Saturday, March 7, 2009

Burton knows best

Darius Burton knows the situation for the Flying Dutchmen in the CAA Tournament is much different than the one he and his teammates were presented with entering the 1994 East Coast Conference tournament.

These Dutchmen won 20 regular season games, finished fifth in one of the best mid-major conferences in the country and must win four tournament games in Virginia—home state of three of the top four seeds—in as many days in order to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

Yet the objective and mindset are the same as 15 years ago, when the Dutchmen were seeded fifth in a piecemeal six-team league that offered no automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament yet won the championship by recording half as many victories in a three-day span in an empty arena in Buffalo as they had in the preceding three months.

“In general you can’t look ahead—you’ve got to look at each opponent one game at a time and do what they did today,” Burton said Friday, a few hours after the Dutchmen beat UNC-Wilmington and on the anniversary of the 1994 team’s title-clinching, double-overtime victory over Northeastern Illinois. “I heard it on the radio—they got off to a good start and they didn’t look back. Put your opponent away when you can, don’t settle. Put them away early, that way you can get your bench in there, get some rest and be ready to play tomorrow.”

While rest is valuable, Burton believes momentum and adrenaline are an even bigger advantage in a short tournament. A relatively easy 86-77 opening round win over Chicago State jumpstarted the Dutchmen, who were further fueled by a dramatic overtime victory over Troy State in the semifinals (Burton hit a lay-up just before the buzzer to give the Dutchmen a 90-89 win).

“Playing three games in three days, you get on a little roll, start believing in each other, you start playing good ball and it spreads,” Burton said. “It was very tiring, but I know for myself, I wasn’t thinking fatigue at all. I think at that stage you’re not even thinking about that. You’re thinking your season could be over with a loss.”

The end came for the Dutchmen with an 88-86 victory over Northeastern Illinois that not only served as a unique and unlikely going-away present for retiring coach Butch van Breda Kolff but also provided a lesson that’s as relevant today as it was in 1994.

“We were 6-20 [in the regular season], we had a horrible record, but we came together for three days and it was great,” Burton said. “We were the second-to-last team in the conference and we beat the [fifth seed], the two and the one to win it all. I think it just showed that if you put it all together for three days, it’s not [necessarily] the best team that wins but the hottest team that pays the best ball at the right time.”

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