Sean Woods is the man who could have been king
ITTA BENA, Miss. – The team huddles are broken the same way here as they were 20 years ago:
“One-two-three, hard work!”
Back then, the setting was Rupp Arena, a basketball cathedral filled with 24,000 fans. Today, the setting is the Harrison HPER Complex, a 4,500-seat gym bereft of banners in the rafters, signs on the walls or character of any kind.
The squat, brick building is on the campus of Mississippi Valley State, a tiny school struggling to survive amid the cotton fields along U.S. Highway 82. The coach of the Delta Devils is the man who took the “hard work” huddle slogan – and accompanying program ethos – from the elite level of college basketball to the Southwestern Athletic Conference, the lowest rung of Division I.
“These guys don’t understand what tree they come from,” Sean Woods said, gesturing at his players after a recent practice.
The Rick Pitino coaching tree has sprouted a lot of strong branches in a lot of places; former assistants Billy Donovan and Tubby Smith have won national titles, and several others who played or coached under Pitino have taken teams to the NCAA tournament. Woods aspires to be the latest, but he’s trying to do it from the least-privileged of all locations.
Despite the inherent difficulty of four years at a budget-strapped school with scant heritage of success, the job hasn’t aged Woods a bit. The record has crept from 7-25 to 9-23 to 11-19 to 17-11, but he doesn’t look a day older now than he did playing point guard for the “Unforgettables,” Kentucky’s band of overachievers who pushed Duke to the brink of elimination in the greatest college basketball game ever played. Woods is in game shape and wrinkle-free, very much resembling the hard-luck point guard who, on the night of March 28, 1992, made the shot that set up “The Shot.”
He was a vital supporting actor in creating history. If Woods’ driving shot over Christian Laettner’s outstretched arm didn’t slam off the glass and through the hoop, giving underdog Kentucky a stunning 103-102 overtime lead on the defending national champions in the East Regional final, there is no immortal moment for Laettner 2.1 seconds later. The game still would be an all-time classic if Woods had missed, but his play forced one last counter from the Blue Devils – one that remains in heavy highlight rotation every March.
“I can’t watch the game,” Woods says flatly, the 20-year-old wound still unhealed.
“He ran right [expletive] past you! [Expletive] hit the guy! Put a [expletive] body on him!”
Woods was raging. His Delta Devils were scrimmaging five-on-five, the starters against a patchwork second unit made up of subs, an assistant coach and a former player or two still around campus. Woods was roaring at his smallish starting five to rebound, and the message wasn’t getting through fast enough.
With every offensive rebound, the coach became angrier. He jerked his thumb over his shoulder, ordering the player whose man got the rebound to run down the court and back.
“I need to see urgency!” he bellowed.
Mississippi Valley is undefeated in SWAC play, riding a 16-game winning streak that is the third-longest in the nation. The Delta Devils are the success story of the league. There was a buzz on the campus of just 2,500 students, but Woods isn’t celebrating anything.
“I’m not seeing it yet,” he said. “That’s why I’m riding them hard.”
Woods’ vision is clouded by the fact that even a brilliant regular season guarantees nothing in a low-major league. The Devils must win the SWAC tournament or they will not play in the NCAA tourney.
They are the best team in their league by a wide margin, but anything can happen in single-elimination basketball. Amazing feats can alter the natural order. An underdog team can find magic. A great champion can be threatened.
Sean Woods knows that better than most.
There were 7.8 seconds left in overtime when Pitino called timeout. The crowd in the Philadelphia Spectrum was in disbelief – a Kentucky team rebuilt from the ashes of NCAA probation had the ball, down one, with a chance to dethrone Duke.
In the Wildcats’ huddle, Pitino drew up a play for Woods, his point guard. This was both unsurprising and shocking. Kentucky’s fast-paced offense revolved around Woods pushing the tempo and finding open shooters. It had been that way for three years, with increasing levels of success every season – from 14 wins in Woods’ sophomore season to 22 as a junior and now to 29 as a senior.
In keeping with his offensive philosophy, Pitino also had entrusted Woods with the ball many times for the last shot in close games. That often hadn’t worked out so well. There was the driving shot Woods missed against Indiana in a two-point loss his sophomore season. And there was the calamitous drive for two as a junior at Mississippi State in the final seconds when Kentucky trailed by three; Woods got the score wrong and thought he was penetrating for the tying basket.
But that was Woods, the heartbreak kid. He was academically ineligible as a freshman. He cost Kentucky the chance to sign blue-chip North Carolina transfer Clifford Rozier by taking him to a Kentucky Derby party in Louisville, violating the NCAA rule about how far a recruit can travel off-campus on an official visit. And Woods, from Indianapolis, was the lone out-of-stater among the “Unforgettables,” never quite getting the same amount of love from the fans as Kentucky homeboys John Pelphrey, Richie Farmer and Deron Feldhaus.
But he was Pitino’s point guard, and trailing 102-101 with 7.8 seconds left, the coach drew it up for Woods to get into the lane and either score or find a teammate.
“If John’s man comes out to stop me, I kick it back to him,” Woods recalled. “Or I’ve got ‘Haus’ underneath and Richie on the wing. The plan was just to let me do what I’d been doing all my career.”
