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March 24, 2020.

Two weeks ago I left the floor at Xfinity Center and the Maryland men’s basketball team was celebrating a share of the Big Ten regular season championship;  I had no idea that day would be the last time I would see that team play.  Two nights later when I covered the CAA Championship Game, and I had no idea that would be the last game I’d be courtside for this winter (Hofstra beat Northeastern 70-61).  When I brought Shamrock Shakes from McDonald’s the next day, I was making mental notes who were going to be the next week’s recipients.  Like all of you, the plug was pulled on this year’s NCAA Tournament that Thursday.  The end of any season is heartbreaking for most; but in most cases you know the final time you leave the floor that it is your last game.

There are multiple reasons why I wanted to attend Syracuse University.  The S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications was the first, having been a breeding ground of broadcasting stars that included Marv Albert, Bob Costas, and Dick Stockton.  The second was the fact that the football team played major Division I football while the men’s basketball team was regularly nationally ranked and competing in the Big East.  The third was that there were student radio and TV stations that covered them along with the “grownup media”.  For someone who had wanted to be the next Brent Musburger from when he was 14, this was the perfect blend.

The Orangemen (they’d change the nickname to a gender-neutral “Orange” in 2004) were fifteen months removed from losing to Indiana in the National Championship Game when I stepped on campus as a freshman; they still had two starters from that squad (believe it or not, stars stayed more than 1-2 years back then) in Derrick Coleman and Sherman Douglas (from Springarn High School in Washington, D.C.).  They had just signed top-flight recruit Billy Owens and were expected to contend not just for the Big East title, but for a national championship.  They were also in the running to land point guard Kenny Anderson, so the sky was the limit.

Only Anderson rebuffed cold winters in Central New York for the warmth of Atlanta and Georgia Tech.  Syracuse would lose to Illinois in the Elite Eight my freshman year (the Illini boasted Marcus Liberty, Nick Anderson and Kenny Battle), and that was as far as they’d get in the NCAA’s during my time there.  Despite winning the Big East my sophomore year (I painted my face orange and blue and was one of 33,015 on hand the day they beat Georgetown 89-87 in overtime) the Orangemen were bounced in the Sweet Sixteen by Minnesota.  My junior year saw SU stumble as a No. 2 seed to Richmond 73-69; we were the first school to lose to a No. 15 seed and I received a ridiculous amount of grief from co-workers at a summer camp. I would get “Richmond remarks” for years, even after the Orangemen won the 2003 National Championship.

Douglas was long gone and so were Coleman and Owens by my senior year, and I was trading face-paint for a Marantz recorder and microphone as I was moving from watching the games in the stands to reporting on them from press row as well as the FM88 (now branded as WAER) and UUTV (now called CitrusTV) studios.  There was still time for one more magical March:  despite being seeded fifth Syracuse would win the Big East Tournament, prevailing by three, four, and two points.  As I signed off at the end of our student radio broadcast, I was hoping to get another chance on-air during the tournament.  Only I wasn’t on the schedule the following weekend and the Orangemen fell in overtime to UMass in “neutral” Worcester, Massachusetts.  I didn’t know the Big East Championship was going to be my final game on the air; and what I wouldn’t have given for having to cut one more open or put one more scoreboard together.  Here’s to the next tipoff…

 

 

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-

Friday, March 20.

The absence of stimuli and activity is killing me.  Every year at this time on WTOP since 2011, I’ve anchored what is called “Brackets on the Fives” that updates all of the first round games from 1:05 to 6:55 P.M.  in addition to my usual sportscasts on 103.5.  It’s fun, crazy, and at the end of Friday’s last update I’m pumped to have done it but pleased the 48 short snapshots are in my rear-view mirror.  That won’t be the case this year, but I’m still twitching at 4, 24, 34 and 54 minutes past the hour while the “CBS College Basketball” theme song plays in my head randomly.

