Just Another Weekend in March – College Ball Musings

A dark, dreary, rainy Saturday morning in early March in New York. Obnoxious colleagues flooding the Blackberry on a “day off”. Walk into a torrential downpour, sans umbrella, in route for coffee first thing in the morning. Come 11:30 AM though, it’s heaven, two full days of wall to wall college basketball, a weekend of nailbiting finishes, twists and turns to interesting story lines, and tourney talk. Somehow, when the calendar flips, the competition cranks up, the close games flood in, and the excitement peaks.

For a second, I thought I mistakenly put ESPN Classic on, confusing UNC-Asheville 7’7″ for Gheorge Mhursean. Primarily focused on the Louisville-Georgetown showdown, I can’t stop from flicking over to the Big South Championship game. It defined Championship Week, two teams playing out an NCAA dream in a gym no bigger than most high schools, in front of less people (1,207) than media row at the Carrier Dome holds. Winthrop, who knocked off Notre Dame in last year’s tourney, opens up a sizeable lead in the second half, and fends off the Asheville comeback attempt to take the crown. For a moment I thought Asheville would make a run in the mid second half, feeding the big man, Kenny George, for a handful of easy lay ups, but with under ten minutes left I was more concerned he might pass out, appearing out of breath, monstrous hands firmly on knees. In the end, Michael Jenkins 33 point outburst proved too much for top-seeded Asheville, and sets up a tough match for some unknowing big conference team in Round One.

Back to the stretch run of the Big East regular season title game. The game remained close throughout despite a pathetic offensive start by both teams, Louisville rallied in the second half to grab the lead on the road late after trailing most of the game. All season Georgetown has underachieved, leaving Louisville as the hottest, and best team in arguably the deepest conference, heading into the postseason. With Louisville about to prove my point, they fail to make the big shot in the closing minutes, while the much-maligned backcourt of DaJuan Summers and Jonathan Wallace hit big shots in the closing minutes. Louisville’s shot selection on their last few possessions, trailing by three, deserves criticism, unable to wiggle free for an open look they take a few 3 point heaves, catch nothing but air, Georgetown claims the top seed in the Big East tourney and takes Round Two with Louisville. Will there be a Round 3 next weekend? I’m still not sold on Georgetown as a national contender.

In match of lesser Big East foes, but no less importance, West Virginia finds itself tangled with St. Johns at the Garden, staring at a devastating loss that would certainly plant them firmly on the NCAA bubble. Led by Sophomore Guard Larry Wright’s 3-point barrage, St. Johns stays neck and neck with the Mountaineers down the stretch, grabbing a two point lead with 5.5 seconds left after two key foul shots. With no timeouts left, Joe Mazulla takes the inbound pass, pushes hard down the court, and the Johnnies inexplicably do nothing to stop Mazzula as he coasts in for an uncontested layup to beat the buzzer and tie the game. Sums up the 11-19 season of St. Johns in one play. Of course, Huggins crew then goes on to coast in overtime and avoid the major upset. West Virginia moves safely into a tournament lock, barring any major changes, but not a scary opponent by any means. Deep breaths, its not even 3 PM yet.

A pair of Pac-10 battles, the country’s most intriguing conference in 2008, catch my eye next, Stanford-USC and UCLA-Cal. Two days after Stanford, who carries the season’s most inflated Top 25 ranking, had the refs steal an upset win over UCLA and Pac 10 title from them, face off against a young, inconsistent yet highly talented Trojan squad. In the few USC games I watched, performances varied from dominating to dominated. Today its the former, OJ Mayo and Taj Gibson form a dynamic inside-out duo that gives the less athletic Cardinal fits all day leading to a second straight LA loss for the seventh ranked Cardinal. Clearly not one of the Top 10 teams in the country, Stanford was the team that benefited by winnings games it should, catapulting up the rankings as other teams lost. They deserve no higher than a 4 seed, short a Pac 10 tourney title, and I don’t see more than a Sweet 16 run from this squad. USC has the talent, but inevitably will throw up a stinker at some point to derail any deep tourney runs.

