Sweetest NCAA Memories #1: The ’79 Tourney – More Than Magic & Larry

Posted by rtmsf on March 18th, 2009

memories

RTC asked its legion of correspondents, charlatans, sycophants, toadies and other hangers-on to send us their very favorite March Madness memory,  something that had a visceral effect on who they are as a person and college basketball fan today.  Not surprisingly, many of the submissions were excellent and if you’re not fired up reading them, then you need to head back over to PerezHilton for the rest of this month.  We’ve chosen the sixteen best, and we’ll be counting them down over the next two weeks as we approach the 2009 NCAA Tournament.

The Hunter S. Thompson of College Basketball (submitted by Ray Floriani of College Chalktalk)

SOUTH ORANGE, NJ – The NCAA tournament in 1979 turned out to be truly memorable. And not simply because of Magic vs. Bird. First, a  little background. I was writing and doing some photographic work for Eastern Basketball magazine. EB was produced in the Long Island home of founders Ralph and Rita Pollio and enjoyed a good following.  The three of us plus Rita’s brother Ray took a twelve-hour drive to Raleigh for the first two rounds. On Friday evening Penn stopped Iona (coached by the late Jim Valvano) and St. John’s upset a good Temple team. On Sunday it was the day still known in ACC country as “Black Sunday.” Penn upset top ranked North Carolina and St. John’s, who upset Duke in December’s Holiday Festival consolation, made it two straight over the Devils with another upset victory.

The following weekend it was off to Greensboro for the regionals. I traveled with EB writer Happy Fine. An extremely knowledgeable basketball analyst and excellent writer, Happy knew a good number of people and was well connected. We flew to Greensboro, had regular hotel rooms, credentials and ate at good restaurants and covered some memorable games. Greensboro Coliseum was half (or more empty) with no ACC representatives. Even the local papers billed the regionals as the “frost belt four.”  For the record, Penn upset Syracuse and St.John’s did the same to Rutgers in the semis. Then Penn edged St. John’s in a thrilling regional final. As the sign Penn fans held in post game celebrations read,  “weese going to Utah.”

penn-79-f4-team

Now in 1979 there was no Big East. Penn naturally was in the Ivy, but schools like St. John’s were part of ECAC regional affiliations while Rutgers was in the Eastern Eight (now Atlantic Ten). We did not cover the ACC at EB – only the “traditional East.” We had an agreement with the NCAA that if we got a team in we could get a Final Four credential (as in… one credential). As much as Rita tried, we could not secure a second for yours truly.  Happy and I would drive to Philadelphia (about 2 hours) and fly on the Penn fan charter – the bad news was that I did not have a ticket nor did we have hotel rooms in Salt Lake City. Talk about “survive and advance.”

We flew out Thursday morning , two days before the semis. Happy secured us a ‘room’ in the suite of  SI’s Curry Kirkpatrick. A heavy hitter on SI’s team, I met Curry through Happy in Greensboro and felt him humble and passionate about the game. An hour into the flight, Happy had already secured tickets for me to the semis and finals with the whole cost setting me back only about $30. No complaints, at least I was in. The charter was mostly Penn students and we had a great time discussing basketball with them on the flight out.  That night I went to the NABC (National Association of Basketball Coaches) all-star game at the old Salt Palace, where the Jazz played. Pleased to see James Bailey of Rutgers star in the contest which had a number of solid players.

The Final Four was held at the Arena on the University of Utah campus. On Friday at open practice I met with Al McGuire. There was no ESPN back then. NBC televised the tournament and some national games. Eastern teams like Syracuse got maybe a date or two or national TV. McGuire wanted to know more about Penn so Rita arranged for me to meet with him.  She prepared a sizable portfolio on the Quakers. After meeting McGuire, quite a thrill since I idolized him and his coaching style since high school, he put the packet aside. In his unique style he jotted down key points about Penn. Their marquee players Tony Price and Bobby Willis. The multi-talented center Matt White. The coaching philosophy of Bob Weinauer. The streamers thrown after the first basket. Even the watering hole, Smokey Joe’s, which had cheap tap brews and great cheesesteaks. We met for about a half hour then McGuire gave me his card. Safe to say, from my vantage point, the McGuire meeting was a highlight of that Final Four (an example of his peculiar eloquence is below).

Got back to the hotel and Happy asked if I wouldn’t mind going to another hotel. No problem, even though I quietly arose at 7 a.m. that morning to go running. Seems Curry had ‘overbooked’ his guests. We arranged for me to stay with Mike Madden of the Boston Globe. I met Mike covering some BC games. We got along well and had no problems with the situation.

Saturday. Game day. Rode the NABC shuttle to the arena and one coach had a remark that could be etched in stone when he said, “there is no better day in basketball than today.”  He’s right because as special as the finals are, the semifinal Saturday gives you four teams all with national championship hopes and dreams. Penn-Michigan State was the first game.  The Quakers got inside Michigan State’s patented 2-3 matchup zone, but could not hit a thing, picking the most inopportune time to play their worst game. The margin was in the thirties in the first half as MSU cruised. The second game came down to the final minutes as Indiana State edged DePaul. Thought it was a special story that the same Ray Meyer who coached DePaul to prominence with George Mikan three decades prior was back in the limelight.

Through post game receptions with the NABC and media on Saturday night and into Sunday the talk was over Michigan State dismantling Penn and now Magic vs. Bird on Monday night. They told us Salt Lake City was dry. With the commerce dollars coming in that weekend, the city’s ‘good fathers’ probably looked the other way as the beer flowed like an amber cascade. Made some phone reports to Ralph but his phone was disconnected so we called the neighbor who would run across the street to get him.

magic-title-si

Met Basketball Times publisher Larry Donald on Sunday. It’s ironic that about a decade later I would be working for him. Snapped some shots around the picturesque Utah campus and chatted with students. Arkansas coach Eddie Sutton stopped by a media reception on Sunday evening. Sutton’s Arkansas team dropped a heart breaker to Indiana State in a regional final but the coach was cordial and an interesting personality to discuss the game with. Happy and Bob Ryan told Sutton about this young high school player doing some work in Boston, Patrick Ewing.

