Kings players and coaches reflect on favorite NCAA Tournament memories and discuss their respective alma maters’ title chances.
With the 2013 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament Round of 64 tipping off on Thursday, University of Miami product John Salmons is the first to admit he has expressed the most enthusiasm and confidence in his school’s title chances inside the Kings locker room.
“This is the first real time I’ve had a change to brag, so I’m bragging,” said Salmons smiling. “We have a good shot this year, so I’m excited.”
Reminiscing his own Tournament experience – where he first emerged as Miami’s top defender and helped lead the Hurricanes to the No. 2 seed as a freshman – the guard-forward recalls notching a series of satisfying victories during his sophomore campaign.
“My second year,” he began. “We were the No. 5 seed and on ‘SportsCenter,’ they had, ‘Who’s the first team to get upset?’ They had us (losing) against Arkansas, because Arkansas had just won the SEC Tournament and they were hot. We beat them, and then we beat Ohio State to go to the Sweet 16, so that was cool.”
DeMarcus Cousins – whose Kentucky Wildcats were upset in the opening round of the NIT on Tuesday – kindheartedly shares he’s rooting against Salmons’ collegiate squad.
“I hope they lose,” said Cousins with a laugh. “He’s never talked this much since he’s (been here).
“Winning it all – I hate to say it – but I believe it’ll be Louisville.”
While Jason Thompson foresees a good run for both the Hurricanes and Cardinals, many Kings players anticipate a wide-open Tournament after an unpredictable 2013 NCAA season.
“Duke’s playing really well, Indiana’s good, Michigan’s good, Gonzaga’s good – there’s no clear-cut favorite,” says Jimmer Fredette, who guided third-seeded BYU to the Sweet 16 as a senior in 2011, averaging a Tournament-leading 29.0 points per game.
“There are lot of good teams out there that are fighting for it, and it’s going to be really cool and fun,” No. 7 added, stating he won’t root for any particular squad since his alma mater didn’t receive an invite.
“In my opinion, this is probably one of the worst years of college basketball, just because there’s no top two elite teams you can pretty much bank on to make it to the Final Four,” says fellow Kentucky product Patrick Patterson. “Top teams are beating one another, teams are losing to teams they shouldn’t lose to overall – it’s wide open right now.”
Playing alongside Cousins, as well as current NBA guards John Wall and Eric Bledsoe, No. 9 helped UK reach the Elite Eight in 2010 – one of his fondest memories to date.
“It was remarkable – my family there cheering me on, seas of blue throughout the arena, the intensity of the game, being in that moment out on the court on national television, having fun out there with your teammates and putting on that jersey and going to battle,” described Patterson. “Stepping out there, it’s breathtaking and it’s overwhelming, but it’s also something you embrace and you’re thankful for, because not many people get to be in that type of situation.”
Fellow Kentucky alumnus Chuck Hayes echoes his teammate’s sentiment.
“(I remember) the excitement around each game, the anticipation,” said Hayes, who helped lead UK to two Elite Eight finishes. “It felt like everything is riding on one game, and if you win, then next week it’s the same thing.”
Although Tyreke Evans says he’s disappointed his former collegiate coach’s squad didn’t reach the NCAA Tournament, No. 13 concedes he’s pleased there won’t be as much trash talking inside the Kings locker room from the Kentucky trio.
“I feel bad for Coach (John Calipari), but it’s definitely good they’re not in it though,” said Evans with a chuckle.
In 2009, a freshman Evans led No. 2 seed Memphis to a Sweet 16 berth, notching 33 points in his final collegiate game.
“It was fun and it was a memorable moment for me, just to go out there and play my last game in college,” he said, declaring the Tigers will reach the Final Four this season.
Cole Aldrich – who played a key role on the 2008 NCAA champion Kansas Jayhawks as a freshman and recorded the first official triple-double in the school’s history in the 2009 Tournament – describes the atmosphere as one-of-a-kind.
“It’s a whole different feeling from any other game,” said Aldrich. “You know everybody’s watching you. You know there are a bunch of people supporting you and, quite a bit of time, rooting against you.”
No. 45 – the only Kings player who’s appeared in the NBA Finals, reaching the title round with Oklahoma City last season – says there’s no comparison between the two pinnacle stages.
