Heartbreak for Two Icons; Disappointment for Those Who Leave Too Soon

Congrats to South Carolina’s women’s team, but for me the most compelling story from this year’s March Madness was the heartbreak suffered in the semi-finals by the two winningest coaches in the history of college basketball.


Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski—known as Coach K for obvious reasons—had announced his retirement before the season and hoped to walk off into the sunset with another championship trophy.


But his favored Blue Devils lost to arch rival North Carolina, 81-77, in the first-ever Final Four meeting between these iconic programs. The game was an instant classic, featuring 19 lead changes, a multitude of great plays, and the kind of gripping drama and tension that remind us why we love sports so much.


So Coach K goes out as one of the great names in the history of the game, with 1,202 wins, 13 Final Fours and five national championships.


On the women's side, his counterpart, Tara VanDerveer, she of 1,157 wins, 15 Final fours and three national championships, suffered the same fate in the semi-final against Connecticut.


"We needed Stanford to miss shots they normally make," said UConn coach Geno Auriemma.


And Auriemma got his wish.


The team that had shot 45% from the field, 35% from three-point range and 69% from the foul line en route to 24 straight wins shot only 35% from the field, 17% from three (4 of 21) and 62% from the line in a 63-58 loss.


Part of it was a UConn defense that took away Stanford's back door plays and forced ill-advised threes when the play clock was ticking down, but the Cardinal players missed a ton of shots they normally hit. Lexie Hull, who's been brilliant, got bopped in the nose in the opening minutes, was bleeding throughout the game and had to wear a piece of gauze in her nose. She seemed out of sorts and made only two of 12.


For Hull, and her Stanford teammates, finishing on a down note was a shame after such a magical season. But in the highly competitive world of women's basketball, a national championship one year and a Final Four appearance the next is quite an achievement.

Coach K left with this perspective: “I’ve been blessed to be in the arena. And when you’re in the arena, you’re either going to come out feeling great or you’re going to feel agony, but you always will feel great about being in the arena. And I’m sure that that’s the thing when I’ll look back that I’ll miss. I won’t be in the arena anymore.”


VanDerveer will still be in the arena next year. And with two of the top 15 players in the country returning—first team All-American Haley Jones and third-team All-American Cameron Brink—she could come out feeling great.


Tonight’s Championship: Let’s hope North Carolina has one more great game in the tank. After a slow start to their initial season under coach Hubert Davis, the Tar Heels have hit their stride at just the right time, upsetting Baylor, UCLA and Duke en route to the NCAA title game.


Next up: a Kansas team coached by the man who should’ve been fired a long time ago, Bill Self. A guy who the FBI caught on tape making deals with Adidas to pay recruits to come to Kansas. Yet after almost three years, the NCAA has levied no penalties and his school hasn’t shown him the door.


Disgraceful.


Done Too Soon: In women’s basketball, VanDerveer and other top coaches have benefitted from the fact that players aren’t eligible to play in the WNBA until they reach 22 years of age. This makes the dreaded “one and done” or even “two and through” impossible.


Not so with the men.


Back in the good ol' days, when Stanford men's basketball was competitive, players stuck around for three or four years. Head coach Mike Montgomery recruited good prospects, developed them, and built winning programs that made the NCAA Tournament 10 straight years and, in a couple of memorable seasons, reached the Final Four in 1998 and the Elite Eight in 2001.


Great players like Todd Lichti, Brevin Knight, the Lopez twins, Adam Keefe and Casey Jacobsen all stayed at least three years.


Montgomery's successors, Trent Johnson and Johnny Dawkins, while not quite as successful, had good runs in the NCAA and managed to keep their players on the Farm.


Now, under coach Jerod Haase, the program is in a steep decline. Stanford has been unable to make the NCAA field for six straight years and Haase's most highly-touted recruits grab a cup of coffee and leave for the NBA after one or two unsuccessful seasons.


Sadly, the players aren't ready for professional basketball, the Stanford program suffers and everyone loses.


Consider the career paths of KZ Okpaka, Tyrell Terry and Ziaire Williams. Okpala left Stanford after his sophomore season, was taken early in the second round by Phoenix in 2019, was then traded to Miami, and then to Oklahoma City, which released him last month. In three NBA seasons, he has seen action in only 63 games and averaged 2.8 points per game.


Terry left after his freshman year and was the first pick of the second round by Dallas in 2020. He spent most of his rookie season in the G League, playing in only 11 NBA games and was dealt to Memphis. This year, he's played in exactly two games and logged a total of three minutes.


Williams was considered a lottery pick when he came to Stanford in 2021, but he seemed to regress. For most of the season, Williams didn't start on a team that failed to make the NCAA tournament. Yet he decided to turn pro and was drafted No. 10 by New Orleans, which traded him to Memphis. Williams is having an up and down year with the Grizzlies and is currently averaging 7.6 points per game.


I bring all this up because the latest top recruit in Haase's stable, freshman Harrison Ingram, announced a few days ago that he is opting for the NBA draft. Ingram averaged 10.5 points and 6.7 rebounds per game this season, but shot only 38% from the floor.


Every one of the players mentioned—Okpala, Terry, Williams and Ingram—would have benefitted from another year at Stanford. Another year to mature as players, both physically and mentally. Another year to learn from their mistakes, eliminate silly fouls and turnovers, and develop more court awareness. Another year to work on their shot. Another year to get bigger, stronger and readier for the NBA.


Instead, they all left too soon.

Perhaps they were frustrated playing on under-achieving teams at Stanford and felt that another year in Palo Alto wouldn't help them improve. More likely, some agent convinced them that big money awaited and they shouldn’t risk an injury playing another year of college ball.


Contrast their experience with that of Dwight Powell, who stuck around Stanford all four years, was named the Pac-12's most improved player after his junior season and made the All-Conference team as a senior. Powell was drafted in the second round of the 2014 draft, and is in his ninth season in the NBA, starting at center for the Dallas Mavericks.


Sometimes, patience is a virtue.


And sometimes, taking the quick money and jumping to the NBA before you're ready jeopardizes both your ability to become the player you might've been and the money you would’ve made down the line.


Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//gacavalli49@gmail.com