So now we come to my favorite two weeks of the college basketball season. Come to think of it, they might be my favorite two weeks on the sports calendar.
This is the week when schools like Mt. St. Mary’s get some national attention after going from 1-11 to 19-15 and winning the NEC Tournament. This is the week when Iona wins a classic in overtime over Siena in the MAAC final—winning a road game in what is supposed to be a neutral site tournament.
This is the week when I have to tune out the screaming bracketologists who change their bracket every hour, depending on results. That’s a skill?
Let me digress here for a moment to tell you just how difficult this so-called bracketology thing is. For years, my friend, the late/great Bill Brill would sit down on Saturday evening after the ACC Tournament semifinals were over to draw up a bracket.
All he had with him was a six-pack of beer and David Teel, of the Newport News Daily Press—who had every team’s record in front of him in case Brill was in doubt, which he rarely was, about anything.
Brill and Teel would take about an hour: no computer printouts; no staff there to curry to their every whim—unless you count me making sure Brill had enough beer—just the records, their knowledge of basketball and an understanding of the committee’s alleged criteria—I say alleged because that criteria tends to float depending on how they want to spin a story: if the numbers make their case, they cite numbers; if they don’t, they fall back on the so-called eye test—the problem being that most of their eyes no little about basketball.
By 8 o’clock, Brill would have his bracket—which would include either-ors for Sunday games—done. We’d all go to dinner and then, at the stroke of midnight, Brill would be rolled into the media hospitality room (better known as the ‘hostility,’ room because fights often broke out late at night) at the stroke of midnight.
Why a luggage cart? It was all we could find.
With great pomp, Brill would then announce the pairings. One year, ACC Commissioner Gene Corrigan introduced him. How seriously were Brill’s pairings taken? Occasionally, young reporters actually called their papers to say, “I’m going to Salt Lake City with the Tar Heels/Wolfpack/Cavaliers/Yellow Jackets—take your pick.
Brill was the first bracketologist. I have forgiven him for this, just as I forgave another late/great friend of mine Tom Mickle for inventing the Bowl Alliance which begot the BCS which begot the CFP.
Brill did his work in one hour. One six-pack-of-beer (give or take) and Teel. That was it. Now, these guys have somehow conned America into giving them a year-round job that I assume is pretty lucrative. I know Joe Lunardi and I like Joe Lunardi. But every time I hear the phrase, “Lunardi has them as…” I run screaming from the room.
Okay, back to this week and next.
I enjoy the one-bid conference tournaments far more than the so-called big-time tournaments because almost every loser knows their season is over. Oh sure, some will go to the pay-for-play tournaments, but the players know the games that truly matter have ended. Or, when a top-seed loses, they’ll get to go to the NIT, which is nice until they’re made a No. 8 seed and shipped somewhere to play a power conference school. Why not give them a home game? It would actually mean something then.
I still choke up on occasion seeing the tears of kids I’ve watched for four years when the realization hits them that the dream isn’t going to happen and college basketball is over.
On Sunday, I was doing color on the CAA Tournament for CSN. I’ve done CAA games for the past six years and know the coaches and players in the league pretty well. There’s been no more compelling story during that time than William and Mary.
Tony Shaver has done an amazing job making the Tribe a consistent contender in the conference. In his first three seasons, William and Mary lost 20 games. In the last three, it WON 20 games. This season it was 17-14. Four times Shaver’s gotten his team to the CAA title game. Four times they’ve lost. By Sunday, when Northwestern finally gets a bid, the school will be one of four (St. Francis-Brooklyn; the Citadel; Army) that have been part of Division-1 since it was formed almost 70 years ago that has never been to the NCAA Tournament.
In 2014, the Tribe led Delaware by seven with 1:20 to go and lost by one.
Omar Prewitt and Daniel Dixon were productive freshmen on that team. A year later, they won an exhausting double-overtime semifinal from Hofstra and then lost to Northeastern in the final. Last year, they lost to Hofstra, 70-67, in the semifinals. This year, playing UNC-W, clearly the league’s best team, they lost 105-94 in the semis.
With under a minute to go, knowing there would be no miracle rally and that the dream would have to wait at least another year, Shaver gave Prewitt and Dixon their final curtain call. The two won 76 games together—the most for any two players in school history.
Dixon’s uniform was up over his eyes to hide the tears before he got to the bench. Prewitt tried to fight it, but seeing Dixon, he broke down too as their teammates consoled them.
For every senior, it is a bittersweet moment—and almost every one of them ends his career in defeat. There’s the understanding as (in this case) the entire arena stands to applaud you that you’ve accomplished a lot and meant a lot to the people around you. There’s also the understanding that you’ll never feel quite this way again.
As sad as I feel for players at that moment, I also know it’s inevitable and that there will come a time when they will be able to understand how fortunate they were to have the talent to play college basketball and, certainly in the cases of Dixon and Prewitt, to go to a great school and play for a wonderful coach.
Just not right then.
In 2003, when Bobby Gonzales had rebuilt Manhattan to winning the MAAC and getting back to the NCAA Tournament after an 8-year absence, the Jaspers lost to Syracuse—the eventual national champion—in the first round.
When Gonzales took his two senior starters—Justin Jackette and Jared Johnson—out for the last time he wrapped his arms around them and whispered in their ears. After the game, I asked Gonzales what he’d said to them.
“I told them they’d done enough,” he said. “They got us here. It was okay that we lost. They should treasure the fact that we played.”
Gonzales was right—although it probably took Jackette and Johnson; as with Prewitt and Dixon and so many others, a while to grasp that concept.
There will be more of those scenes this week and next when the NCAA Tournament begins. There will also be underclassmen playing their final games but that’s by CHOICE. They don’t get to cry—at least not in my mind.
I love Selection Sunday—even if the committee makes me crazy with their politics; their bias towards the big schools and their flat-out screw-ups. Remember 2003 when the geniuses put Brigham Young in a Friday-Sunday regional? They had to go back and CHANGE the bracket on Monday because BYU doesn’t play on Sundays.
Of course if they ever got it all right, what would I have to write about? Actually, plenty. In 2006, Craig Littlepage’s committee did as good a job as has ever been done. (Hofstra notwithstanding). Naturally, Jim Nantz and Billy Packer ripped him in their ‘interview with the chairman,’ because the big-name teams CBS covers and wanted in the tournament hadn’t gotten as many bids as usual. How can you possibly give the Missouri Valley four bids? And, they were OUTRAGED by George Mason’s inclusion in the field. Nantz actually looked angry.
Of course we all know what happened. George Mason beat Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State (MVC team that made the sweet 16) and top-seeded Connecticut to make The Final Four. I will never forget Jim Larranaga racing by me after the buzzer and pausing to say, “I can’t wait to see Nantz and Packer in Indianapolis!”
I have no idea what will happen the rest of this week or on Sunday. I do know there will be upsets next Thursday and Friday that will evoke memories of George Mason and VCU and Butler and Mercer and Lehigh. The big schools will get plenty of glory when four of them (almost inevitably, but not for sure) advance to Phoenix.
By then, the best part of the basketball season will be over. For now though, I can bask in it.
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The Legends Club—Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano and an Epic College Basketball Rivalry,” was just released in paperback. The hardcover version spent six months on the New York Times bestseller list. His latest young adult mystery is, “The DH.” He won the Edgar Allen Poe Award for young adult fiction for, “Last Shot,” in 2006.