The opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament is one of the most exciting four day periods in all of sports.
During that time, the casual and active fans both pull into natural and created narratives that put stakes to these otherwise meaningless games.
Sometimes you get to see everything ran perfectly and a game winning or tying shot that defies even your highest expectations.
The shot by Bryce Drew, Western Kentucky versus Drake, and Villanova versus North Carolina all quickly come to mind.
Other times, you sit and watch a player who wants to play “hero ball.”
What is hero ball, you ask? It is the decision of a single player to take the final shot of the game no matter what the defense gives him.
Whether the defense gives him space or puts two or even three players in his face, that player is taking the shot, results be damned.
This weekend, we had the ability to watch three different teams with a chance to send a game to overtime completely fail on the team aspect of basketball and lose in disappointing fashion.
Defending champion Villanova, #10 seed Wichita State, and #11 seed Rhode Island were victimized by hero ball and were eliminated from the Big Dance.
Before looking at the three scenarios, let’s look back at WKU’s win over Drake. This situation needed the perfect combination of a group of players willing to play team ball and a play that would give them a chance to win. This is the antithesis of hero ball.
Tyrone Brazelton was the hot man for WKU. He had a game-high 33 points and looked like the man for the final shot.
If he didn’t take it, surely future NBA player Courtney Lee would take the shot. Instead, the play was drawn up for Brazelton to receive the in-bounds pass and drive with Rogers lagging slightly behind.
That bit of spacing gave Rogers the room to launch a 26-foot open shot and get the win for the Hilltoppers.
That is the way to handle a last second situation with poise.
Then, there was this weekend….
Let’s just start with Rhode Island and the final shot of the game. Skip to the 2:16 mark of the video.
After the Rams attempted and missed a three-point attempt with nearly :30 left on the clock, Jeff Dowtin came up with a huge offensive rebounds.
At this point, the shot clock was off and Rhode Island would get a chance to tie the game.
Instead of any semblance of a play, E.C. Matthews (1-5 from behind the arc at that point) got the ball with nearly :10 left and decided to play hero ball.
He dribbled around, never getting his teammates involved, and shot a contested three-point attempt that looked like it missed the entire rim by feet. It was obvious before he even let go of the ball that Rhode Island would be going home.
We normally do not cover Villanova since they are not part of the Forgotten 5, but it would be irresponsible to talk about this hero ball epidemic and not mention this play. Fast forward to the 1:20 mark.
Josh Hart, a huge part of the Wildcats team that hit a buzzer beater in the 2016 final, decided from the beginning that he was going to drive to the basket and take the final shot to tie Wisconsin.
Any player of his ability has to expect the defense to collapse around him, leaving shooters open on the outside.
Instead of looking to draw the defense and dish for the possible game winner, Hart went up against two defenders and never even took a shot.
That is a disappointing end to a potential back to back championship run for Villanova.
Finally, Wichita State made me the angriest of the three hero ball examples. The Shocker found a way to hang around versus a hot Kentucky squad and had a chance to hit a three and send the game to overtime.
Instead, hero ball reared its ugly head and the Shockers never even got a chance due to a blocked shot.
Landry Shamet was having an excellent day. He had 20 points for the day and had the ball in his hands. Shamet drove to the right around the arc and was surrounded by Wildcats.
At this point, Edrice Adebayo came for the double team, leaving 44% three-point shooter Conner Frankamp open to Shamet’s right.
Shamet had the opportunity to toss the ball to Frankamp and give the Shockers’ best three-point shooter a chance to tie the game. Instead, this happened.
I don’t care if you are Larry Bird, when you have a 6-10 forward in your face and a hand that high, that shot is not going in.
Wichita State did not have to worry about that as Adebayo cleanly blocked the shot to send the Shockers home.
You can even say that it’s much easier to make a call like this two days later. Sure, it is easy, but any top level players knows where his best shooters are on the most important possession of the game.
This was simply a case of one player deciding to go hero ball and send the game to overtime with disastrous results.
In case you missed what I have been trying to convey, playing hero ball is not the way to win a game versus a good basketball team.
It takes everyone playing together as one to pull off something amazing. Rhode Island, Wichita State, and Villanova were not playing as one at the end.
For those stubborn people that still think that the best player should be taking the final shot no matter what, even the greatest player of all time knew that an open shot attempt was more important than personal glory for that single moment. Remember this shot from the 1997 NBA Finals, Steve Kerr sure does.