On Monday I went to a few NABC clinics. As a basketball fanatic I’m always looking for information on the game. Ohio State’s Don Devoe gave a great talk. Really impressed with a coach who would fall afoul to recruiting violations a few years later; New Mexico’s Norm Ellenberger also spoke about the fast break.  Back in those days they had a consolation game and Penn was thrilled to go out and prove they belonged. I ‘borrowed’ Happy’s press pass to get some photos on the floor. Penn played well and lost a tough one to DePaul. The Quakers gained back some respect, but unfortunately the game was not televised.

The final saw Magic Johnson’s Michigan State vs. Larry Bird’s Indiana State. A great game. Greg Kelser was an inside factor for the Spartans and, though there was no three point shot, Jud Heathcote had a few good outside shooters that kept the defense honest. Michigan State held about a nine point lead through the second half. That nine felt like eighteen as they were in command throughout.  Got on the floor for the post game awards. Snapped some shots then caught some of the post game press conference in a huge area to accommodate several hundred media. Shortly after, Happy and I went to the airport to catch our charter. It was a redeye and as we boarded, a Penn student brought a PENN sign from a side scoreboard at the arena. Why not ?

We flew cross-country in the middle of the night. Penn students slept. At times I stayed awake thinking about it all, wondering will Indiana State stay a major player or was this their “fifteen minutes of fame?”  Penn will be a major Ivy player, but was this like Princeton’s ’65 final Four run where everything came together?  Magic’s greatest attribute is his ability to raise his teammates’ games, and what a great story the DePaul resurgence was.

As years passed the ’79 final went down as a classic. In truth, for me, the whole weekend was.

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Sweetest NCAA Memories #2: The Open Road Leads to the Final Four

Posted by rtmsf on March 17th, 2009

memories

RTC asked its legion of correspondents, charlatans, sycophants, toadies and other hangers-on to send us their very favorite March Madness memory,  something that had a visceral effect on who they are as a person and college basketball fan today.  Not surprisingly, many of the submissions were excellent and if you’re not fired up reading them, then you need to head back over to PerezHilton for the rest of this month.  We’ve chosen the sixteen best, and we’ll be counting them down over the next two weeks as we approach the 2009 NCAA Tournament.

Roadtrippin’ to the Alamo City  (submitted by John Stevens)

March 1998.
 
98-ncaa-f4-logo
I was living with two friends at the time in an apartment befitting three guys in various stages of their education: one of us a few years out of college and still not playing it too fast and loose with his new income, most of which was being put toward his upcoming wedding; another fellow who was finding no stimulation in graduate school and was looking to upgrade his life; and me, breezing through the last two easy months before my college graduation, working enough at my cake-walk part-time job to keep me in pizza, beer, and the occasional night out (which usually involved pizza and beer).
 
It was also tournament time.  Our favorite time of year.  Feeling the wanderlust that an emerging springtime brings, my grad-school roommate and I decided that instead of watching our favorite event on TV as we’d done for most of the previous two weeks, we’d empty our bank accounts and take a road trip to one of the regionals — say, given the snow outside our window in mid-March, the one in St. Petersburg, Florida.  Not exactly a tough sell.  Turned out to be one of the best road trips I ever took.
 
Until the next week.
These F4 Fans Weren't As Lucky

These F4 Fans Weren't As Lucky As John

 
We got home from St. Pete and were going through several days of unopened mail when I noticed an envelope bearing the emblem of my college.  Specifically, the Office of Billing and Financial Aid.  99 times out of 100, that means a bill.  Not exactly something I wanted, having just blown a wad of cash to travel to an NCAA regional.  It was about as welcome as a positive syphilis test.
 
But wait, what was this?  Weeeeell, evidently some of the grant money awarded me many months ago never found its way to my account, so now that the mistake had been found, a check had been cut for me in the amount of $1500.  My buddy and I had just spent the last half hour reminiscing on what a great road trip we’d just had, but still sad because we didn’t know when our next one would be.  When I opened that envelope and saw that check, I looked at my friend and told him, “Don’t bother unpacking.  We’re going to the Final Four.”
 
He said he couldn’t part with the cash needed for such a trip, but I reminded him that I owed him a few hundred bucks from a previous debt and that we’d sort out the rest later.  To his credit, it didn’t take much persuading. The Final Four that year was in San Antonio, a city I’d heard too many great things about, so there was no way I was going to defy fate and pass up this opportunity.  I’d never been to Texas, never even been anywhere near that part of the country.  And it’s one of my favorite things to do any time of the year, but as the weather gets warm, is there anything better than packing up a bag and a cooler and hitting the open road with a friend? 

(photo credt:  interstate-guide.com)

Three days later, we were doing exactly that.  We bought tickets from a newspaper ad, left in the middle of the night, and drove for hours and hours.  Nothing on the radio but people talking Final Four basketball.  Constant analysis, endless interviews with coaches, former players, etc.  The farther south we drove, the warmer it got.  We started out wearing sweaters and jeans, and in a few hours we were in t-shirts, shorts and sunglasses.  It was one of the ugliest drives I’d ever been a part of.  It involved two dudes who reeked from being in a car too long.  But in its own way, it was paradise.
 
We found living quarters (we thought we were going to be shacking as far away as Austin, but avoided that thanks to the generosity of my buddy’s family) and went to find the epicenter of activity for the weekend.  We found the San Antonio Riverwalk by following the noise of the crowd, the sounds of  mariachis doing  renditions of college fight songs, and, um, Dick Vitale’s voice.  Every once in a while as you walked this gorgeous underground pedestrian street along the banks of the San Antonio River, you’d see groups of tourists floating by on large rafts, looking back at the walkers who were looking at them.  Sometimes the raft drifting by you would contain a school’s cheerleading or dance team squad, or part of its band, or the CBS studio crew (if Bill Raftery’s big smiling mug floating by on a raft doesn’t bring a smile to your own face, you need to visit your local neurologist, because you are officially incapable of smiling), and so on.  The biggest crowd response always happened when Dickie V would come floating by, waving and gesturing to the masses like a big kid.  I mean, my God, he’s been doing this for how many years?  And there’s not a doubt in my mind — he was still having as much fun as we were.