The 80’s was a great time to get into college basketball, and the NCAA Tournament in particular. ESPN came onto the scene and carried quite a bit of the first weekend action to give the tournament more of a national feel, and CBS after getting the rights hit the jackpot with seven of eight National Championship games being decided by four points or fewer.

My enjoyment of the NCAA Tournament went from casual enjoyment to must-watch in the 80’s when the Big East was at its best.  And the days when Ewing, Mullin, and Pearl captured the headlines were just as good-perhaps even better-than people tell you.  From 1985 through 1989, six of the league’s nine schools advanced to the Final Four with Villanova posting the biggest “Cinderella” victory ever (NC State entered the tournament ranked No. 16) in 1985 when they dethroned defending champion and No. 1 Georgetown.  You were tuned in every “Big Monday” on ESPN and were glued to the TV for the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden.

What helped me catch the basketball bug was the fact that my high school was enjoying a resurgence.  After winning three games in two years (NH played an 18 game schedule), Manchester West shocked defending NH state champ Nashua 78-76 in double-overtime, and one thought that if the Wolfpack and Wildcats could live Cinderella dreams, why not West?   My senior year I introduced the starting lineups at games and wrote recaps for the morning announcements.  I saved the announcements after reading “A Season on the Brink” by John Feinstein, thinking one day I’d write the great high school hoops book.  One time I even tried a “rapping” announcement that celebrated the “Bleacher Creatures” (the unruly fan element that rooted the Blue Knights on and may have been in hot water with the NHIAA at some point) to mixed results.

As 16 and 17-year olds we’re encouraged to think “why not”.  Why can’t I get into the school of my dreams?  Why can’t I date the girl I have a crush on?  Why can’t I get extra sauce with my Ugli Sticks at Luisa’s Pizza?  But while we dream of 14-4, we often get 10-8. If we’re lucky.  And even though the team I followed and the friends I encouraged went 10-8 before losing in the First Round to Central (who seemed to win EVERYTHING), it was nice to think possibilities first, limitations second.  It’s still nice to close my eyes and feel like I’m in the gym just off of Conant Street, embracing the possibilities of a March from long ago.  I can still smell the Ugli Sticks at Luisa’s and think the jukebox is going to play my song selection before we leave.

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-

Over the years I’ve been very involved covering and consuming the NCAA Tournament. But it wasn’t always that way; just because you have a decade’s worth of “Super Awesome Bracket Cups” at your apartment and newspapers from the previous decade charting the big dance doesn’t mean you’re obsessive in any way, right?  I mean, I wrote lyrics to the “Beverly Hills 90210” and “Magnum PI” theme songs as well…but I digress.

The first time I remember being dialed into the NCAA Tournament was a pivotal year; 1981 was the final March that NBC had the contract as CBS would be taking over (sadly, the melody that sparked my “CBS College Basketball” lyrics wouldn’t debut until 1993).  My dad had a connection with DePaul (who entered the tournament ranked No. 1) because he was an airline pilot and the Blue Demons were on one of his flights (sadly, I’ve lost the media guide he passed along to me). Everyone was ready for the Blue Demons to make a deep tournament run with Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummings.  Only they lost to St. Joe’s 49-48 as my dad cursed at the TV (he may have had money on the game; I’ll never know).  Later in the day NBC then switched us from Arkansas’ US Reed’s half-court shot to beat defending champ Louisville to Rolando Blackman’s buzzer-beating winner against West No. 1 seed Oregon State.  With satellite technology, a collection of eight sub-regional and four regional brackets became national in the 1980’s.  And there wasn’t anything that was going to stop my enjoyment of the Big Dance.

