New York Knicks analyst Wally Szczerbiak is a lucky man these days. Instead of having to sit in the MSG studios and agonize over a string of losses, he gets to abandon those duties and join the March Madness Men’s hoops team in Atlanta from the first game through the Regional Finals.
With this college hoops gig, Szczerbiak returns to the place where the legend of “Wally World” exploded.
As an under-the-radar junior playing for Miami of Ohio, in 1997-98, he burst onto the scene as one of college basketball's leading scorers, averaging 24.4 points per game and earning first-team All-MAC honors, despite missing several games with a broken right wrist.
In his senior season he continued his meteoric rise and averaged 24.2 points per game and led the Redhawks to the Sweet 16 in the 1999 NCAA Tournament as a #10 seed.
Szczerbiak’s breakout March Madness game was when he scored a career-high 43 points in a first-round win over #7 seed Washington. He proceeded to score 24 points in a second round upset of #2 seed Utah. In the Sweet 16, he dropped 23 points in a 58-43 loss to Kentucky. Miami finished the season 24-8 as Szczerbiak became somewhat of a rising celebrity.
“That worked out well for me and this situation happens to work out well,” Szczerbiak told TSL at a recent March Madness Media Day held by Turner and CBS Sports."The Knicks aren’t expected to make the playoffs so, now I kind of shift gears and spend this whole month on NCAA tournament college basketball. I do drop in for a few Knicks games, but it’s a good time to be shifting.”
(Photo Credit: dailyknicks.com)
Szczerbiak agreed with me that the Knicks are the most perplexing franchise in all of sports.
“No question. You’re right,” said Wally, the son of Walt Szczerbiak, a former ABA player who helped lead Real Madrid to three European League championships. Wally lived in Madrid, watching his dad play throughout most of his childhood, before moving to Long Island for high school.
“Back when I was in high school,” he said. “ that’s when Patrick Ewing made his run to the Finals. Game 7. Since then it just hasn’t clicked. It just hasn’t worked and it’s s shame because it’s such a bad franchise, but such a great arena. I feel like the owner has no problem spending money. On the other hand, it’s a credit to how the league is set up and the whole collective bargaining agreement is structured to give everyone in the league a chance."
"There’s a lot of parity and the salary cap has prohibited teams from just throwing money at problems," he continued. "As a result, the Knicks, after stripping it down to bare bones last year, have to improve this year and take a step forward the following year and then eventually, I think they will get to playoff contender status. Only problem is, the other teams in the East have been that for a couple of years now.”
So what will fix the Knicks?
Szczerbiak: "The difference between a team like the Knicks and Golden State is number of high percentage shooters.That's one thing that the NBA is kind of lacking and I think that's a result of college kids coming in the AAU system and all of that. I just don’t think kids become efficient in all aspects of the game these days. Some kids are too pigeonholed into roles and as a result, when you have a team like Golden State who can do it all from dribbling to passing to rebounding and can defend, that’s why they are so far ahead of all other NBA teams. They have complete basketball players.”
Being a complete player is something Szczerbiak worked at diligently. His dedication manifested itself in a prestigious college career capped off by a consensus all-american selection in his senior season. He sees a number of players from mid-major conferences who also possess the game to boost their national appeal in this NCAA tournament.
Szczerbiak: There’s A.J. English of Iona, who can just flat out score so keep an eye on him. He’s explosive and has NBA potential. We’ve seen great mid-major players transfer to the NBA; C.J. McCollum, Damian Lillard, those guys are two dominant guards from a Top 5 NBA backcourt who were from unknown schools coming out of college."
Wally parlayed his NCAA brilliance into being the sixth overall pick of the 1999 draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves. He had career averages of 14.1 points, four boards and almost 2,5 assists during his 12-year NBA career while making the All-Star squad in 2002.
While Szczerbiak is all for the Cinderella come up, he cautions those filling out NCAA Tournament brackets, to “lean towards those coaches that have had success in the tournament,” Wally told TSL.
Szczerbiak: “Tom Izzo, John Calipari, Coach K at Duke, Bill Self and Kansas. I just think that when you are coaching against teams you haven’t seen, you just need coaches who are great in-game adjustment guys, great at preparing their teams in quick turnarounds to be successful and they have an identity. Those are the coaches that know how to win and get it done in March.”
With that being said, it’s no surprise, Szczerbiak is picking Kentucky and Michigan State to make The Final Four.
Szczerbiak: "Even though Kentucky is probably going to be a number four or five seed, I still like Kentucky and Michigan State to be in serious contention. They're as talented as anyone in the country and Calipari always has his guys improving and playing their best basketball come March. Michigan State just looks unstoppable. They have no holes and are a great team with a great player and leader in senior Player of The Year candidate Denzel Valentine."
I also asked the former NBA player about African-American basketball coaches on the NCAA D-1 level, and if there there was any young rising stars that caught his eye outside of Texas' Shaka Smart.
Szczerbiak: “Cuonzo Martin. I really like what he’s doing out at Cal. He’s building a defensive identity for that team and in college that's what wins. He’s a great recruiter and developer. That’s another team to keep your eyes on because when you haven’t seen them previously, their ability could overwhelm you."
Sort of like what Szczerbiak did back in that magical 1999 tournament.