(photo credit:  c21unitedgroup.com)

We made our way to the Fan Jam and just owned the two-on-two shootout for a while, calling ourselves The Shammgods — the insiders applauded the name, much respect — and scoring many notable (and even upset) victories, including a single-shot victory over a couple of prepsters from NYC and an absolute trouncing of two cocky 14-year olds from Tennessee.  In our eighth — that’s right, you heard me, eighth — game I hit a cold streak and a couple of local college kids got the better of us; I still relive this cold streak in my mind every so often and the blood still boils.  We considered it an upset on the level of ’85 Villanova, but at that point I think we were such big favorites in Vegas, it wasn’t worth it any more.  We met former College of Charleston coach John Kresse who actually took a few moments from strolling with his wife to talk hoops and take pictures with us.  Near the ESPN set, we bumped into Steve Lavin who acted like he didn’t see or hear about our exploits at the two-on-two shootout; both of those guys couldn’t have been nicer.  It wasn’t just celebrity-sighting — when talking college basketball with them, they weren’t celebrities any more, just regular guys talking about the thing they love the most.
 
We all know the games from that particular Final Four were fantastic, no matter for whom you were rooting – Kentucky, Utah, UNC or Stanford.  There’s simply no way to describe the atmosphere at a Final Four game.  The best comparison I can think of is watching the end of a Pink Floyd concert when they’re doing the last number (Run Like Hell) and there are pyrotechnics and lasers like you never imagined and the stage is basically on fire.  Imagine that over three days of basketball.  The fireworks are constantly taking place on the basketball floor, and the energy and emotion of the crowd is every bit as urgent and electric. 

The Alamodome Has Hosted Several F4s
The Alamodome Has Hosted Several F4s

I had fallen in love with college basketball long before this road trip.  Even though I never possessed the skill to play it at that level, the sport has been a favorite distraction of mine ever since I’ve had functioning neurons in my brain.  But watching those games at the Alamodome and being part of the overall atmosphere of the Final Four that year… well, it was one of those few watershed times in a person’s life, like when you hear a piece of music or meet a person you know from the first nanosecond will always be part of your existence.  My friend and I drove the 20+ hours back to the humdrum rhythm of our everyday lives, and as I walked around my campus and worked at my job I saw people who probably once had similar watershed moments in their lives, but whose realities had become relegated to the process of just getting through the days, just surviving things — whatever those sticky, sinister things were.  Those were the days when I looked back on my trip as I looked at these people, and I decided — I will never fall victim to those things.  Whatever it entails, as often as I possibly can, I’ll always go to be a part of that event.  I will always have this in my life.

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Sweetest NCAA Memories #3: Loved, Hated, But Never Ignored

Posted by rtmsf on March 16th, 2009

memories

RTC asked its legion of correspondents, charlatans, sycophants, toadies and other hangers-on to send us their very favorite March Madness memory,  something that had a visceral effect on who they are as a person and college basketball fan today.  Not surprisingly, many of the submissions were excellent and if you’re not fired up reading them, then you need to head back over to PerezHilton for the rest of this month.  We’ve chosen the sixteen best, and we’ll be counting them down over the next two weeks as we approach the 2009 NCAA Tournament.

An NCAA victory over Duke tastes a little sweeter, and a loss to the Devils hurts a little more.  Nobody gets passions as high as Coach K’s Dookies, and we received two submissions that perfectly illustrate that range of emotions.

We Shocked the World!!! (submitted by Rob Dauster of Ballin is a Habit)

“Just when people say you can’t, UCan. And UConn has won the national championship.” – Jim Nantz

I’ll never forget those words. It was just three days before my 14th birthday. Growing up in Connecticut, we never really had a pro sports team, so we latched on to Jim Calhoun‘s UConn Huskies. Despite being a team of national relevance for a number of years, Calhoun had never gotten his team to the Final Four. He finally broke through in 1999, barely hanging on against 10 seed Gonzaga in the Elite 8 before beating Ohio State for what many thought to be the right to lose to a talented Duke squad in the Finals.

Duke came in riding a 32-game winning streak (their only loss was the Cincinnati in the Great Alaska Shootout, don’t ask me why I know such things) with a roster loaded with NBA draft picks – William Avery, Trajan Langdon, Shane Battier, Elton Brand, Corey Maggette.

But the Huskies hung with Duke the whole game, trailing by just two at the half, thanks in large part to 13 points from defensive specialist Ricky Moore. The second half became the Rip Hamilton Show, as the junior with the silky smooth jumper finished his last collegiate game with 27 points.

The game ended in unbelievable fashion. With UConn up 75-74, everyone’s favorite pudge-ball Khalid El-Amin drove baseline and threw up an airball, which Trajan Langdan collected with around 15 seconds left. He brought the ball up court and tried to go one-on-one against Moore. Moore forced him into a travel. El-Amin would rattle home two free throws, setting up the finish. Langdon would once again take the inbounds and dribble into a double team before turning the ball over.

And that was it.  So what is my memory?

elamin2

Seeing Khalid El-Amin screaming “WE SHOCKED THE WORLD” before jumping into Jake Voskuhl’s arms.

———————————————————————————————————————————

Verne Lundquist Just Had an Aneurysm (submitted by Patrick Marshall of Bluejay Basketball)

Being a big Kentucky fan most of my life, no one can forget the 1992 East Regional Final of Kentucky vs. Duke.  The game was spectacular but what made the Kentucky team so special were the players that were affectionately known as “The Unforgettables.”  Kentucky’s basketball program had been dragged through the mud four years before in a major scandal involving academic fraud and improper payments to recruits.  However, Richie Farmer, Deron Feldhaus, John Pelphrey and Sean Woods chose to stay with the program and as seniors in their first eligible appearance, they made a surprising run in the NCAA tournament that year to the regional finals against Duke.  The three-point shot has been one of the most exciting innovations in college basketball and the Cats’ love of the three-point shot is what established my love for these Wildcats. As the Wildcats drove deeper into March, I just had to watch that game.

laettner-baseline-shot
Back in the day I had this black and white portable tv and I remember taking it to high school musical practice so I could still watch the game while we had rehearsal.  I seem to remember that Kentucky was down somewhat big (12 pts), but some key threes got them back into the game and eventually sent the game into overtime.  As they battled in overtime it was down to what appeared to be one play.  Sean Woods drove to the basket and made an awkward bank-shot with 2.1 seconds left.  I was jumping around the room like mad and thought there was no way Duke would be able to get off a good shot – Kentucky has made it back to the Final Four.  However, it was not to be.  Duke inbounded the ball length of the court and Christian Laettner hit the storied shot that is now shown every year at tournament time.  Laettner finished his 10-10 shooting and 31 point night with a storybook ending as Duke went on the next week to gain back-to-back NCAA championships.  I just said to myself over and over, “How did John Pelphrey not react fast enough to stop a 2/3 court pass to Laettner at the free throw line.  Not only that, but he just stood there and watched him shoot it.”   Oh, I so hate Duke and oh what could have been.

