LOS ANGELES — At age 20, I went to Madison Square Garden in New York City for the first time. It was March of 2001, and being in charge of the college basketball show at Syracuse University’s student television station had its perks. Such, I made the executive decision to cover the Big East Men’s Basketball Tournament, for which our Orangemen were a 3-seed. To say I was out of my element was an understatement, as this was the first event of this magnitude I had covered.
Rich Kiss, UUTV’s sports director, came with me, and he and I had three of the most fun days I can remember as a college student. That our Orangemen (we were still the Orangemen back then) won two games, and narrowly missed reaching the league championship by a single point in the third, was only icing on the cake of the experience. We took the train over from New Jersey into the World Trade Center, walked over to 34th and 8th with our camera equipment, picked up our credentials and felt like we belonged. I remember we grabbed every media guide and quote packet we could get our hands on in the press area, ate from the $5 donation buffet (Boston Globe hoops historian Bob Ryan took the last piece of cheesecake) and when some real reporter asked us if we were using the phone on our table we bewilderingly said no, as if who were we to even have phones. But we were somebodies covering the event; the names on our passes told us so.
We walked among the stars of this Broadway show even if we were barely understudies. I got a little journo-hero struck when we saw Bill Rhoden of the New York Times, and Dick Weiss of the Daily News, two basketball writing legends, but for the duration of this tournament we were all colleagues and it felt as such. In the locker room interviewing players, in the press room talking to coaches, high above the MSG floor in the media section as I called all of my friends from the working telephones; we we there. After one of the games, we even did our standups on the court. Like pros. At The Garden. Basketball Mecca.
The next year, our Orangemen weren’t very good but Rich and I returned; we lost the first game to Villanova and the three things I remember most are: a) that we basically called it on the train ride over, since like I said, we weren’t very good; b) saying if we somehow lost tonight we were going to head to Atlantic City the next day (we did); and c) The Scene. The Scene was unlike anything I’ve been around, not like the high school, college or pro games I attended growing up. There was a buzz as soon as you walked through The Garden doors or made your way up the steps from the subway. It made the hair on your arms stand up. The clapping and chanting. The team regalia. School cheerleaders lining the entrance. Vendors screaming out deals for programs, t-shirts and refreshments. Everyone talking hoops at every turn. Even the back pages of the Daily News and New York Post were smathered with Big East Tournament headlines.
And the basketball. Oh the basketball. Other conferences have high-flyers, run-and-gun offenses and the visual eye candy to attract those with less-than keen eyes for superior hardwood mastery. And that’s what the Big East was, the best hoops the nation had to offer, and it was on display night-in and night-out across the northeast. From Providence to South Orange, out to Syracuse, back to Storrs and everywhere in between; college basketball at its absolute pinnacle. Marquee coaches, superstar players and the most rabid fans. Those qualities and more were on full display in the latest 30-for-30: Requiem For The Big East, which documented the league’s creation in 1979 and ultimate demise in 2013.
It was a fantastic two hours of television that featured commentary about the Big East’s rise and fall from legendary coaches Jim Boeheim, John Thompson and Lou Carnesecca, writers who covered the league Michael Wilbon and Charlie Pierce, former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, and players Ed Pinckney (Villanova), Chris Mullin (St. John’s), and Patrick Ewing (Georgetown), among others.
The documentary touched on the seminal moments of the conference, from Georgetown ending Syracuse’s 57-game home winning streak to close out Manley Field House, to the recruitment of Ewing, who hailed from Jamaica through Boston, New York City’s Mullin and Pearl Washington, the league’s toughness, Big Monday, and everything Dave Gavitt went through to get the league off the ground and to the heights it reached by teaming up with ESPN for broadcast rights. It was a fantastic trip down memory lane.
One of the elements I found the most interesting was one of Gavitt’s initial reasons for wanting to create the Big East was to keep the best players from the northeast – including New York City – in the area. Gavitt watched Big Apple schoolboy legend Lew Alcindor leave the east coast for UCLA in the 1960s and knew something had to be done. And it worked, as the league’s top eastern players stayed at home and played in the new power conference. Always fighting for national respect, the Big East received validation when Georgetown reached the 1982 NCAA Championship, and then just three years later placed three teams in the Final Four.