I was watching “The Guiding Light” on the day of the NCAA Championship Game- Indiana was going to play North Carolina- and as is the case on most Mondays, GL had ridden a cliffhanger through the weekend. It involved a murder trial, the revelation of a character’s parentage, and a miscarriage in court.  Only the show was interrupted due to a CBS Newsbreak:  John Hinckley had fired six shots at President Ronald Reagan, and we knew that he hit three people at the scene while the President was being rushed in a limousine to the hospital.  That meant my 83-year old Aunt Sade didn’t know what was going on with her “stories” until Tuesday.  But the shooting of a 70-year old President did NOT prevent the NCAA from playing basketball.  Not only would Indiana beat North Carolina 63-50 to win the National Championship, the NCAA would hold its “National Third Place Game” between Virginia and LSU.  Hold on–a consolation game took precedent over a shot President?  As we know, Reagan would pull through, the tournament would take off on CBS, and Alan Spaulding was Amanda Wexler’s father (Aunt Sade would want you to know).

 

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Forgive me.  It’s taken a while to get my bearings.  Usually I’m exhausted by Tuesday, but this year it’s different. Usually I’m somewhere Sunday evening at six, whether it’s Maryland, Georgetown, George Mason or American.  After learning what seed the team earns, as well as their opponent and first weekend destination I get to interview the coach and multiple players.  After picking up multiple McDonald’s Shamrock Shakes (not all for myself–three are for WTOP co-workers), I’d head back to the studio to cut audio and write for the web while appearing on-air with one of the anchors regarding the locals plus the tournament field as a whole.  After minimal sleep, it’s a full day of updates at 15 and 45 (plus an extended segment with the anchors) before heading out to Maryland to learn where the women are headed (usually it’s in College Park for the first weekend thanks to a top-four seed).  More seeds, more brackets.  More interviews and more previews for WTOP.COM.  And more madness.  This year, the madness is mournful after a silent Selection Sunday.  And I can’t sleep.

Instead, this year’s tournaments have been torn from us.  And while it’s the right thing to do to stem the spread of COVID-19, it doesn’t mean I’m not going to feel a little empty these final weeks of March (and first weekend of April). The Men’s and Women’s college basketball season is a fantastic journey filled with twists and turns, and March represents a fantasic final chapter.  Losing the tournament is akin to somebody tearing the last page out of a mystery novel (you mean I won’t know who killed Ratchett on the Orient Express!?).  So over the next few weeks, instead of looking at the games that won’t be played I’m going to look back as well as within at the March memories that made me so mad in the first place.  Like the real big dance there will be upsets, a little chalk and even though there might be just one shining moment there will be plenty of memorable ones.

Three days before Selection Sunday, and this March is already going to be memorable for the wrong reasons. The NBA has suspended play, and the NCAA will hold the Men’s and Women’s basketball tournaments without fans.  Only teams, officials, essential personnel and limited family members will be allowed in attendance; and the major conferences from the ACC to the Big Ten and Atlantic 10 have followed suit.  Sports’ strength is that is is often a diversion from the troubling issues of the day.  Today instead of being the diversion, sports is part of the larger Coronavirus narrative.

But we March on–for now. One bid was claimed last night when Boston University beat Colgate 64-61 to win the Patriot League Championship.  Max Mahoney tallied 18 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Terriers past the Raiders and into the NCAA Tournament-if it is held.  Meanwhile, no automatic bids are up for grabs this evening.

Atlantic 10 First Round:

George Mason (17-15) beat St. Joseph’s 77-70 as AJ Wilson tallied 24 points with 9 rebounds.  The Patriots also outrebounded the Hawks by 19.

George Washington (12-20) fell to Fordham 72-52 after trailing by 15 at halftime. The Colonials were held to 37% shooting in defeat as Armel Potter closes out his GW career with 24 points.  Coach Jamion Christian now prepares for his first full recruiting offseason.

Big East First Round:  Georgetown (15-17) went scoreless in the final 6 and half minutes of their 75-62 loss to St. John’s, shooting 0-10 with four turnovers to conclude the game and season.  Guard Terrell Allen scored 21 points but had issues with cramping in the second half, while Omer Yurtseven notched 8 points with 6 rebounds over 21 minutes in what might be his final game for the Hoyas.  A season that began with promise ends with what-ifs and hope that next year will be better.