The game had all the drama you could ask for with the lead changing five times in the final 31 seconds of the game and both teams combining to shoot 63% in the second half and overtime.   But that final shot is what is the most recognizable and memorable part of that game.  This season Kentucky fans not only have to watch the shot again, but have to re-live the whole drama and feel the punch in the stomach again with a new commercial including Laettner and now turncoat Rick Pitino. But in the end, this game is considered by many to be the greatest college basketball game of all time.  I know I will never forget it.

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Sweetest NCAA Memories #4: Bryce Drew & Family

Posted by rtmsf on March 15th, 2009

memories

RTC asked its legion of correspondents, charlatans, sycophants, toadies and other hangers-on to send us their very favorite March Madness memory,  something that had a visceral effect on who they are as a person and college basketball fan today.  Not surprisingly, many of the submissions were excellent and if you’re not fired up reading them, then you need to head back over to PerezHilton for the rest of this month.  We’ve chosen the sixteen best, and we’ll be counting them down over the next two weeks as we approach the 2009 NCAA Tournament.

My Stepdad, A Sports Bar, and Bryce Drew (submitted by Dave Zeitlin)

Long before Bryce Drew made one of the most memorable shots in college basketball history, I sat in a fourth-grade class waiting impatiently for my stepfather to pick me up early from school. At the time, I did not know that something strange and wonderful was about to begin, a tradition, I must admit now to all my teachers from fourth grade through high school, that was fueled by a lie: No, I wasn’t really sick the same Thursday and Friday in March every year. The truth is, I ditched school every year so I could watch the first-round games of the NCAA tournament at a sports bar with my stepdad. Phew, I feel better now. And now that this public admission is out of the way, I must say that I learned lessons at the sports bar that I never could have learned in school – like how to watch four games at once without missing a basket (hard); how to order food while keeping an eye on the TV (not as hard); and who to root for you when you had no real rooting interest (the dark jerseys, of course).

It was also there where I learned about Bryce Drew.

bryce-drew-shot

For those who don’t know about Bryce Drew’s game-winning shot – well, you guys are just bad people. Seriously, the play doesn’t need a description because anyone who is a college basketball fan has seen it over and over again. But amazingly, it never gets old. Watch the YouTube clip of the wild finish of the 1998 first-round game between Valparaiso and Mississippi (below), and then check out the longer version, and then watch both clips one more time.

Valpo 70, Ole Miss 69. Chills.

Sure, there are buzzer-beaters every year. And 13 seeds often find a way to sneak into the second round or the Sweet 16. But for me, Drew’s shot is in a class by itself for two reasons: For starters, what few people remember is that Drew missed an open 3-pointer seconds earlier and Valpo only got the chance to pull off the win when Ole Miss star Ansu Sesay missed two free throws and the rebound was, fortuitously, tipped out-of-bounds and given to Valpo. Secondly, it wasn’t just the single shot that was amazing. It was the entire play – from the pump-fake on the inbounds pass by Jamie Sykes, to the leaping catch in traffic by Bill Jenkins, to the nifty touch pass to the streaking Drew, to The Shot, to the wild celebration on the floor, and then, finally, to an emotional hug between Drew and his head coach.

Only at that moment, it wasn’t his head coach that he was hugging. It was his father, Homer. And for me, that’s the coolest thing about the play – that it was designed for Bryce by his dad. Every time I think of the play, I always imagine the father and son having drawn it up years before while goofing around on an old, raggedy driveway hoop. Bryce’s older brother, Scott, the Baylor head coach who was then an assistant at Valpo, probably helped, too.

Many of These NCAA Memories Come Back to Family
Many of These NCAA Memories Come Back to Family

Lucky for me, on the day the Drew family booked their place in NCAA tournament lore, I was with a family member, too. Even better, I was with someone who understood that the first round of the NCAA tournament – also known as the greatest two days in sports – is far more important than a few hours in school. And if you don’t think that’s true, watch Bryce Drew’s shot one more time.

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Sweetest NCAA Memories #5: The Mason Miracle

Posted by rtmsf on March 14th, 2009

memories

RTC asked its legion of correspondents, charlatans, sycophants, toadies and other hangers-on to send us their very favorite March Madness memory,  something that had a visceral effect on who they are as a person and college basketball fan today.  Not surprisingly, many of the submissions were excellent and if you’re not fired up reading them, then you need to head back over to PerezHilton for the rest of this month.  We’ve chosen the sixteen best, and we’ll be counting them down over the next two weeks as we approach the 2009 NCAA Tournament.

The Mason Miracle (submitted by Ryan Kish of George Mason Basketball)

Will Thomas Dunked His Way to the Four

Will Thomas Dunked His Way to the Four

I’ll have to take the homer pick here, as a I do blog about George Mason.  The 2006 Final Four run by the Patriots shocked everyone and it wasn’t just the fact that they unseated some historic programs (Michigan St, UNC and UConn) but rather how they accomplished it.  The Patriots took down a UConn squad that was littered with NBA prospects by going right into the teeth of the Husky front court.  Not by shooting a barrage of hail mary three-pointers but by using their undersized forwards to take the Huskies on right at the chokepoint.  Mason inspired many basketball fans by showing that having superb talent doesn’t always guarantee victory and five guys playing together with unity and determination can win under any circumstance. The victory was not just for Mason but for all the mid-majors who thought they were not given enough respect around the NCAA and the media.  ‘If Mason can do it, why can’t we’, is now the battle cry on many mid-major campuses and everyone wonders  each year: who will be the next George Mason?

