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When Tony Gonzalez was making huge plays as a tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons in the N.F.L, the tight end always looked so much bigger and athletic than his opponents and teammates. There is something about being 6’5’’ or 6’6’’ on a football
Now being 6’5’’ on a basketball court, however, is hardly a big deal, especially at the Division-I and pro level.
In many regards, a player is just another player at that height, with this fact especially apparent during my recent observation of Gonzalez’s basketball abilities during a 1997 Sweet Sixteen game against North Carolina.
While Gonzalez would be described by CBS Announcer Quinn Bucker as “a better athlete than a basketball player,” I was really surprised how small Gonzalez looked on the court.
Of course, there are several things to recognize here.
1. Gonzalez was facing a stacked North Carolina team that boasted players like 7’3’’ Serge Zwikker, 6’9’’ Antawn Jamison, 6’9’’ Ademola Okalujia, and 6’6’’ Vince Carter in its starting lineup.
2. Gonzalez was the starting small forward on a California team that included 6’9’’ power forward Alfred Grigsby and 6’10’’ center Michael Stewart, who would eventually play for the Sacramento Kings. That’s not including California reserves like 6'9'' forward Kenyon Jones and 6’10’’ junior center Sean Marks, who is now the General Manager of the Brooklyn Nets.
3. This game took place at Syracuse’s Carrier Dome, a massive arena that can make players look smaller than they are, with television a medium that can also skew player heights.
For some reason, when I remember Gonzalez from the 1997 NCAA Tournament, I thought of him as a bruising power forward.
Perhaps this is due to my more recent memories of him as a football player.
But this was not the case during the North Carolina game.
While Gonzalez tried to go inside and crash the boards, his athleticism was not on par with what Carolina threw out in terms of athletes.
With that said, Gonzalez proved to be a headier player than I realized.
Here is a scouting report on Gonzalez’s abilities as a basketball player before sharing some of my observations of what turned out to be a very exciting game between the Golden Bears and the Tar Heels.
During the 1996/1997 season, California was a surprise team under first-year head coach Ben Braun, who had left Eastern Michigan after leading the Eagles to the second round of the 1996 NCAA Tournament, including a first-round victory against Duke.
The Golden Bears were led by senior guard/forward Ed Gray, who was averaging 24.8 points per game until he broke a bone in his foot in February.
With Gray out for the season, many thought that Cal would falter, especially when considering that senior shooting guard Randy Duck was the team’s next leading scorer at 12.3 points per game.
For some context, no other Cal player averaged double digits, including the junior Gonzalez, who contributed 6.8 points and 4.5 rebounds in 28 games that season.
Surprisingly, the Golden Bears rallied after Gray’s injury, with Braun inserting Gonzalez, an All-American football player who had already declared for the NFL Draft by the time of this Sweet Sixteen game, into the starting lineup.
Gonzalez proved to be a nice addition into the starting lineup, especially in the NCAA
Tournament, where he averaged 18.0 points in the two first round games against Princeton and Villanova.
In fact, Gonzalez scored a career-high 26 points in the second-round victory against the Wildcats.
He also raised his field goal percentage from 45% in the regular season to 61% in the two tournament games.
Heading into the North Carolina game, Gonzalez was getting a lot of attention for the Golden Bears.
The Tar Heels would take notice and not be kind.
Strengths: As an undersized small forward with not much of an outside shooting touch, Gonzalez demonstrated a nice feel for some of the finer details on the offensive end of the floor, doing a good job throughout the Carolina game at getting into the middle of the Tar Heels zone. When catching the ball at the free throw line, Gonzalez showed a willingness to pass, put the ball on the floor or shoot. @8:33 to @8:43, Gonzalez did a nice job getting off a missed shot against the outstretched hands of Zwikker in the middle of the zone. Gonzalez showed a deft passing ability, hitting Duck on a beautiful touch pass on a fast break early in the game @3:47 to @3:57. Unfortunately, Duck missed the shot. He also made a nice lob pass to Stewart @27:14 to @27:24 and another strong feed from the middle of the zone to a cutting Duck on the baseline from @29:28 to @29:38. While not a very refined offensive player, Gonzalez was decisive and quick with his decision making. Sometimes it seemed as if he played a little fast for himself. However, @29:52, he took the ball to rim and used a strong pump fake to draw a foul on Zwikker. Gonzalez was not afraid to face up and attack. From @32:23 to @32:33, Gonzalez adeptly used his body, playing through contact at the rim, to convert a challenged layup. @32:47 to @32:57, Gonzalez made another strong move to the rack, drawing a foul. See a similar result @47:56 to @48:06. Aggressiveness was not an issue for Gonzalez. Defensively, Gonzalez did a nice job moving his feet early in the game to force an Okalujia turnover. Throughout the game, he did a nice job of using his body to box out. Gonzalez was a position defender and hustle player, knocking a ball off Carter @30:42.
