I started Friday by taking a science test and ended it by watching the College All-Star Game. In between, I had the opportunity to interview players from the NCAA Final Four teams. I also attended the Villanova news conference, and I was even able to ask Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim a question in the hallway.
On Friday, the NCAA held sessions for the media with the four teams: North Carolina, Oklahoma, Syracuse, and Villanova. Each team participated in several news conferences, with breakout sessions for some of the athletes. Each team also had an open locker room session and an open practice that fans could attend.
When I arrived at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, I went to the Villanova news conference. Coach Jay Wright and two players, Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, were taking questions. I asked Wright, “What do you do to keep your team up and positive when things aren't going your way?” He answered, “We want our guys to understand in basketball that what you control is your attitude.”
Wright continued, “Things are going to happen to you in life that you can't control. But you can control every morning when you wake up — what is your attitude going to be?”
After the Villanova news conference, I went to open locker room sessions for Oklahoma, Syracuse, and North Carolina. I went to the Oklahoma locker room first.
I interviewed Jamuni McNeace, Ryan Spangler, Dante Buford, C.J. Cole, and Rashard Odomes. When I asked what the players like to do when they aren’t playing basketball, McNeace said that he likes playing video games, especially Mortal Combat. Cole likes playing video games too, mainly Halo, along with a lot of Xbox. Spangler likes to eat or watch the TV show Seinfeld, and Odomes enjoys lying on the couch.
I also asked the Oklahoma players to name the animal that their coach, Lon Kruger, is most like. Cole thought this might be a trick question, but he decided that his coach is a little bit of a fox: kind of timid, but he knows what he is doing.
Odomes sees the coach as a cat: calm, smooth, and loud at times. I was a little surprised when McNeace said that his coach reminded him of a sloth. I asked him why, and he said that sloths move slowly, but they are a little vicious, like Coach Kruger.
In the Syracuse locker room, I asked the players to tell me what advice coach Jim Boeheim had given that they would always remember. Malachi Richardson said he would remember the coach’s words about the need to always compete. Doyin Akintobi-Adeyeye, Shaun Belbey, and Jonathan Radner will remember to always work hard. Christian White will remember to play every play and to play one play at a time.
When I asked Akintobi-Adeyeye what he likes to do when he is not playing basketball, he told me that he enjoys swimming. Swimming was his first love, and if he could pick one time in his life to go back to, it would be when he was 12 and was competitively swimming. He also told me that Coach Boeheim reminds him of a hippo! He said a hippo looks like it is nice and cuddly, but when you try to agitate a hippo, it gets really aggressive.
When I left the Syracuse locker room, I was surprised to see Boeheim taking questions from reporters. I entered the scrum and was able to ask him a question. I asked, “What does a player need to do to show he is giving 100%?” Boeheim told me that players all think they are trying to give 100%, but it’s hard for them to do that. He told me that it’s his job as a coach to make sure each player is playing at the level at which he knows they can play.
In the North Carolina locker room, I met Justin Jackson, Kennedy Meeks, Kanler Coker, Nate Britt, Tony Egbuna, and Spenser Dalton. These players had a lot to say about the best advice that coach Roy Williams had given them.
Jackson told me that everything Coach Williams talks about is about life, not just basketball. Coker told me what stuck with him was when the coach said we’ve come too far to only come this far. We’ve made it this far, so why stop here?
Dalton said he would never forget when the coach said that you shouldn’t be pushed by your problems; instead, you should be led by your dreams.
When I asked the North Carolina players to tell me what animal Coach Williams reminded them of most, there was a lot of laughing. Jackson thought that the coach waddled like a penguin; Meeks said he was like a meerkat; and Coker said he was like a lion, the ruler of the jungle. Coker also told me that when he had time off from basketball, he loves to snowboard all day long.
It was a fun and tiring day meeting the players and coaches. I learned a lot of fascinating things, but I also learned that in some ways the players are just like me, except that they are playing in the 2016 Final Four. It was a great day, and I can’t wait to see them play tonight.
Photos: Zach Johnson