SACRAMENTO -- One-by-one the Sacramento Kings players watched their alma maters fall in the NCAA tournament. Ben McLemore’s Kansas Jayhawks made the Elite Eight, but when they fell last week, that ended bragging right - unless you count the Kings head coach.
George Karl was taken by the New York Knicks in the fourth round (pick no. 66) of the 1973 NBA Draft after playing college ball at North Carolina under coaching legend Dean Smith. He is the only one left with a pony in the race as the Tar Heels prepare to face Villanova on Monday night in the Finals.
“I have my jersey on today,” Karl said following practice.
The veteran coach has spoken glowingly of his time with coach Smith since taking the job in Sacramento. He had just returned from the Smith’s funeral when he took over the helm of the Kings and it was clear that the loss of his mentor was weighing heavily on him.
“The foundation of my coaching is North Carolina basketball and Dean Smith basketball,” Karl said. “Team orientation and team continuity - you win with team.”
Throughout his time with the Kings, Karl has referenced “the process” more times than the previous regime in Sacramento spoke the word “pace.” The veteran coach wanted to see where his team was after twenty games, and then thirty and then again at forty. Wins are a nice barometer, but improvement is what Karl is looking for on a daily basis, which is something he learned from Smith.
“If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse,” Karl said of Smith’s theology.
The Kings haven’t reached their potential this season, but there are plenty of individuals that have shown remarkable improvement. Despite their differences, DeMarcus Cousins is having the best season of his career, averaging 27 points and 11.6 rebounds per game.
The two-time All-Star is widely considered the best big man in the game and he is looking at either a first or second All-NBA selection when postseason awards are handed out after the season. It’s not all because of Karl, but his uptempo style has definitely helped the big man’s stat line.
Where the Kings have failed is in coming together on the floor as a cohesive unit. There are plenty of directions that fingers can point, but in the end, their inability to move forward as a team cost them a playoff spot.
“The most talented team doesn’t always win the NBA championship, it’s usually the best team that wins the NBA championship” Karl said.
With five games remaining in the season, the Kings are playing better basketball as a group, winning 5-of-7, but it’s just too little, too late.
As for Karl’s Tar Heels, they prepare for the Finals Monday evening in Houston and he has some concerns.
“I’m nervous because I think Vilanova has basketball karma on their side. They’re playing with such a spirit - the basketball gods are on their side.”
Karl is pulling for coach Roy Williams and his North Carolina team and if they come away with a victory, expect to see baby blue in pregame on Tuesday when the Kings take on the Portland Trail Blazers.