Weaknesses: Gonzalez did not have as much lift as I expected. I thought he was a little more explosive, but he didn’t get high off the ground on his shots, which proved problematic against the super athletic Tar Heels. While Gonzalez showed great speed saving a loose ball @3:47 to @3:52, he seemed a step slow getting up and down the court in comparison to the Carolina players, though he recovered nicely. At the free throw line, Gonzalez had a rough night, going 2 for 6 with several bricks. He was not much of a shooting threat from the outside, with his touch limited to the free throw line and in. While hustling and crashing the boards, Gonzalez just couldn’t compete with the Carolina players in terms of securing the rebound. Also, his lack of lift cost Gonzalez @16:18 to @16:28, when Carter posted and easily scored against him. Carter came back down the court saying “He can’t guard me,” at least according to announcer Gus Johnson. Gonzalez made some poor decisions in this game as if the speed of things was too much for him. @32:07 to @32:17, Gonzalez made a foolish save under the Cal basket, throwing the ball right to Zwikker for an easy layup. Later, while inbounding the ball against the Carolina press in the second half, Gonzalez threw a bad pass to half court that was easily intercepted. While Gonzalez worked hard this game, he seemed frustrated and worn down in the second half, with Braun opting to take him out with the outcome to be decided in the final minutes.
Overall: While Gonzalez’s athleticism was superior on the football field, it was neutralized in this game. Gonzalez was only 1-for-4 for 4 points this game, struggling against Carolina’s size. While using his strength and aggressiveness to get to the line six times, his touch was not there. With that said, Gonzalez showed some nice court awareness at points. He was a hustle player who was more than a football player playing basketball in this one regard: he was not out there to be a hatchet man. He had some game and skills; however, limited and suited to a bench as opposed to a starting role in such an environment. While outclassed in 27 minutes this game, Gonzalez was a decent option coming off the bench, a great fourth or fifth big on a squad. With that said, he was not a pro-level talent in hoops. As for football, that would not be the case, as Gonzalez developed into arguably the greatest tight end of all time.
With Gonzalez’s game analyzed, here’s a quick summary of the Cal-Carolina tilt.
Game Summary: Carolina had its best start in its three tournament games, leading
19-10 and then 28-21 with two minutes to go. However, the Tar Heels had another sloppy end to the first half, as was the case against Fairfield and Colorado. California rallied to cut the game to two points at the half, and the Bears exploded out of the halftime gates to eventually lead by seven points. With Carolina on the ropes, Antawn Jamison saved this game from @52:46 to @59:16, as the Tar Heels used an 8-0 run to take a 46-45 lead with less than 8 minutes to go. While California would fight, the Tar Heels would be too much once rolling, using a late 17-6 run to win this game 63-57.
Game Observations: Here are 10 observations on this game.
1. I remember watching the second half of this game in Chicago, which was showing the Providence – UT Chattanooga game. I was rooting for Carolina and very nervous that California was going to win in the second half.
2. For some reason, I remember this game being boring. Reviewing it last night, that was not the case. This game was highly entertaining, tense and fun, thanks in large part to…
3. The California crowd was awesome from start to finish. This game had a much different feel than the game before it, a quiet Louisville victory against Texas.
4. While I wrote in my Louisville-Texas post that Johnson and Buckner lacked energy, the duo was great in this game, perhaps due to the atmosphere of this game. Nowadays Johnson doesn’t need much atmosphere to make a game sound exciting. Back in 1997, he was still developing this excellent skill.
5. This California team was tough and fun to watch, from shooting guard Randy Duck playing with no fear to Sean Marks coming off the bench to hit three big three-point shots in the second half to Grigsby and Stewart playing athletically under the boards to point guard Prentice McGruder playing recklessly at points to Gonzalez battling despite his struggles.
6. I would have loved to have seen this game if California had Gray.
7. Man, Braun seemed like a coach on the rise at this time. After replacing Todd Bozeman, he would coach Cal for 12 seasons, winning the NIT In 1999 and reaching the NCAA Tournament four more times. None of his Cal teams would get as far as this 1996/1997 team, his first at Cal. Braun would later coach at Rice for six seasons.
8. After watching North Carolina’s first two games, it was easy to tell that Carolina came out with less pressure now that Dean Smith had won his record-setting 877th game.
9. This game was when I became sold on Jamison, even when his pro career started off slowly. Jamison dominated the last 10 minutes of this victory.
10. The Carrier Dome is a great site for NCAA Tournament games. I just loved the atmosphere of the arena in this game. I suggest watching this game from the end of the first half (around @30:42) throughout the second half. It was quite exciting.