MEAC Second Round: Howard (4-29) loses to North Carolina A&T 86-77 as Charles Williams scores 18 points in the final game of his Bison career.  Coach Kenneth Blakeney goes back to work at rebuilding a program that hasn’t posted a winning record in almost 20 years.

Today’s Games:

Noon- Atlantic Ten Second Round, VCU (18-13, 8-10) vs. UMass (14-17, 8-10). The Rams have posted their first losing conference record in 20 years and have lost seven of eight; one of those defeats came at the hands of the Minutemen, who have won four of six.

2:30 p.m. – Atlantic Ten Second round, George Mason (17-15) vs. St. Bonaventure (19-12, 11-7).  The Bonnies fell out of A-10 contention with four losses in their final six games, but swept Mason during the regular season.  Kyle Lofton (14 points and 6 assists per game) leads the offense, but sophomore Osun Osunniyi (18 rebounds against GMU in January) is their best on the boards.

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Four days until Selection Sunday. Five more bids were claimed last night bringing the number of teams in the field to 11:  No. 2 Gonzaga, Robert Morris, North Dakota State, Northern Kentucky, and Hofstra.  The Pride’s 70-61 win over Northeastern in the CAA Championship Game was its first in four Finals appearances, and punched the school’s first ticket to the NCAA Tournament since they competed in the America East Conference as the “Flying Dutchmen”.  Their win wrapped up four days at the Entertainment & Sports Arena in Southeast DC; the first of three years the CAA will be coming to Washington.

Meanwhile, a pair of locals played last night with their seasons on the line as neither Virginia Tech nor Howard had a legitimate shot at reaching the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team.

The Hokies (16-16) lost to North Carolina in the ACC First Round 78-56 after shooting 29% while getting outrebounded by 15.  Who knows if the future is bright, but it’s most certainly on campus in Blacksburg: freshmen Hunter Cattoor (14 points), Jalen Cone (11 points) and Landers Nolley II (10 points) scored 64% of the Hokies’ points.  Unfortunately the rest of the team shot 6-for-29 (21%).  How will Coach Mike Young build off of that nucleus with his first complete recruiting cycle?  In an ACC that was in flux much of the winter, we’re a few years away from learning which direction this program that is going after watching its consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances streak end at three.  Never an easy night, winter, or year in the ACC.

Howard (4-28), however, showed how mad March can be sometimes.  The Bison somehow shocked South Carolina State in the First Round of the MEAC 70-63.  Let’s put this in perspective:  HU went 0-9 in November, 2-3 in December, 0-8 in January and 0-7 in February.  But they’re 2-1 in March, and more importantly they live to play another day thanks to Charles Williams (24 points), Kyle Foster (18 points), and team defense that held the Bulldogs to 2-19 shooting from three-point range.  Next up? Second seed North Carolina A&T; the Aggies went 12-4 in league play and beat the Bison by four in February.  So HU can still dream.

Alma Mater Update- the Orange ended the regular season with a loss at Miami, dropping the team to 10-10 in a soft ACC and 17-14 overall.  The team finished 1-1 in overtime games and 3-5 in regulation games decided by five points or fewer.  The 14 regular season losses is the most for the program since 1969, Roy Danforth’s first year and the last time the Orange posted a losing record (9-16).  And they face a North Carolina team that rolled them on Senior Day in the ACC Second Round.  It’s technically the “9 p.m. game”, but anybody who knows anything about the ACC realizes that the nightcap will not begin much before 10 p.m.  Buddy Update: his 12 points against Miami give the sophomore 474 for the season and 691 for his career, putting him 54 points shy of his father Jim’s career total.  If he scores his regular season average of 15.3 per game, the Orange will need to win at least two games (meaning he’ll play in four) in the ACC/NIT for Buddy to pass the other guy who once wore No. 35.