Other thoughts: I loved hearing Pinckney and Mullin talk about playing pickup hoops at parks across New York City, starting in Harlem and working their way down. That’s the thing about city ball, if you can play, the color of your skin doesn’t matter, and Mullin was one of the best around. … I never knew Boeheim got his Bob Knight on with a heated chair throw in the press conference after the 1984 Big East title game. … Thompson told Ewing to block every shot in the 1985 title game, which resulted in five goaltending calls off the bat. Also, Ewing still hasn’t gotten over losing the game to Villanova, saying, “in my heart the best team did not win that night.” … Pierce saying capitalism ruined the Big East, while Wilbon blames “dumb and greedy presidents.” … The doc was voiced by “Breaking Bad” villain Giancarlo Esposito, aka Gus Fring.
I first wrote my world famous “Tips For Enjoying March Madness” column for the Journal Tribune way back in 2006 – the 2009 version won me a Maine Press Association award. A lot has happened since then and most of it hasn’t been great for my bracket in 2014. Speaking of, how’s yours looking? Did you call North Dakota St. or Stephen F. Austin? What about Dayton? Mercer is in Macon, Georgia if you still haven’t figured that out yet. These first 48 games were some of the best basketball of the year, with perhaps the most exciting game of the first two rounds being #8 Kentucky/#1 Wichita St., which made the worst #11 Dayton’s upset win over #3 Syracuse.
Seriously, the last month of basketball being played in the 315 has been downright atrocious. (rant alert) Forget that we lost to a six-win Boston College team AT HOME, but also to Georgia Tech and N.C. State to end the season, losses happen, I’ve played sports my entire life, even when you’re better than your opponent you’re not always going to win. It just happens. Fine. But your effort in those losses is something you CAN control. Your shot selection. Your aggressiveness. Your rebounding. All within the realm of things you can have a direct outcome of. And where has it been the last month? Very good question. Bottom line, Syracuse didn’t deserve a 3-seed in this year’s tournament and it didn’t deserve to reach the Sweet 16. Obviously, I’m not over the loss yet and probably won’t be until Opening Day at Fenway next month. When you start the season 25-0 you expect a more satisfying ending than losing to Dayton two hours from your campus. What a frustrating end to what should have been a joyous season. And that’s the other thing, I didn’t have that much fun watching this team play. Every possession was a struggle. Every shot was spent praying it went in. Nothing was automatic. When we got a big lead, we quickly surrendered it. We played down to the level of our competition. We scored 47 points! To Dayton! For the game! Oregon nearly had that at the half against BYU. Did the season turn when Boeheim got tossed late in the game against Duke? Is someone really going to make that moment when it all went to crap? Did I just do it? I just hope Tyler Ennis and Jerami Grant come back next year. Neither are ready for the pros and I think this tournament confirmed that.
[exhale] On to next year.
Here’s what else caught my eye after the most amazing four days of college basketball I can remember (it was a 48-game blur, so forgive specifics):
– These kids are terrible shooters; most but not all of them. Doug McDermott had a great first game against Lousianna-Lafayette going 12-for-23 and 30 points, but then not so much against Baylor (15 points). Meanwhile, Wichita St.’s Cleanthony Early couldn’t miss Sunday against Kentucky, going 12-for-17 and 31 points. It’s too bad both couldn’t make it out of the first weekend.
– Hard to tell which team is playing the best right now. After the first round I would’ve said Wichita St. and Syracuse, and then both lost in Round 2. Now, I might say Kentucky, Baylor, Arizona, Florida, Virginia and UConn are leading the field, so who knows what their fates hold in the Sweet 16.
– Player I want taking the game-winning shot on the final possession: UConn’s Shabazz Napier; dude is fearless.
– Got to explain what a backdoor lob was this weekend, which was pretty hilarious in between the 13-year old giggles. I even used two glasses of water and a dipping container of ketchup to visually illustrate. Coach Norman Dale would’ve been proud.
– Baylor’s hunting uniforms need to join the NBA’s sleeve jerseys and take a long walk off a short pier. Not a good look for anyone.
– I participate in an NCAA Tournament individual scoring fantasy league each year and I felt really good about my squad after the draft, especially after I missed out on the championship last year by a measly 7 points (thanks a lot, Georgetown). However, after the opening weekend I’m down to only four players remaining and I have about a good a shot at a title as Dayton, which is a long one. Seriously, I can’t believe Oklahoma AND Creighton both went down. Those two losses cost me at least another 75 points. Just so long as I don’t come in last.
