The fourth segment of our conversation with Josh Bartelstein focuses on the Final Four in Atlanta, Georgia.
It felt like you guys took the momentum from that win against Kansas straight through to the next two games.
There are certain games you’re not supposed to win, and that was the game we weren’t supposed to win and we won it. The teams that get to the Final Four, it isn’t just smooth sailing — you’re going to have to overcome something. That was the game that we looked at and said we got the game we had to steal, not we just have to play good basketball. Getting ready for Florida, when I was watching Florida and we spent one day just learning all about them. That’s one of the cool things about the book is we have sections on how we prepare for an NCAA tournament game. We were watching, and I thought we were going to score a ton of points. They had no one to guard Mitch and they weren’t good at guarding pick-and-rolls. That wasn’t the issue with Florida.
The issue with Florida was that they shoot a ton of threes and they run a ton of great sets. Billy Donovan does some great stuff. Something we had struggled with was guarding the three-point line. I’ve watched that game over and over again, and we played absolutely perfect offensive basketball. They also missed some really wide open threes and we got in transition. We played good defense, no doubt about it, but that was just the perfect storm for us on offense and defense. We were winning by a lot and we weren’t letting them steal it. There was one point where they were down 12 points at the end of the first half and they were thinking they could get back in it, and Trey Burke did his typical thing where he stole the ball at half court and it got to 14 and after that they had no chance. We got that and then they fouled Nik on a 3-point shot to end the half, and then it was over. It was a great matchup for us. They were small, which made it a good thing that Mitch was playing well. We guarded the three ball well, and Florida had lived on the three all year.
Did you get a sense of fatigue from Trey during the Final Four? He was winning every major individual award in college basketball at all these different locations and it seemed like it may have taken its toll on him.
I don’t know if I got a sense of fatigue, but I can guarantee he was absolutely exhausted. Going into it, we didn’t really know his schedule. At the Final Four, you practice at different college locations and we were at Georgia State. And when the bus pulled into Georgia State, Trey would be coming in an SUV with coach Beilein going to accept the Oscar Robertson award or the Naismith. He was always doing something else in the morning, waking up at seven. The schedule he had was absolutely crazy, whether it was doing interviews with ESPN or whatever, it was out of control. He got every award, which was great, but a lot of players who get them usually aren’t playing also. For Trey, it was a really crazy week but probably a week he’ll never forget for the rest of his life.
There was a weird stretch of games — Kansas, Florida and Syracuse — where teams seemed to have an objective to feed you guys bulletin-board material. Syracuse, especially. Did that register with you guys? Did you use that as motivation?
It was taken note of. We were sitting in our locker room, and we’ve got Syracuse with the media before us. BA goes, ‘Brandon Triche just said they aren’t worried about us on offense. They like all their matchups on defense and they feel like they can guard all you guys.’ I remember Syracuse said they’d had a week and they hadn’t watched a second of film. Okay, we’ll note that and we’ll note that they didn’t even know Nik Stauskas’ name. Then we walked in and I forget who was talking to Horford, but Horford was with some reporter and he goes, ‘I’m sure Brandon Triche is a great guy. I would like to sit down with him over a nice cup of tea and discuss potential matchups.’ He said it in front of the whole locker room and we all just break out laughing. We were made aware of it, but it wasn’t like we had to beat Syracuse because these guys don’t respect us.
The thing with McGary was, first of all, the pick-and-roll has taken over not just college basketball but all of basketball. How many big guys can you name in the NBA who just score off post-ups? Joakim Noah, Roy HIbbert, all these guys are way better than just guys who only finish off drop-offs. They don’t throw the ball in the post anymore — that’s not the way basketball is played. So being great (at scoring off dump-offs) is really valuable.
Second, McGary also has a 15-footer, he can pass the ball and see the court. So you have Syracuse putting forth a game plan that had a freshman who had only started for a month, who probably had more turnovers than assists during the season, being the focal point of how we were going to beat Syracuse’s zone. And sure enough, he did it. Because we got the ball in the middle of the court and he just picked them apart. He was throwing no-look passes to Glenn, feeding guys for threes in the corner, and this freshman who had only started for a month just picked the Syracuse zone apart.
My biggest impression of him from open gyms was how he would get a rebound, push it down the court, go through the legs at half court and throw a no-look pass to a guy. That’s why, when people say he’s just a big guy who can finish, they are so wrong. I’ve been around David Lee, I’ve been around hundreds of NBA players and watched them work out. I’m telling you right now that Mitch McGary is as skilled as any player I’ve watched. I would compare him to David Lee. They’re both great passers, great finishers, and David’s developed his jumpshot. When Mitch gets that jumpshot, he’ll be unguardable because he has a great touch. Mitch is extremely skilled. What makes him special is how hard he plays.
After the first half of the national title game against Louisville, what was the locker room like? You had played a good first half, but found yourselves only up one.
I’ve watched the first half a bunch, and the more I watch that game, the more I believe Louisville stole that game from us. I felt we played exceptional basketball in the first half. I would say two of Luke Hancock’s threes were just bad luck. One was in transition where it’s hard to match up and one was just a great play that Louisville ran. When a guy hits four threes in a row, that makes a big dent. Two of them I thought were bad covers. So I’d say half of them were our fault. But the Louisville locker room, the fact of the matter is we were 20 minutes away from winning a national championship. There was no time to really be down or anything like that. There were some guys who were pissed off, but we got over that. All we had to do was focus on these 20 minutes and we become legends. Win this half, and no one can take anything away from you.
I’ve watched footage of the second half, and there were just some tough luck plays. There was a play when we were down I think it was 56-54. Trey makes a great pass to Glenn for a dunk but Peyton Siva makes this incredible play for the loose ball, he throws it ahead and they score. Then Chane Behanan, some of his finishes were just tough, things that were just thrown off the backboard. There were balls that went in that just wouldn’t normally go in. Give Louisville a ton of credit, but the more I watch it the more I think we played better that night and they stole it.
So many guys assume big guys are going to make a layup. If you count in that second half how many times Behanan and them got rebounds off missed layups, there were a ton of them. When you’re on the block, assume every shots a miss. There are so many missed layups in college basketball. They killed us on the glass. A lot of people point to Trey’s block. That was a bad call, but it’s a call that’s going to happen a lot because most refs are going to call how it looks. The call that really killed us was when Caris got the rebound and then he was called out of bounds. Well, he was out of bounds because Behanan bent Trey in half and ran him into Caris and Caris went out of bounds. At that point it was a two-point game. We should have had the ball, maybe shooting free throws to take the lead or tie it. But we just ran out of time. That is a hard game to watch because I really thought, the more I watched it, that we should have won that game.