“It’s two totally different experiences, but they’re both a lot of fun,” said the Minnesota native. “The (difference) is, we play seven games (in the NBA), potentially, but (the Tournament) is just – boom – one game. That’s the great thing about it and the hard thing about it. When we lost my junior year, we would’ve probably beaten Northern Iowa 95 out of 100 times, but it was one of those games they were hot.”
Isaiah Thomas – who appeared in the Tournament in each of his three seasons at the University of Washington, averaging 15.5 points and 7.5 assists as a junior – says March Madness excitement is hard to explain.
“The furthest I’ve been is the Sweet 16, so I can’t speak on the other rounds, but it’s nice to be there,” said Thomas. “Everybody wants to be a part of it – kind of like the NBA Playoffs – but everybody doesn’t get a chance, so it’s fun.”
While No. 22 held out hope the Huskies would win the Pac-12 Tournament and receive an invite, the guard is now pulling for a school from his collegiate conference to reach the Final Four.
“I’ll go with Louisville winning it all (but) I’m pulling for Arizona – a Pac-12 school,” he said.
LSU product Marcus Thornton is aiming to redeem himself after two consecutive years of inaccurate prognostications in his NCAA brackets.
“I’m going to fill out one again – hopefully, I can get something right this time,” said Thornton, selecting Kansas to win the title. “None of my picks really panned out like I wanted to (previously).”
During his senior season, the high-scoring guard poured in 30 points to go along with four assists and three steals in a opening-round win over Butler, followed by 25 points against eventual champion North Carolina.
No. 23 reveals he was not only thrilled to notch a victory in front of a sea of raucous fans, but elated for his head coach.
“Coach (Trent) Johnson, he’s not a real emotional guy, but when we won the first round, he was very happy,” recalled Thornton. “It was a great release for him, and I’d never seen him like that.”
Looking back at his all-time NCAA Tournament moments, the Louisiana native says he’s always felt a sense of pride knowing a player from his hometown – Keith Smart – knocked down one of the most revered shots in college basketball history.
“Him being from the same spot I’m from, that was big for all of Baton Rouge to see him do that,” he said. “It makes it kind of special he’s my coach now.”
Nearly 26 years ago, on March 30, 1987, Smart scored 12 of Indiana’s final 15 points against Syracuse, including the title-clinching, 16-foot baseline jumper for the Hoosiers.
The Kings leader reveals hardly a day goes by when he doesn’t receive a reminder of “The Shot,” which was recently named one of the All-Time March Madness Moments by the NCAA.
“Pretty much every day, someone comes up and says something about it,” said Smart. “Especially this time of year, (I get) a little bit more calls about the shot.”
The Kings coach says he’s proud of the top-seeded 2012-13 Hoosiers’ season and hopes Indiana wins the national title, but hasn’t had a chance to watch enough collegiate games to tab history to repeat itself.
As Smart, Evans, Salmons and Aldrich cheer for their respective alma maters, the entire team will enjoy watching in anticipation of seeing which squad claims the tourney’s shining moment.
|Kings Player Final Four Picks (Champion)|
|Cole Aldrich||Michigan St.||Wisconsin||Kansas||Miami (Fla.)|
|DeMarcus Cousins||Louisville||Ohio St.||Kansas||Indiana|
|Toney Douglas||Duke||Arizona||Michigan||Miami (Fla.)|
|John Salmons||Michigan St.||Ohio St.||Georgetown||Miami (Fla.)|
|Jason Thompson||Louisville||Ohio St.||Kansas||Miami (Fla.)|
|Marcus Thornton||Louisville||Wisconsin||Kansas||Miami (Fla.)|
– Kings players list Christian Laettner’s iconic turnaround jumpshot in the 1992 NCAA Tournament, Tyus Edney’s coast-to-coast, buzzer-beating lay-up in 1995 and Bryce Drew’s last-second three-pointer in 1998 among their favorite NCAA Tournament memories.
“There are so many miraculous moments that happen every single year, whether it’s a top seed going down or somebody hitting a clutch shot in the closing seconds of the game,” says Patterson. “Gordon Hayward’s performance in (the 2010) championship game when he was with Butler and missed that halfcourt shot that almost went in. Of course, the Kentucky-Duke game … even Kansas-Memphis – Mario Chalmers hit that three at the top of the key to send it into overtime. Hakim Warrick’s block (on Kansas’ Michael Lee and) how he was able to jump, stretch his arm and block the shot. The list goes on and on.”