Answer: there won’t be one.

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Sweetest NCAA Memories #6: Butler to the Sweets

Posted by rtmsf on March 13th, 2009

memories

RTC asked its legion of correspondents, charlatans, sycophants, toadies and other hangers-on to send us their very favorite March Madness memory,  something that had a visceral effect on who they are as a person and college basketball fan today.  Not surprisingly, many of the submissions were excellent and if you’re not fired up reading them, then you need to head back over to PerezHilton for the rest of this month.  We’ve chosen the sixteen best, and we’ll be counting them down over the next two weeks as we approach the 2009 NCAA Tournament.

Your School, Your Time (submitted by Damon Lewis of the Horizon League Network)

Growing up I always thought of myself as a big time college basketball fan.  I remember feeling very fortunate that my school always held half-days on the first Thursday-Friday of March Madness.  Sure, it was pure coincidence, but I liked to think that it was somehow a sign that we were supposed to be watching the games, and that’s exactly what I did.  It wasn’t until I went to college at Butler that I learned what March Madness was truly all about.  After having collected 25 wins in 2001-2002, and falling victim to a rage-tastic NCAA snub, the Bulldogs responded the following season with 25 more wins, and this time an at-large bid into the Big Dance.  Birmingham, Alabama was the site, Mississippi State was the draw, and there was no question I’d be attending.  The first step was figuring out “how” and the second step was figuring out “when” – as many of my friends and I had a fraternity formal scheduled for the exact same weekend.  It didn’t take long for the plans to come together, however.  We’d leave Friday morning, and 8 hours later we’d be in Birmingham, just in time to be able to watch a potential 2nd-round opponent, the Louisville Cardinals.  After the game, we’d drive straight back and attend our formal the next night on a few hours of sleep.  Just another day in the life of a college kid, right?

Butler Rode Cornette & Co. to the Second Weekend (photo credit: enquirer.com)

Butler Rode Cornette & Co. to the Second Weekend (photo credit: enquirer.com)

All went as planned.  Myself and 3 others drove all day on Friday, constantly going over why we thought our Bulldogs (not Mississippi State’s) would be victorious.  We tried to convince ourselves all afternoon that we’d be marching on, but none of us really believed it.  We were just happy to be able to escape the cold air of Indianapolis for a day.  Soon enough we arrived, and caught a glimpse of why Louisville was so feared that season (02-03).  They hammered Austin Peay in the first game of the night session, ending the Governors’ season.  As that game ended, the butterflies really started to build.  I was at an NCAA Tournament game, and not to just watch and enjoy the action.  I was there for MY team.  And I can tell you, win or lose, there’s nothing like being able to root for your team at the NCAA Tournament.  When you’re a heavy underdog, playing a team from the SEC, in SEC country, there’s something about feeling that momentum build as David is taking its best shots at Goliath.

As tip-time neared, everything that had been absorbed from watching Butler for an entire season began racing through my brain.  They needed to shoot well from the perimeter, stay out of foul trouble, and most importantly – control the tempo.  That Butler squad enjoyed grinding out possessions, and they were damn good at it.  At the same time, everything that had been absorbed from that entire week – pundits predicting a massive Mississippi State victory for being seeded too low as a #5 – also came rushing to the front of my brain.  It was a different, unsettling feeling, one that I haven’t felt about any Butler basketball team ever since.  The game took shape – painfully slow – just the type that Butler wanted.  There were punches, counter-punches, and counter-counter-punches, all spread VERY far and wide across both 20-minute halves.  Slowly, the “neutral” fans began to get on Butler’s bandwagon, and before anyone knew it, the game was still up for grabs with just seconds remaining.  Then this happened…

That feeling is one that I’ll never, ever forget.  They had done it, and David had advanced to the Round of 32.  Other friends of mine stayed in Birmingham.  They called their dates to our fraternity formal and cancelled on them, but it was understandable given the circumstances.  Our small crew of four hopped back in the car and drove all night up I-65 back to Indianapolis.  It was the fastest eight hours I’ve ever spent in a car.  We went to our formal on Saturday night, and of course the victory was all anyone could talk about.  A fun time was had by all, but I don’t remember all that much of it.  I was already thinking about Sunday’s showdown with Louisville.  Combine that with the lack of sleep and an excessive amount of malted hops, and, well, you get the picture.  Everyone woke up early Sunday morning and headed back to campus to see if our classmates had one more unthinkable performance in them.  This is what we saw…

Needless to say, the scene on campus was unreal.  Everyone ran out of their housing units as soon as the final buzzer sounded, and it was pandemonium in the streets.  Sure, there were only a couple-thousand out there, but that was easily over half the campus!  To this day, I think about that 48-hour period every time March rolls around.  And, honestly, I usually end up telling this story to someone, whether they’ve heard it already or not.  I’ve been to several of Butler’s NCAA Tournament games since that weekend, but the sequel is never, EVER as good as the original.  That is, unless the latest sequel involves a run to the Elite 8 (or beyond) in the next couple weeks…

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Sweetest NCAA Memories #7: Two Shades of Orange(men)

Posted by rtmsf on March 12th, 2009

memories

RTC asked its legion of correspondents, charlatans, sycophants, toadies and other hangers-on to send us their very favorite March Madness memory,  something that had a visceral effect on who they are as a person and college basketball fan today.  Not surprisingly, many of the submissions were excellent and if you’re not fired up reading them, then you need to head back over to PerezHilton for the rest of this month.  We’ve chosen the sixteen best, and we’ll be counting them down over the next two weeks as we approach the 2009 NCAA Tournament.

We got two excellent submissions involving Syracuse, so we decided to throw both of them up in this memory (yeah, it’s cheating… take it up with our compliance dept.).