– Speaking of, did any of these potential top NBA Draft picks (Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Marcus Smart, etc.) have good games or do anything noteworthy? And who is this year’s Harold Arceneaux? He’s yet to reveal himself.
– Anyone else really sick of that Buffalo Wild Wings old man in the hat? We get it, the game is on, we’re probably already in our seats. Stop yelling at us.
– My original Final Four was Florida, Virginia, Creighton and Louisville. Revamped Final Four: Florida, Virginia, Baylor and Louisville. Sticking with my Louisville championship pick as well, although that may change at halftime of Friday’s Kentucky game; stay tuned and happy madness!
LOS ANGELES — Back in my sports writing days, my favorite column to write each year was my “Guide to March Madness.” In it, I always gave my Maine readers tips for optimally enjoying their NCAA Tournament experience, whether it was ideas for party food or face painting, and I even threw in some sleeper choices for their brackets. It’s been four long years since I’ve put this piece from my brain to computer screen, and guess what?
That’s right, without further delaying you reading my genius, here’s the 2013 edition of “Your Guide to March Madness.”
1.) Get your viewing situation in order — Obviously, this is the most important element to March Madness. You need to figure out how you’re going to watch the games. There are 67 of them over the course of 3-plus weeks. That’s a lot (though a slow month for @Farbaro picking up chicks on Match.com), so you have to make sure you’re setup is ideal. If you’re going multiple TVs, I recommend a 3-box, that way you can have the best game of the session going in the middle and then your sub games on the side. You can also fire up a laptop, as all the games will once again be streaming online live at MarchMadness.com. Also, you’ll want to make sure you know where to quickly find TruTV, TBS and TNT on your cable provider (if you can’t find CBS, then you’re pretty much beyond help at this point). I don’t know about you, but I literally only watch TruTV during these couple weeks, and couldn’t even find it on DirecTV if you paid me right now. I’ll be following my own advice on this one. If you’re going to a bar, make sure you get there early, as it’ll probably be packed with morons who clearly don’t know as much about college hoops as you do. Speaking of…
2.) Don’t be the obnoxious guy at the bar — We all want our teams to win, that’s a given, but there’s a fine line between rooting and being that freakin’ annoying-ass poser we all hoped would get eaten by Bigfoot on the school camping trip. If you’re going to physically be at the game, it’s OK to paint your face, but not at the bar. I don’t need your Jayhawk blueface dripping into my buffalo wings. Leave the pom-poms at home, too, before you knock over my milkshake. If you have to bring items with you, then you didn’t need them in the first place. Your cheers and loud claps are enough. It is appropriate to wear a shirt or jersey, team hat or headband and even break out some appropriate knee socks but don’t get carried away. There’s no need for themed sunglasses (hello, you’re indoors), foam fingers (how are you supposed to eat loaded nachos with one hand?) or signs. And when your best player knocks down a big 3 in the first half, go easy on the chanting. No one cares that you remember your fight song. In fact, unless you’re at an official sponsored event your college is throwing, no singing or chanting whatsoever is appropriate.
3.) Only fill out one bracket — This is a change from my previous years columns, where I used to tell everyone to fill out as many as you could get your hands on, and make sure you had your highliters and abacuses and charts handy to know how you’re doing. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that one bracket is the way to go, no matter how many different “office pools” you’re in. With one bracket you don’t have to worry about rooting for Butler AND Bucknell to win. You’ll be happy when you take Ole Miss to upset Wisconsin and they do just that when Marshall Henderson goes nuts from beyond the arc. It just simplifies your life, which is really what enjoying March Madness is all about. The less time you have to spend worrying about who’ve selected to survive and advance, the more time you can focus on devouring one more slice of pizza. Ya know, the important stuff.
4.) Stay hydrated and get plenty of sleep — March Madness is a marathon, not a sprint, that’s important to remember when you’re stuffing your face with quesadillas and $3 pints at happy hour on Thursday and Friday. There’s 32 games played on those first two days and you want to make sure you’re well rested and properly hydrated so you can enjoy each one to his maximum. You don’t want to pass out or cramp up before the late games either day. And with another 16 games over the weekend, that’s a lot of basketball and too many opportunities for failure. Fortune favors the prepared. For every couple of beers, make sure you pound a water. During that lull between morning and evening sessions, grab a power nap. Don’t let Mother Nature be the reason you missed another Valparaiso miracle or UCLA coast-to-coast buzzer beater. You’d have only yourself to blame if Bucknell is again Cinderella and you were face down in tears like Adam Morrison.
