Thursday, March 19, 2009

Let the Madness Begin

Here I am at work, against my will, as the most glorious of events begins — the NCAA Tournament. Nothing, I mean nothing, can beat the four-day excursion that is the first tournament weekend. It's fantastic. Basketball beginning just after noon and ending in the wee hours of the night. It doesn't get any better than that.

But you know what sucks? I have to work. And that's bullshit. Let's face the facts people, I'm not going to be very productive at work. I'll be watching the games on because that site is the shit, and I'll be grumpy that I'm not sitting on my couch, relaxing and enjoying the show. It's 2009. Haven't we realized by now that it would be best to make the first Thursday and Friday of the tournament national holidays? It only makes sense. Get with the times, America. What better way to cheer up a country in economic shambles than by letting everyone play hooky for two days to enjoy some of the most exciting basketball they'll ever witness in their lives?

I guess I'm fighting a losing battle with my crusade, but I won't stop until I'm dead. This needs to be rectified. And seeing as tomorrow is my birthday, I may just fake illness or put in for a half day so I can enjoy myself the way I should: by sitting on my ass, drinking beer and watching the tournament.

Frankly, I'm restless already. I want the games to start. Now. In fact, this morning, the first thing I did was sign up for another bracket, and for the first time in literally more than a decade, I decided to fill out an alternate bracket — one with some very different outcomes. More than likely, I will severely screw up on both of them.

Here is my main final four and champion, followed by my alternate picks:

Louisville, Memphis, Pitt, UNC — UNC beating Louisville in title game
Louisville, Memphis, Pitt, Oklahoma — Memphis beating Oklahoma in title game

And to be honest, I'll have my eyes glued to the television from the moment I get home until the moment the last game ends, keeping especially close tabs on the Nova game at 7:20 tonight and anticipating the Temple game at 2:45 tomorrow.

Now, I'd like to say, my five favorite college basketball teams of all time have not lived up to expectations. Not a single one of them. That's really sad. Those teams are as follows, in chronological order:

1994-95 North Carolina Tar Heels, 1995-96 Villanova Wildcats, 1997-98 North Carolina Tar Heels, 1999-2000 Temple Owls and 2003-04 St. Joe's Hawks

The 94-95 Tar Heels were a stacked squad led by Rasheed Wallace, Jerry Stackhouse, Jeff McInnis, Dante Calabria and Serge Zwikker.

It was a team that had it all. The National Player of the Year, Jerry Stackhouse; Philly's own beast on the blocks Rasheed Wallace; the deadly three-point shooting of Dante Calabria, the do-it-all Jeff McInnis and the big white stiff that paid homage to Eric Montross, Serge Zwikker. Oh, and they had a pretty good coach too. Some guy named Dean Smith.

Well, just two short years after George Lynch led the Tar Heels to the national title, I was certain UNC, even with a No. 2 seed, was going to win it all. How could they not? Sheed and Stack were the best duo in all the land, and the pieces around them were serviceable. UNC absolutely made its run, topping Murray St. in the first round, then Iowa St., then Georgetown and found itself in the elite 8 against the No. 1 seeded Kentucky Wildcats.

And the Cats were no joke. With the likes of Tony Delk, Walter McCarty, Jeff Sheppard, Antoine Walker and a freshman named Scott Padgett (who I'm pretty sure played 15 years at Kentucky), Kentucky and coach Rick Pitino were the real deal. The winner of this game, many thought, had the title all but locked up. When UNC won by 13 to get to the Final Four, I was ready to witness another title for Dean and celebrate with a team I followed since I was six years old.

But it was not to be. Nolan Richardson's Arkansas team put North Carolina through 40 minutes of hell, and my hopes were crushed … and at the same time, the Flyers, Sixers, Eagles and Phillies were not so good. Ugh.

That was the start of my college basketball disappointment, and it didn't take long to have that feeling again. In fact, it happened the very next season. Villanova, led by Kerry Kittles and Jason Lawson, were the toast of the town in 1996.

Steve Lapas, he of the buck teeth and stupid face, guided Nova to a three seed, and the Wildcats demolished Portland in the first round. With the inside-outside combo of Lawson and Kittles, it looked as though Nova was poised to go deep in the tourney. And then Lousiville happened. The Cardinals edged out Nova in the second round, and Steve Lapas' career never recovered. For a long time, neither did Villanova.

Two years later, the most exciting college basketball team I can remember following showed up. The 1997-98 Tar Heels were one of the most loaded squads ever. Led by Dean Smith understudy Bill Guthridge, Vince Carter, Ed Cota, Brendan Haywood, Makhtar Ndiaye, Ademola Okulaja, Shammond Williams and National Player of the Year Antawn Jamison ran roughshod through the country, heading into the tournament with the No. 1 overall seed at 30-3.

I mean, this team was scary good. Even scarier than the 94-95 one. In fact, a lot scarier. And there was no team that was more fun to watch. Jamison, with his lightning quick release, dominated everyone down low. Vince was the most athletic player in the country, throwing down thunderous, crowd-rousing slams that he became known for. Ed Cota and Shammond Williams provided calm, steady backcourt play, with Cota running the show and Williams doing a little scoring, a little passing. Haywood and Ndiaye banged down low and protected Jamison. And Okulaja was the lock-down defender every national champ needs.

