final Four and two months later becoming the starting point guard for Lute Olson on Team USA, a mighty underdog that would be matched against the pros from Russia, Yugoslavia and Spain in the World Championships.

Over his Hall of Fame career, Olson wouldn't go anywhere without a capable point guard, and in '86, given a month to assemble an amateur team to battle the European pros, Olson chose to fly to Spain with Amaker as the starter and then-unknown Steve Kerr as his backup.

One day in Malaga, Spain, a rare day off during a three-week odyssey, Olson arranged for a tour to the Rock of Gibraltar, 90 minutes south on Costa del Sol. The players hoped to spend the day on the beach - their hotel was 100 yards from the Mediterranean Sea - but Olson insisted on mixing culture with basketball.

When the bus arrived in Gibraltar, eight of the 12-man squad chose to remain on the bus and nap. Four players got off for a two-hour tour: Amaker, Kerr, Navy's David Robinson and Arizona sophomore Sean Elliott.

I clearly remember Olson's reaction to the choices of his players.

"Those four kids who got off the bus are the kind of kids you'll never have to worry about," he told me. "You check back later in their lives, and I'll bet all of them have successful careers."

Amaker chuckled Friday when asked about that '86 team, the little-team-that-could, a group of college kids that shocked the basketball world, whipping the Russians in the World Championship game.

But Amaker wouldn't bite; he wouldn't compare his World Championship club and its underdog role to that of his 14th-seeded Harvard team today against Arizona.

"I don't know how much we look at (today's game) as imposing," he said. "You don't get to this point if you aren't pretty good. This tournament can be magical because it's a one-shot deal, a one-day situation, and all you have to do is play better that day."

If you play and coach college basketball long enough, you've been one-and-stunned.

As Amaker left Duke, Arizona coach Sean Miller became a freshman point guard at Pitt, 1988. The No. 2 seed Panthers blew past Eastern Michigan in the NCAA tournament opener 108-90 and had plans to beat up on seventh-seeded Vanderbilt two days later.

Big favorite. The same way Arizona is a big favorite today over Harvard.

"I can remember it like it was two weeks ago," Miller said Friday. "We were in Lincoln, Neb., and we never envisioned leaving that tournament until the end."

Thanks to the technological magic of YouTube, you can still watch Vanderbilt's Barry Goheen introduce Miller to the heartbreak of this basketball madness.

With 12 seconds remaining, Goheen drilled a 24-footer from the corner. Pitt 67, Vandy 66. After two Pitt free throws, Vandy got the ball with four seconds remaining, no timeouts.

Miller was standing in the middle of the foul line when Goheen's 25-footer swished as the buzzer sounded. Pitt lost in overtime. Miller was crushed. Who wouldn't be?

"All of the sudden, it was almost like you couldn't believe you were gone," Miller said Friday. "It was over with. I will never forget it because it's such a fragile state to be in this tournament. "

Fragile it was and fragile it remains today.

On paper, you'd pick Arizona over Harvard every time, or maybe nine out of 10. But when you break it down and study it on video, the odds shrink. Harvard won at Cal three months ago 67-62.

The Crimson shot a mere .367 afield that night in Berkeley, but it won because it is resourceful and, among other positive variables, has a three-point shooter like few others in college basketball. Laurent Rivard is a French-speaking native of Quebec who swished five three-pointers to help beat Cal.

Cal could not guard Mr. Rivard. The Bears probably didn't know what hit them.

"He's like a double-barrel shotgun standing there in the corner," said the UA's Richardson. "If you let him get the ball above his shoulders, you can point up to the scoreboard and watch them put a three up there."

An opponent like Rivard and the Crimson keeps Arizona in a fragile state of mind.

Harvard doesn't have a lot of basketball amenities that Arizona has. It plays in an old gym and doesn't have a practice court. It doesn't have its own strength and conditioning center. It doesn't fly via charter to road games.

But today in the NCAA Round of 32, branding and budgets won't count. Nobody knows that more than Tommy Amaker and Sean Miller.

"Most teams are probably thinking, 'Oh, it's Harvard, we can get this team,'" said UA senior Solomon Hill. Wasn't that what New Mexico was thinking on Thursday?

Now the unhappy Lobos would say "Oh, no, it's Harvard."

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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