Syracuse, Finally (submitted by The Kiff)

Growing up in suburban Albany, NY, I have been a Syracuse basketball fan all of my life. Until 2003, that meant a life of never having had “my team” win the NCAA tournament – although it has meant heartbreak (see, e.g., 1987, 1996). That made 2003 all the more sweet. That year was my last year of law school in Virginia. My roommate and I decided on a whim that we would go to Vegas for the first week of the tournament – not an original idea, but still a great one. We got a flight on Southwest and a room at some crack den that has since been torn down called Bourbon Street. All I can say in justification is that we were poor students and that it was a 3-minute walk to Caesars Palace – and we weren’t killed. We got to Caesar’s Palace early Thursday morning, finding slot machines to sit at where we could watch the games, and just absorbing everything around us. While half of the screens in front of us were showing bombs of a different type in Iraq, we were largely focused on the upcoming games (and nervously wondering if there were going to be any).  I remember my buddy telling me that I could get 40-1 on Syracuse winning it all. I laughed and told him he was crazy – Cuse never wins it all, they just make you think they can. Damn it.

melo-syracuse
On Friday, we found ourselves actually sitting next to a couple of big Cuse fans, which was perfect. All I remember about the first game against Manhattan is that they won – not convincingly, but they won. I also remember that my hands hurt like a bitch from all of the high-fiving, and that I could barely talk from all of the yelling. On Sunday afternoon the good seats in Caesars opened up, and we were sitting pretty right in front. Unfortunately, the game started out rough – Cuse went down big early on (a Google search shows me they went down 17 points – jesus!). My buddy and I were going insane that they might lose in the second round with that lineup (McNamara, Anthony, Warrick, Edelin) – although I remember being less stressed than this kid sitting in front of us who we were pretty sure had bet his entire college tuition on the game. In the Final Four game against Texas, my memory is that Carmelo Anthony scored about 95 points and Gerry McNamara was hitting 3-pointers from half court. And this.  That may be the result of a faulty memory, but they definitely dominated. Finally, Syracuse was back in the Finals – they would be a major part of “One Shining Moment” – hopefully the best part.

This next part is a little embarrassing. Saturday night after the Final Four game, I had to go to an incoming-student event at the local pub. I spent the night drunk, chanting “Let’s Go Orange, Let’s Go!” (add clapping here) to anyone who would or would not listen. Now, I didn’t know my wife at that point, but when I later met her, and subsequently her friends, they knew me as the pathetically drunk dumbass in the [bar name redacted to protect the innocent] who had been screaming about “the Orange” all night. Alas, if they only knew how big it was to get into the Finals again. I couldn’t stand to watch the final game in a bar, so a buddy from school who is from the Syracuse area and is a bigger Cuse fan than me came over to my apartment and watched it with me. Needless to say, Hakim Warrick is a god to us. I have (almost) forgotten his missed free throws that almost killed us because the subsequent image of his diving block of the 3-pointer with no time on the clock is burned into my retinas. I have never been so happy watching a sporting event – except maybe the 1986 World Series, but I was too young to appreciate that one. If the Bills ever win a Super Bowl, I’ll have to revisit that statement, but for now, the 2003 Tournament, with my first trip to Vegas, the amazing games and Syracuse’s first Tourney win, will never be forgotten (note: the below video isn’t me, but it could have been).

—————————————————————————————————————————————

The other memory involving the Orangemen didn’t quite go the same way…

Sorrentine… From the Parking Lot (submitted by Michael Hurley)

There is nothing greater in sports than March Madness. It does what high school basketball no longer accomplishes. Except for in Kentucky and Delaware, high school basketball breaks their state tournaments down into classes by size. The NCAA tournament pits the big schools against the small schools. Every team needs to win six games straight. It is the same concept regardless of the size of school. Yes, there is seeding which makes it easier for the bigger and higher seeded schools, but the fundamentals are still the same. This is what enables teams along the way to write their own story and provide memorable moments in single games.

It’s the 2005 NCAA tournament. Syracuse was 27-6 and a four seed going up against Vermont, a thirteen seed. The Big East had six teams qualify for the tournament while Vermont was America East’s only representative. Syracuse had just won the national championship only two years before and Vermont had never won an NCAA tournament game. It had all of the makings of a David vs. Goliath. Vermont played Syracuse tough though, holding them to 23 first half points and was only down four. The Catamounts started to believe and came out in the second half and sent the game into overtime.

In overtime the Catamounts found themselves down two points with just under two minutes remaining when Germain Mopa Njila, who had been playing the best game of his career, hit a three to give Vermont the lead. The next play down the court for Vermont T.J Sorrentine hits the shot I will always remember. Sorrentine runs the clock down before tossing up a three-pointer from what it seemed like, halfcourt. The television camera catches coach Tom Brennan’s reaction to the shot and it is priceless. Brennan, who had announced at the beginning of the year he was going to retire after nineteen years at Vermont, is jumping for joy. Even though Vermont got knocked out their very next game, their victory over Syracuse will always reside in my memory when it comes to slaying the giant. T.J Sorrentine’s shot truly is the sweetest moment I can remember from the NCAA tournament.

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Sweetest NCAA Memories #8: Illinois’ Scintillating Comeback

Posted by rtmsf on March 11th, 2009

memories

RTC asked its legion of correspondents, charlatans, sycophants, toadies and other hangers-on to send us their very favorite March Madness memory,  something that had a visceral effect on who they are as a person and college basketball fan today.  Not surprisingly, many of the submissions were excellent and if you’re not fired up reading them, then you need to head back over to PerezHilton for the rest of this month.  We’ve chosen the sixteen best, and we’ll be counting them down over the next two weeks as we approach the 2009 NCAA Tournament.