With the ball in his hands 22 feet out, Woods dribbled right and Pelphrey dropped his defender, Bobby Hurley, to the floor with a crushing back screen. Woods curled into the paint, alone for an instant, until the 6-foot-11 Laettner lunged out to close as the 6-2 Woods rose.
Woods had to alter his one-handed push shot to account for Laettner’s length. That adjustment sent the ball hard off the glass – and directly through the net. The Wildcats had the lead with 2.1 seconds left. The heartbreak kid finally got it right, and with 21 points and nine assists, he was about to become the biggest Kentucky basketball hero in many years.
“I thought it was over,” Woods said. “Let’s go home. We’re going to the Final Four, baby.”
Except that Duke called timeout and Mike Krzyzewski drew up the play: Grant Hill baseball pass to Laettner near the top of the key, some 78 feet away. Pitino helped the plan by failing to guard the inbounds pass and by telling his players not to foul.
“Last thing Coach said was, ‘Don’t foul,’ ” Woods recalled. “We thought anything close, they were going to blow the whistle. John and Deron [who were double-teaming Laettner] just froze.”
They looked on in frozen horror as Laettner caught the pass, dribbled once, turned and fired. The only Wildcat moving at all while the shot was in the air was Woods, who fought to box out Duke forward Antonio Lang under the rim. But as the ball neared the basket, Woods spun out of the lane and appeared ready to burst out in a celebratory dash down court – only to see the shot ruthlessly rip the net.
Instead, it was Laettner who took off running. Woods fell to the floor, flat on his face.
“I hit the deck,” he said.
Woods eventually got up and got off the court, but it took a long time to emotionally get off the deck. It helped when the school stunned the “Unforgettables” by retiring their jerseys the next month – an unprecedented move for a school so rich in tradition to retire four right after their careers ended, and with relatively modest stats. And it helped when a barnstorming tour was organized for the “Unforgettables,” leading to a statewide outpouring of adulation (and gate receipts for the previously unpaid student-athletes).
But closure didn’t come until that summer. Woods was rooming with Farmer, who had bought a white Mercedes-Benz. One day, they decided to face their demons. They got a tape of the game, popped it in the cassette player of Farmer’s car and drove around Man O’ War Boulevard, which encircles most of Lexington, listening to the whole thing.
“Just boo-hooing,” Woods said. “Couldn’t believe it was over.”
When practice ends, Woods has his players lift weights, then drink Muscle Milk. Light on support staff, he often has to mix it himself.
Yet despite the massive differences between the college program he played in and the one he coaches, there are similarities between the two experiences. The “Unforgettables” were a ragtag group of recruits, with only Woods carrying much of a rep out of high school – and he was ineligible as a freshman. This Valley team is a similar patchwork effort.
There are players who got into trouble at bigger schools and had to relocate for a second chance. Players who couldn’t make grades. Players nobody thought were good enough.
Leading scorer Terrence Joyner bounced out of New Mexico State after a year. Leading rebounder Paul Crosby of Lansing, Mich., who won back-to-back games with last-second 3-pointers this month, “would be at Michigan State if he had grades,” Woods said. And then there is leading assist man Kevin Burwell.
“I tried to run him off for two years,” Woods said. “He was a turnover waiting to happen. Now I can’t live without him.”
Together they have formed a group you could call “Unforgettables Lite.” They survived a typically macabre SWAC pre-conference schedule – 12 consecutive games away from home, many against powerhouse opponents, resulting in a 1-11 start – and have bonded into a special unit. A bunch of guys from all over the nation have relocated to this backwater burg and made the best of it.
“We ain’t got nothing else to do out here in the country,” Crosby said. “So we’re always in the gym. That’s our life.”
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Woods said he usually has a grad assistant stay behind to unlock the gym for the players at night if they want to get extra shots up. It’s exactly the kind of work ethic Pitino fostered at Kentucky, just one of the many Pitino techniques Woods has emulated.
There have been other influences – defensive principles learned as an assistant to Ronnie Arrow at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, and North Carolina offensive principles learned at TCU via Neil Dougherty, a former Roy Williams assistant. But the motivational techniques, the mind games, the practice intensity – that all comes from the guy Woods played for.
“Coach Pitino has no clue how much I paid attention to him,” Woods said. “The stuff he said, the way he went about things.”
The two have not spoken in a while, and Woods seems hurt by that. He said Pitino had him set up out of college with a coaching job at Bowling Green, but Woods turned it down because he still wanted to play.
Now you get the feeling he’d love the kind of leg up Pitino assistants and former players have received in the past, getting good head-coaching jobs. Fact is, upward mobility from the SWAC is brutally difficult. Most coaches come here to stay or to get fired, not to upgrade.
Woods has a chance to break that cycle, but it would help greatly if Valley won the SWAC tournament and made the NCAAs. Once there, the Delta Devils almost assuredly would be a No. 16 seed, which would match them up with a No. 1.
“We just want to get an opportunity to be on that stage,” Woods said.
No 16 seed ever has beaten a No. 1. But the ultimate March miracle has to happen sometime, right? What better time than on the 20th anniversary of a Kentucky point guard’s star turn? What if this time, his team got the last shot and made it?
If it came to that, the NCAA would have a new signature March Madness highlight. And Sean Woods would get the last laugh on Christian Laettner after all.
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