Ballot Battles- I caught heat this week from a San Diego State fan for dropping the Aztecs all the way from sixth to 15th after their loss to Utah State.  For the record they were probably overvalued while still staying unbeaten, and there is a bit of a market correction for mid-major schools losing games this late.  Power five schools may get a pass because in some leagues (Big Ten, Big East) most of the conference schedule is against potential NCAA Tournament teams; not so in the Mountain West or West Coast Conference (sorry, BYU).  Biggest differences between my ballot and the composite poll?  Oregon (I’ve got the 13th ranked Ducks 7th), Virginia (I’ve got the 17th rated Cavaliers 11th), and Creighton (I have the 7th ranked Bluejays 15th).  Small school shout-outs go to Stephen F. Austin (28-3, first place in the Southland and that win over Duke) East Tennessee State (30-4 and making me look smart with their roll through the Southern), and New Mexico State (the Aggies have won 19 in a row).

Bids up for Grabs:  just one on Wednesday, with Colgate hosting Boston University for the Patriot League Championship.  Since joining the conference for the 2013-14 season, the Terriers are 5-6 while the Raiders are 7-5 with last year’s title in their trophy case.  They also won both regular season games between the two schools and are led by facilitator Jordan Burns (15 points and 5 assists per game).  I’ll be watching wondering how AU can get back there.

 

Tipping off Today/Tonight:

The Atlantic 10, Big Ten and Big East begin their tournaments in Brooklyn, Indianapolis and New York City.  Meanwhile, the MEAC continues in Norfolk as does the ACC in Greensboro (without Virginia Tech).

1 p.m. – George Mason (16-15 overall, 6-12 A-10) vs. St. Joseph’s (6-25, 2-16). What a difference a few months and a key injury makes.  The Patriots began the season 11-1 even with Justin Kier’s early injury issues but when the senior re-injured his foot the team went into a tailspin (that will happen when you lose the previous season’s leading scorer).  Coach Dave Paulsen’s team has lost five of seven, with the two wins coming against tied-for-last Fordham and St. Joe’s.  Mason’s 62-55 win over the Hawks saw Javon Greene score 20 points; the St. Joseph’s player to watch is junior guard Ryan Daly who leads the team in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals. He’s slacking in the blocked shots department (fourth).

3:30 p.m. – George Washington (12-19, 6-12 A-10) vs. Fordham (8-22, 2-16).  Newsflash: teams that play in the “dreaded first round” are not hot entering March.  The Colonials have lost five straight, with one of those defeats coming to the Rams.  Actually GW is the only A-10 team Fordham has been able to beat this winter, so the last-place Rams have the bracket right where they want it.  It’s also a matchup of the two lowest-scoring teams in the conference:  while GW’s 65.6 points per game ranks 313th the Rams’ 58.1 is 349th.  Somehow Fordham also found a way to post November wins against UConn (now 19-12) and Bradley (MVC Tournament winner).

7 p.m. – Georgetown (15-16, 5-13 Big East) vs. St. John’s (16-15, 5-13), 7 p.m.  If this feels familiar, it’s because this is the third meeting in the eight-nine game between the Hoyas and Red Storm in the last four years.  Since the revamping of the “New Big East”, the old powers have had it rather rough:  this is the fifth straight March the Johnnies have played in the first round while Gtown is making its sixth appearance in seven years on the first night at MSG.  The Hoyas swept the regular season series, rallying from 17 points down at the Garden on Super Bowl Sunday.  They’ve won just twice since, while St. John’s won two of three to end their regular season.