Deron Williams Will Not Go Quietly  (submitted by Josh of Big Ten Geeks)

Who can forget Illinois’ 2005 comeback against Arizona?  This game certainly made Deron Williams a lot of money, but what strikes me about this contest is how everything had to go right for the Illini, and everything had to go wrong for Arizona in the final four minutes of regulation.  Illinois hit just about every shot they put up, even if it was from 30 feet, and every gamble they made on defense paid off.  There are more “what ifs” in this game than any other I’ve seen.  What if McClellan made both of his free throws, what if Hassan Adams was just a step quicker to block Dee Brown’s layup, and Arizona fans probably wonder what if the refs didn’t swallow their whistles in the last 4 minutes?  While I’ve never seen a better comeback, I have seen the same kind of furious rally at the end many times.  It happens when the better team suddenly realizes that there’s only a couple minutes to play, wakes up, and tries to mount a furious comeback.  The fans will later reflect on why the team didn’t play like this all game, but in the midst of the comeback, they’re just excited that the team might just pull this one off.  Inevitably, the gap shrinks, and it’s really just a matter of whether the underdog can avoid making a couple of mistakes that open the door.  Arizona left that door open, and the Illini marched right through it.

illinois-guards-05

Illinois of course had a historic season from a results standpoint, but they were also very entertaining to watch because of how they diced teams up on offense.  They didn’t have the most NBA players on the team, but they were unselfish and everyone played to their strengths.  A part of me thinks that while the Illini certainly wanted to win and go on to the Final Four, they also weren’t ready to stop playing together on that fateful evening in Chicago.

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Sweetest NCAA Memories #9: Where Heart Overcomes Head

Posted by rtmsf on March 10th, 2009

memories

RTC asked its legion of correspondents, charlatans, sycophants, toadies and other hangers-on to send us their very favorite March Madness memory,  something that had a visceral effect on who they are as a person and college basketball fan today.  Not surprisingly, many of the submissions were excellent and if you’re not fired up reading them, then you need to head back over to PerezHilton for the rest of this month.  We’ve chosen the sixteen best, and we’ll be counting them down over the next two weeks as we approach the 2009 NCAA Tournament.

If You’re Reading This, You Can Relate  (submitted by Greg Miller of WPSD Local 6)

I turn 33 years old in less than a month and if there one’s constant in my life, it’s been sports.  And if there’s one event each year that I look forward to more than any other, it’s the PBA Tour Finals.  Okay, that’s a lie.  It’s really the NCAA Tournament.  My fondest sports memories as a kid, as a high school student, as a college student and as an “adult” are of the Big Dance.  I have no one to thank for getting me hooked on the tournament but my father.
 
A 1959 Villanova graduate, my dad has rooted for the “Big V” as long as I can remember.  In 1985, it finally paid off.  Rollie and the ‘Cats miracle run to the title was the hook, line and sinker for me when it came to the NCAA Tournament.  Unfortunately, my mom made me go to bed that Monday night and I didn’t know of the ‘Cats win until the next morning.  I still, to this day, have newspaper clippings and such from that game.  From that moment, I became a Villanova fan for life.


 
I can’t fill out a bracket without somehow convincing myself that Villanova can make the Final Four.  Example, you ask? 
 
1995.  ‘Nova had one of their best regular seasons in a long, long time led by the one-sock-up-wonder, Kerry Kittles.  The were finally back in the tournament for the first time in a few years and the ‘Cats are a 3-seed and get Old Dominion in the first round.  I naturally pick Villanova in the Final Four.  It’s my freshman year of college and I’m a videographer for the Ohio University women’s basketball team and we are flying to Seattle for the NCAA Tournament.  While in the air, ‘Nova is playing ODU.  I thought the flight attendant was going to throw me out of the plane.  I had one of those old-school walkmans with an AM/FM radio.  As we crossed over Minnesota and the great northwest of the United States, I kept tuning in broadcasts of the game.  I would catch a few minutes here, a few minutes there.  The flight attendant must have told me 15 times to turn off the walkman!  I refused.  I didn’t care that I was putting the flight in jeopardy.  Villanova was playing and they were going to overtime with OD-Who?  As you may have guessed (or remembered), the ‘Cats lost, all but ruining my trip to the Emerald City.  Luckily I was not arrested upon exit from the plane.
 
That’s just one of many Villanova heartbreak stories I’ve had following the ‘Cats all these years.  But if nothing else, it always gives my dad and I something we can talk, bond, argue, second-guess and complain about come March.

  • I remember on my 12th birthday, Villanova upset Rex Chapman and UK on their way to an Elite Eight loss to the great Stacey King/Mookie Blaylock-led Oklahoma Sooners.
  • After the ’95 disaster, I’m convinced they’ll bounce back in ’96 & 97 only to watch them get upset in the second round by Louisville and Cal (led by Tony Gonzalez)
  • Finally, after another lenghty lay-off from the Dance, ‘Nova gets back in with these youngsters (Randy Foye, Allen Ray, Mike Nardi and Curtis Sumpter, who tore his ACL and didn’t get to play)  Once again, I think they’re Final Four bound (when will I learn?!?!)  But this year they actually give me hope.  A win over New Mexico.  A win over Florida.  For the first time since 1988, they’re back in the Sweet Sixteen!  A showdown with Carolina in the Carrier Dome.  Do I need to remind you all of the phantom walk on Allen Ray in the final seconds? (1:05 mark)  Enough said.  Another heartbreaking end to the season.
  • 2006.  This might finally be the year.  A #1 seed.  They get the play-in winner for crying out loud!  Oops.  Monmouth gave the ‘Cats a war and ‘Nova barely got out alive.  Not one of their proudest moments.  But they did regroup to make it to the Elite Eight thanks to a memorable comeback against Boston College in the Sweet Sixteen.  The headline in the Philly Daily News read “Villa-Thrilla!”  Will Sheridan’s goaltend bucket will live in Main Line infamy and it gave me a memorable 30th birthday.  Unfortunately, what happened after that was something I wish I could forget.  A poor-shooting night ended the ‘Cats run (and a pretty good Florida team.  How did they finish?).
  • Then came last year’s improbable march to the round of 16 as a #12 seed.  Just a great coaching job by Jay Wright and a gutty effort by guys like Scottie Reynolds.  I never thought they had a chance against Kansas, but for once, just getting there was enough for me. 

Don’t think I can say the same for this year.  This team is capable of big things.  And again, I will talk myself into putting Villanova in my Final Four.  Only this time I hope I’m right.  And this time I won’t have to go to bed early!