This team was going to win it all, no doubt. The Tar Heels cruised right through to the final four, topping Navy by 36, then Charlotte by 10, Michigan St. by 15 and UConn by 11. Then the final four happened. Utah, led by none other than current Sixers point guard Andre Miller, the big white man with the jump shot, Michael Doleac, and the annoyingly efficient Hanno Mottola.

Andre and company knocked off the heavily favored Tar Heels by 6, and I never imagined I'd ever like a player from Utah. But Andre Miller is pretty damn good and plays for the Sixers, so I like him. But I hate what he had to do to the Heels back then. The ride was over for the most fun team of my lifetime.

While I've certainly grown up rooting for the Tar Heels passionately, my favorite basketball team in the land is Temple, mainly because John Chaney is my favorite coach ever.

Chaney is a coaching icon and a Philadelphia treasure. Some accused him of being overly grouchy, a coach who couldn't develop big men and even some have accused him of being a racist. I simply saw John Chaney as one the best basketball coaches I've ever laid eyes on and a defensive genius.

In 1999-2000, Chaney had perhaps his best team since the tandem of Eddie Jones and Aaron McKie. With Lamont Barnes, Lynn Greer, Mark Karcher, Kevin Lyde, Juan Pepe Sanchez and Quincy Wadley, the Owls were a rugged defensive team with versatility all over the place.

Temple had a fabulous year, earning a No. 2 in the NCAA tournament, and with the way Temple played D and took care of the basketball, they were a threat to make it to the Final Four and beyond. Certainly, Duke, No. 1 in Temple's bracket, had their eyes on the Owls, and for good reason. Pepe ran the team brilliantly, and his senior leadership, along with fellow seniors Barnes and Wadley, provided Temple with stability. Mark Karcher was having a breakout year and had visions of the NBA. Kevin Lyde showed promise as a young big man, and Lynn Greer could hit a shot from anywhere on the floor at any time. Add in the tremendous defense of Sanchez, Wadley and Barnes, along with that hounding zone, and Temple was creating a lot of buzz.

They took care of business rather easily in the first round … but it was the only win Temple had in the tournament. Somehow, some way, the Owls lost in the second round to 10 seed Seton Hall by 2 points. It was the most damaging loss I can ever remember for a team I root for in college basketball. I mean, it was just devastating. There was no doubt in my mind that Temple could have beaten Duke, or anybody else for that matter, that season. Yet they couldn't even get to the second weekend.

I almost cried.

And then there was that little school on City Ave who had a magical run in the 2003-04 season. Phil Martelli's squad that year was led by the best backcourt in the country, seniors Jameer Nelson and Delonte West. West was deadly, and he's proving his worth in the NBA. And Jameer, for an undersized guard out of Chester, had perhaps the best season I've ever seen a guard have in college basketball, rightfully winning the National Player of the year.

The Hawks ran through the regular season undefeated and earned a No. 1 seed in the tourney. They demolished Liberty, took care of Texas Tech and edged out Wake, heading to the Elite 8 to take on Oklahoma St. Surely the Hawks would advance, get to the Final Four with the likes of UConn, Duke, Georgia Tech. After all, Delonte and Jameer had been brilliant, and the national media was for the first time in my memory swarming Hawk Hill. The excitement was everywhere. Everyone in the city, even Villanova faithful, was pulling for Jameer and company. The Hawks had Philadelphia's heart, and the championship-starved city hoped and prayed St. Joe's just may give them a reason to celebrate.

But then, John Lucas happened. He hit the shot that put the dagger in St. Joe's heart. No Final Four. No title. No fun.

It was a painful letdown, especially seeing as the Hawks had a chance to tie it up with the ball in the National Player of the Year's hands. That season, Jameer had hit that jump shot inside the key probably a hundred times. The exact same shot. When it left his hands, I knew it was going in. Only this time it didn't. For the first time all year, Jameer couldn't make the big shot to win the game. And it was stunning, and painful. Just like all the rest.

This year, I'll be pulling for Temple and Villanova and UNC again. More likely than not, I'll be let down, I'll feel hurt. But one thing's for sure, I have to watch. Because even when my teams let me down, the tournament never does.

BallHype: hype it up!


  1. This is a GREAT POST, sir. GREAT POST.

    You made me take a trip back in time with those old squads. I feel like an asshole for forgetting about that '98 Tar Heel team. There was also the '99 Cincy team with Kenyon Martin, Melvin Levett, Steve Logan, and some other killers as well.

    ...and I was SICK when Jameer Nelson missed that three. I just knew Saint Joe's was goin' to the Final Four. Dammit, I knew it...

  2. Thanks for the compliment. There are a ton of other teams I really liked, like that Cincy team (huge Steve Logan fan), those Arizona teams, a ton. But these are my top 5 for sure.

  3. agreed. just a terrific, terrific post

  4. That Temple team will always be my favorite. I lived next door to Q and Karcher in my freshman dorm (they weren't freshmen, but they lived there anyway). Really nice guys, nothing went to their heads.

    Great post, Paul.

  5. Wow, great post! I was one of about 50 Temple students who won a lottery to travel with the team to Buffalo for the first 2 rounds of the 2000 tourney. No one could talk for hours after the loss to Seton Hall. You said it: it was devastating.

  6. I read this blog a ton and love your posts. This is one of the best. Thanks for this and the awesome blog.