7:53 am Nov. 21, 2012
Long before the college basketball doubleheader known as the Legends Classic tipped off at the Barclays Center late Monday afternoon, a crowd of red had gathered to see the Indiana Hoosiers battle the Georgia Bulldogs. The crowd that would gather to witness the debut of Shabazz Muhammad of U.C.L.A., the nation's top freshman making his collegiate debut in the nightcap against Georgetown, was not yet in evidence.
Indiana, the once-great program which won five championships, including the 1976, 1981 and 1987 titles under Bob Knight, is undergoing a significant renaissance with coach Tom Crean. At present, Indiana is ranked number one in the country once again, and following a pair of victories Monday and Tuesday, that is unlikely to change.
Accordingly, Hoosier faithful turned out in droves, turning the Barclays seats red even as Indiana and Georgia took to the court for warmups. Chants of "Hoo-Hoo-Hoo-Hoosiers!" could be heard in the corridors of the arena.
What the Indiana faithful ended up seeing was, interestingly, the undercard of the night, but not due to Muhammad, but rather the play of Georgetown in general and their best player, Otto Porter, specifically. The Hoosiers and Bulldogs played a lethargic game, personified by Indiana's best player, Cody Zeller, who has been battling the flu, and scored just six points.
Still, this Indiana team is deep enough to do damage in the N.C.A.A. tournament, perhaps even win another one, and behind work from undersized senior guard Jordan Hulls, and impressive cutting without the ball from forward Victor Oladipo, still managed to decisively beat Georgia, 66-53.
Crean is normally effusive about his teams, though Indiana struggled badly in his first two seasons at the helm. His positivity seems to know no bounds now that he's at the helm of a real contender. And he expressed doubts that the large number of N.B.A. scouts in attendance for Monday's doubleheader had any effect on his best player, Zeller's, performance.
"I don't know what the N.B.A. number [of scouts] was, but I can promise you, Cody's not affected by that," Crean said at his postgame press conference. "When his day comes, and he decided to go, he'll be able to go. Our guys see N.B.A. guys every day. We have N.B.A. guys in our practices, we've probably had 23, 24 of 30 teams have already been in."
Zeller went out and proved Crean's point on Tuesday night, scoring 17 and grabbing eight rebounds in an 82-72 overtime win over Georgetown.
Still, if those scouts present on Monday came away with a less-flattering view of Zeller, they had to be dramatically impressed by Porter, who starred for Georgetown. While Crean was still speaking, the Hoyas were busy making sure their performance was the most significant part of the night against 13th-ranked U.C.L.A.
That U.C.L.A. ranking doesn't fully capture how good the Bruins are expected to be, because it doesn't reflect the team's addition of Muhammad, a wing considered the best player in the incoming freshman class. Muhammad, held out of the first three games because of a familiar routine of N.C.A.A. bureaucratic nonsense, made his debut for the Bruins on Monday night, and scouts who may have already made up their minds on Zeller were salivating at the chance to evaluate Muhammad.
Porter, and fellow Georgetown forward Greg Whittington, took turns guarding U.C.L.A.'s prized addition, and did a fantastic job keeping him from affecting the game for the most part. Muhammad's only two baskets in the first half came in transition; in the halfcourt, Whittington blocked Muhammad's shot twice. At the break, Georgetown led, 31-29. And once they opened the second half with a 12-0 run, the game became more about the Hoyas managing U.C.L.A. runs than a contest to see who would take control.
The much-anticipated Indiana-U.C.L.A. matchup, which would have occured if both teams had won, was spoiled by the Hoyas, 78-70. So much of that was Porter; he finished with 18 points, 11 rebounds, five assists, five blocks and three steals. He filled his stat sheet in a similar way on Tuesday against Indiana. Almost no matter what an N.B.A. team's needs are, Otto Porter showed an ability to help address them.
The crowd for the late game on Monday, though, remained primarily red. Georgetown and U.C.L.A. had some representatives, but it was Indiana faithful who stuck around, seemingly torn between rooting for the marquee matchup, and seeing the underdog Hoyas prevail.
By the time Muhammad seemed to find a rhythm, scoring the bulk of his 15 points in 25 minutes of play late in the game, most of the seats had emptied, with Indiana fans presumably planning to get a good night's sleep. Tuesday night's final had them in fine form; Georgetown essentially faced a hostile road crowd at a neutral location hundreds of miles from Bloomingtton, Indiana.
Despite making his long-awaited, then needlessly delayed debut, Muhammad sat at the podium sullenly, his head down, with the posture of someone who looked like he'd played his last game, not his first.
"It was really exciting to get down the court for the first time," Muhammad said at the postgame press podium in a voice that conveyed no excitement whatsoever. "I thought we didn't play well. Finally getting the jitters out, playing college basketball for the first time, was a good experience. Hopefully I can do better."
He did, by the way, in Tuesday's consolation game against Georgia, leading all scorers with 21 points in a 60-56 U.C.L.A. win. He should have plenty more games like that.
Muhammad's coach, Ben Howland, praised Muhammad in a qualified way, pointing out that aside from his ineligibility, a shoulder injury had also kept Muhammad from even practicing for much of the previous two-and-a-half weeks.
"You can see he has a lot of work to do to catch up, conditioning-wise, to where he wants to be," Howland said in his postgame remarks Monday. "But he did a good job in his first outing."
As for the star of the night, Porter was circumspect when describing how it felt to upstage both the nation's top-rated freshman and top-ranked team. Sitting next to him, Georgetown coach John Thompson III almost imperceptibly shook his head no, or nodded yes, as he listened to Porter giving his response, as if trying to guide his sophomore star in the spotlight.
"We knew that he was going to play," Porter said of Muhammad. "We just had to keep him contained (a tiny shake of the head from Thompson), well, not contained, but just watch out for him. We know they're a great team (tiny nod from Thompson), they can score also, bigs inside that can score also, so we just tried to play defense."
Thompson seemed almost ebullient about Porter specifically, and his young team generally. A Georgetown team that has historically played at a very slow pace managed to up the tempo, and beat one of the most athletic teams in the country. But he also acknowledged that he couldn't savor this win, not with Indiana looming in less than 24 hours.
"A couple of guys on my staff were prepared for Indiana or Georgia," Thompson explained. "We haven't talked to our team about Indiana or Georgia. We're going to do that later on tonight, and we'll focus on that tomorrow. That's the nature of tournament play. Obviously, they are a very good team, much like the team we played tonight is a very good team."