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Sweetest NCAA Memories #10: “The Show” Sinks Carolina

Posted by rtmsf on March 9th, 2009

memories

RTC asked its legion of correspondents, charlatans, sycophants, toadies and other hangers-on to send us their very favorite March Madness memory,  something that had a visceral effect on who they are as a person and college basketball fan today.  Not surprisingly, many of the submissions were excellent and if you’re not fired up reading them, then you need to head back over to PerezHilton for the rest of this month.  We’ve chosen the sixteen best, and we’ll be counting them down over the next two weeks as we approach the 2009 NCAA Tournament.

Harold “The Show” Arceneaux  (submitted by RTC Intern Mike Lemaire)

“Nobody gave us a chance in that first-round game against North Carolina. But we watched tape of them and came up with a game plan. We wanted to play to our strengths, and we didn’t care about their strengths. We wanted to spread the floor and use our quickness, make some of their big people play away from the basket. I don’t think North Carolina was ever worried about losing the game until the final few minutes. Then they started to takes us more seriously.”  — Harold Arceneaux

(photo credit: tampabay.com)

(photo credit: tampabay.com)

Long before Stephen Curry was leaving his mark on the NCAA tournament with his scoring barrage there was Harold “The Show” Arceneaux. Arceneaux was a 6-foot-6 guard for Weber State, and in 1999, he transformed from a good player to a player every college basketball fan remembers vividly. I remember the year, I was just 12 years old, and because my father wasn’t a basketball fan, I was an unabashed bandwagon-jumper. In 1999, it was North Carolina. Although the Tar Heels weren’t as strong as they had been in the past, the team was still loaded with talent like Ed Cota and Brendan Haywood. They entered the tournament as a three seed and were considered a lock to make it through the first round when they drew Weber State, but they didn’t know about Harold Arceneaux.

The Heels had no answer for “The Show” as he dumped 36 points on them on 14-26 shooting, including 5-7 from behind the arc. I remember because every time North Carolina looked like it would crawl back into the game, Arceneaux would get the ball and bury some fall-away jumper that would make UNC coach Bill Guthridge throw his hands into the air in frustration.  I can’t even remember how many times I screamed at the television.  Even when UNC tied the game with less than 20 seconds left, Arceneaux calmly sank two free throws and sealed the victory with a steal as time expired. What no one remembers is that Weber State also took Florida to overtime in the second round largely on the back of Arceneaux and his 32 points. Unfortunately, I don’t remember that either because I had my TV privileges revoked by my father for throwing the remote at the wall and smashing it when Arceneaux stole the pass to end the UNC game. So I guess in that sense, Arceneaux made sure he was my ONLY memory from the 1999 tournament.

(start at the 2:55 mark for highlights of the UNC game)

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Sweetest NCAA Memories #11: Remember the Titans

Posted by rtmsf on March 8th, 2009

memories

RTC asked its legion of correspondents, charlatans, sycophants, toadies and other hangers-on to send us their very favorite March Madness memory,  something that had a visceral effect on who they are as a person and college basketball fan today.  Not surprisingly, many of the submissions were excellent and if you’re not fired up reading them, then you need to head back over to PerezHilton for the rest of this month.  We’ve chosen the sixteen best, and we’ll be counting them down over the next two weeks as we approach the 2009 NCAA Tournament.

Mercy Mercy Me (submitted by Ryan Pravato of College Fast Break)

UDM Star Rashad Phillips

UDM Star Rashad Phillips

Detroit Mercy was quite possibly the first ‘dog in the fight’ I ever had in the NCAA tournament.  Thanks to my dad’s efforts of introducing me to Titan basketball in ’98, I became enamored with Rashad Phillips’ flashiness and grit and thoroughly impressed with Perry Watson’s calm nature on the sidelines. Growing up an hour from Detroit gave me great leeway at jumping on any Michigan-based team’s bandwagon at any time.   It didn’t hurt that at that point in my life (age 9) I was gung-ho about underdogs anyway. I also had an uncanny knack for memorizing player’s names and heights, so much so that I was told countless times to ‘calm down’ and ‘zip it’ by my dad days prior to the game because of my constant regurgitation of the info I had read in the newspaper about the Detroit players. Apparently during the game I kept quiet enough, since I do remember that my dad allowed me to stay up late and watch the entire thing with him.

A ‘little’ school like Detroit actually knocking off a powerhouse… that completely hooked me on the sport. It didn’t seem true at the time, it seemed more like something I would have conjured up in my mind the night after the brackets were announced (is that not the best night ever?). All I know is that I owe my dad something really really nice one of these Father’s Days.

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Sweetest NCAA Memories #12: Mario Miracle

Posted by rtmsf on March 6th, 2009

memories

RTC asked its legion of correspondents, charlatans, sycophants, toadies and other hangers-on to send us their very favorite March Madness memory,  something that had a visceral effect on who they are as a person and college basketball fan today.  Not surprisingly, many of the submissions were excellent and if you’re not fired up reading them, then you need to head back over to PerezHilton for the rest of this month.  We’ve chosen the sixteen best, and we’ll be counting them down over the next two weeks as we approach the 2009 NCAA Tournament.

The Mario Miracle  (submitted by Ryan ZumMallen of LBPostSports.com)

The Kansas Jayhawks had let me down too many times before.  Even as they romped through the 2008 NCAA Tournament field to face Memphis in the title game, visions of Arizona in 1997, Hakim Warrick’s freakish length in 2003 and Bucknell in 2005 danced in my head.  I mean, I was expecting national championships in those years.  Mike Bibby single-handedly made me question the meaning of life at the age of 12.

From This...

From This...

I’d been scorned too many times to get my hopes up as Kansas continued to win last season.  And win, and win.  I was cautiously optimistic heading into the title game, even after the Jayhawks’ romp of UNC in the game prior.  I thought we’d need a miracle.  Sure enough, Memphis gave us that by bricking free throws like it was in fashion.  Down three, I watched in horror as Sherron Collins dribbled down the court (his ball-handling has always terrified me) and found Mario Chalmers, who launched an impossible three-pointer from twenty-five feet out.  This was the point where Memphis was supposed to grab the rebound and celebrate.  But the universe felt my pain, it too had suffered long enough from the Jayhawks’ constant teasing.

...to This.

...to This.

The shot went in, and I screamed like a banshee.  I didn’t care that the game was about to go into overtime.  We beat fate.  We’d already won.

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