Commentary: New Canaan Turns CIAC’s Airball Into A Putback

Ben Sarda reacts to a New Canaan basket against St. Joseph. (Gregory Vasil)

Following New Canaan’s Division IV semifinal win over St. Joseph last night, one of the greatest upsets in NCAA Tournament history struck me as a perfect analogy.

That was the 1983 championship game when North Carolina State shocked Houston, after Lorenzo Charles turned Dereck Whittenburg’s airball into a last-second, game-winning putback.

In my comparison, the CIAC is Whittenburg and the Rams are Charles.

New Canaan has become something of a lightning rod in the CIAC’s ill-constructed five-division playoff format. One of the greatest criticisms is how New Canaan, a Class LL school, is playing for a title against mostly S schools.

This is of course because the divisions were set up 11 months ago, and the Rams were being judged as a team that had not qualified for the state playoffs in a decade, not the one that proved perfectly capable of playing with everyone.

This is the fault of the CIAC — hopefully the widespread criticism of the playoffs will finally lead to major changes — not New Canaan, and it is important to make that distinction.

New Canaan’s Matt Brand shoots over Dan Tobin of St. Joseph. (Gregory Vasil)

The Rams can only play the teams on their schedule. After a 16-4 regular season finish that was fourth-best in the FCIAC, they have rebounded from a quarterfinal loss in the conference tournament to playing with the same cohesion that allowed them to win 80 percent of their games.

New Canaan defeated Ridgefield and Trinity Catholic, two Division I schools, during the regular season. All the talk about the Rams playing higher up is a compliment to the program and the seismic leap it took this year. The playoffs should be devised around the present, not the past. Not taken into account: how a team with six seniors, five who play regularly, matured and coalesced into a formidable unit.

That was evident last night against St. Joseph. Perhaps the highest praise you can give the Rams is they did not do anything they have not done all season. Coach Danny Melzer did not have to alter his strategy, play a junk defense or make a panicky move with his offense to generate points.

Under Melzer, the Rams are extremely well-coached, and the team is so fundamentally sound that lack of execution has never been a problem. The leading scorer changes on a nightly basis. Yesterday it was Matt Brand, who finished with 21 points.

Alex Gibbens, who with a different demeanor might have become a problem after going from starter to sixth man, has never strayed from his positive, team-first attitude and made five 3-pointers and scored 16 points against the Cadets.

On another night, the leading scorer might have been Jack Richardson. Or Steve Wronski. Minutes played also changes on a daily basis. The starting lineup has altered numerous times. Melzer has the ultimate mix-and-match team.

It is ironic, pending Trumbull’s Division I semifinal tonight against East Catholic, the Rams might be the lone FCIAC boys team in a state final. There was no better story in the league this winter.

Ridgefield had a great run to the league title. The Eagles’ quarterfinal victory over Sacred Heart on Monday night was the biggest of the year. Wilton ending up as the second seed was significant.

But the Rams’ run played out throughout the entire season. Given the program’s recent past and style of play, they were Hoosiers Lite. They became the favorite of the non-partisan fan.

The more the CIAC tries to fix the tournament, the greater the regression. There hasn’t been much to like.

But the Rams’ putback of the state governing board’s airball, for those in the area that have followed them the last three months, has been a rare benefit.

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