8:30 p.m. – Howard (4-28) vs. North Carolina A& T (16-15, 12-4 MEAC).  Can the Bison keep the dream and its season alive?  As impressive as last night’s upset of South Carolina may be, HU has not won consecutive games all season.  NC A&T won four of five to conclude the regular season, with the only loss coming to regular season champ North Carolina Central.  The Aggies are led by senior forward Ronald Jackson, who tallied 18 points with 10 rebounds against the Bison last month and averages a double-double.  Howard senior Charles Williams may be averaging 25 points over his last three games, but the guard shot 4-11 and 0-2 from three point range against the Aggies last month.

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Five days until Selection Sunday means the first batch of Automatic NCAA Tournament bids have been snatched up, with Belmont, Utah State, Bradley, Winthrop, Liberty, and East Tennessee State punching their tickets by taking their respective conference tournaments.  With the Ivy League cancelling its four-team tournament due to Coronavirus concerns, regular season champion Yale picks up the sixth bid.  Meanwhile, the first shot across the bow at “Bracketologists” has been fired with Indiana coach Archie Miller (whose Hoosiers are 9-11 in the Big Ten) comparing Joe Lunardi’s ilk to “Sesame Street”.  Which reminds me; I finally recognize Archie as “Andy who eats candy” from the 80’s Sesame Street sketch “Captain Vegetable”.  You’ve come a long way, kid.  With only one projected at-large school (San Diego State) losing last weekend, there’s minimal bumping for bubble teams.  Meanwhile, one local school already has a banner on order.

Bids for Grabs- five automatic NCAA Tournament berths are awarded this evening, although No. 2 Gonzaga is in the field even if they lose to St. Mary’s in the West Coast Conference Championship Game.  The 26-7 Gaels are also projected to reach the field, but stranger things have happened to hopeful at-large schools in the tide of Conference Championship week:  many an undertow has dragged a 26-8 school into the NIT.  The Northeast Conference (Robert Morris hosts St. Francis (PA) after the Colonials beat the Red Flash ten days ago to earn home court advantage), Summit (North Dakota-North Dakota State), Horizon (UIC-Northern Kentucky), and CAA (Hofstra-Northeastern) are your classic Big Dance or Bust situations.

While the Colonial Athletic Association isn’t as transient as the Southern Conference (34 former members), there has been quite a bit of turnover since the league formed in 1979 and took the Colonial name in 1985.  It’s eleven ex-members include George Mason, Richmond, and VCU who went to the Atlantic Ten as well as American and Navy who left for the Patriot League.  Even Catholic was a member before deciding to go Division III while Baltimore dropped athletics entirely.  Unfortunately area schools still in the CAA like James Madison, Delaware, Towson, and William & Mary all fell short of tonight’s final.

Tournaments tipping off: we start with the ACC, where Virginia Tech (16-15, 7-13 ACC) faces last place North Carolina (13-18, 6-14 ACC) in the dreaded first round.  Thank goodness once again a conference school ran afoul of the NCAA and removed itself from postseason play; Georgia Tech joins Syracuse (2015) and Louisville (2016) and their loss is our gain as we only have to sit through two of these games (the 10 vs. 15 game is almost as bad as the old 9 vs. 16 game in the days of the bloated Big East).  I write “last place North Carolina” with a major caveat, as the Tar Heels have won three of four (the loss came to No. 10 Duke) and six of their fourteen losses were by one possession. Don’t be surprised if UNC bounces a Hokies team that is 2-9 since beating the Heels in January.  They’d then draw Syracuse, and the Orange still have plenty of enemies off the court in Greensboro.

Also getting underway is the MEAC, and in Norfolk both the men and women hold their conference tournaments during the same week.  As fate would have it the Howard men and women both play South Carolina State in Tuesday’s first round; the Bison men (3-28, 1-15) face a Bulldogs team that has lost five straight and nine of eleven.  They also played well in a 101-95 loss during the regular season. Stranger things have happened in March.  The Howard women (15-14, 7-9 MEAC) have lost five of six to drop under .500 in league play, but SC St. hasn’t won a game since January 20.