Over on ABC, the legendary Brent Musburger had a dandy brewing at Pauley Pavilion. Two nights after that aforementioned controversial win over Stanford, UCLA was outplayed by a game Cal squad the entire day. A disappointing season finale home loss. Come on, its March. The Bruins, still down 4 with 31 seconds left, cut the lead to 1 on an unorthodox 3-pointer from Kevin Love, clearly looking for a foul, then cornered – or bullied, depending on your perspective – Golden Bear star Ryan Anderson in the corner, stripping the ball. No foul, out of bounds to UCLA, a stunned Anderson lying face first on the floor. Magic in the air at Pauley Pavilion, the Wizard of Westwood presiding over the affair from afar, Josh Shipp took the inbounds to the baseline and, with no angle at the hoop, floated a rainbow over the backboard. Nothing but net. Two shocking comebacks in as many games, more heart racing moments interspersed with TV shouting in my small apartment.

Amidst the SoCal excitement, my Syracuse Orange played for their NCAA lives some 3000 miles away. The ‘Cuse busted out in the second half, the feisty Boeheim 2-3 zone forcing turnovers, while the tireless underclassmen stepped up the inside-outside game on offense, led by Jonny Flynn and Donte Greene. One week after blowing a lead late to Pitt in the Dome, in what Boeheim dramatically called his most disappointing loss ever, the Orange never let Marquette get a sniff in a crucial 15-point win.

MAAC conference tourney games aside, though they were interesting and fun, the showdown in Durham took the stage at night. A #1 seed in both the ACC and NCAA tournaments at stake, the regular season crown, and Tobacco Road bragging rights. Despite an early double-digit Tar Heel lead, the game went down to the wire with unmatched regular-season intensity. Did you expect anything less in this rivalry? Duke, a heavily perimeter reliant team, got hot from behind the arc to grab the lead with under five minutes left. The Blue Devils then felt the downside of relying on perimeter shooting, missing their final 11 shots, while UNC asserted itself on both ends of the floor down the stretch, once again proving worth of the #1 national ranking. Tyler Hansbrough eclipsed 2000 career points, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green hit big shots in the final minutes to lead the Tar Heels 10-0 run to close game. Unfortunately, ESPN’s ornery, over the top coverage of the rivalry detracts from the natural appeal. True college hoops followers can see through the hype.

Done yet, hardly. Before retiring for the night, why not another Arizona Wildcat disappointment. Laden with Top 25 talent, and a tough schedule, the Wildcats drop another Pac-10 game falling to 8-10 in conference, 3-7 over the last ten. The ‘Cats profile screams tourney team – RPI, SOS, Top 50 wins – yet the losses pile up. Tonight, a 9-point loss to fellow bubble team Oregon. Stat of the night, both teams combine for 10 points.

Sunday’s lesser schedule could not match the exhilaration of  Saturday. Still, there I was, watching Kentucky and Florida, two prestigious teams exchanging blows like a heavyweight fight with an NCAA berth at stake. Despite the Gators attempts to prolong the game until sunset with foul, the ‘Cats, playing without star Patrick Patterson, held on. Kentucky, another in a line of great stories, finishes 12-4 in the SEC after embarrassing Wildcat nation with a 7-9 start including losses to a sub-50 RPI team and the in-state rival. Slowly loosen the rope around the neck.

Virginia Tech takes a hit dropping a game at Clemson by one. How do you foul on the perimeter with under 10 seconds left up by 1 point? Before that, who runs a play to take a shot with over 10 seconds left on the clock instead of holding for the final shot and saving a few ticks for a second chance putback? Va. Tech deserves NIT. I missed it, but while you were sleeping San Diego upset St. Mary’s out West. Watch out Bubble teams. Buckle in for a great week.

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