OTHER MARCH MADNESS THOUGHTS
Stone Cold Locks: By now, you’ve spent Monday and probably the better part of Tuesday ignoring a 83% of your workload and trying to find as much “inside” information as you can on who to take. As most of you know, you can’t win your bracket in the First Round but you can definitely lose it. One thing you don’t wanna do is have a Final Four team fall on the first day (thanks a lot, 2011 West Virginia) or any of your Sweet 16ers. But you can be safe riding these teams: (EAST) Indiana, Marquette, Miami; the top three seeds have easy roads to the Elite 8 in this region. (SOUTH) Georgetown, Florida, VCU should all advance to the Sweet 16. (MIDWEST) Louisville, Michigan St., Saint Louis appear to have the best road in by far the toughest bracket. Be careful of Duke. It has the talent to win the whole thing or lose in the first round to Albany. (WEST) New Mexico and Ohio St. are the only two locks in this region. It’s a shame they’ll meet as early as they will in the Sweet 16.
Sleepers: A lot of little guys got into this year’s tournament, which hopefully will pave the way for a slew of upsets and busted brackets (not mine, of course). In order to ensure yours stays in tact you’ll want to take a hard look at these possible darkhorses: Oregon (12) and Cincinnati (10) in the Midwest, Minnesota (11) in the South, Bucknell (11) and Cal (12) in the East, and Ole Miss (12) in the West. I also like just one 9-seed and one 10-seed to win, it’s up to you to figure out who. And lastly, I know every year it seems like a 13 beats a 4, so I’ll give you one of those too; take South Dakota St. over Michigan (come on, you don’t think I’d actually tell you to take Montana over Syracuse, do you?).
Final Four Picks: When it’s all said and done, here’s who I like to meet in Atlanta on April 6: Louisville (1) vs. New Mexico (3), and Georgetown (2) vs. Miami (2).
Players who could be this year’s Harold Arceneaux: For those too young to remember the Weber State great, let me learn ya’. Arceneaux and the Wildcats won the Big Sky Conference in 1999 and faced third-seeded North Carolina in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. All that happened over the course of the next 40 minutes was the hotshot guard’s coming-out party. Weber State upset the Tar Heels, 76-74, as Arceneaux scored a game-high 36 points, 20 in the second half, including the game-winning steal in the closing moments. The image of the Wildcat players lifting their coach became part of CBS’s coverage year after year and Arceneaux vaulted into national spotlight. In the Second Round, Arceneaux scored 32 points as Weber State pushed Florida to overtime, but fell 82-74. He returned for his senior season in 1999-2000 and finished 5th in the nation in scoring, averaging 27.0 ppg in league play, but the Wildcats finished 18-10 and did not qualify for the tournament.
So, who could have a meteoric tournament and find themselves an overnight sensation? Well, I mentioned Henderson earlier, who is a prime candidate given his huge SEC Tournament. But don’t sleep on Valparaiso’s Ryan Broekhoff, San Diego St.’s Nate Wolters, Cal’s Allen Crabbe, Iowa St.’s Tyrus McGee, Belmont’s Ian Clark and Montana’s Kareem Jamar.
STREAKY SYRACUSE IN SAN JOSE, CALIF.
As I watched Selection Sunday and Greg Gumble rattle off each region, it became clear there was a solid chance Syracuse would be playing out west here in San Jose, which is only a 5-hour drive from Los Angeles. Quickly, I began thinking logistically and calculating financially what it would take to get me up there to watch our First Round matchup against Montana and it wasn’t as crazy as you’d think. While my decision to hope in the Joffrey and make the trip will be a game-time one, I don’t think it’s one I’d regret. One thing making this a simple no-brainer is the fact that in the last month the Orange has played some of the most inconsistent basketball I can remember as a fan. I tweeted out this was the most inconsistent team I could recall and was notified of the disaster Donte Greene year of 2007-’08 in which Syracuse went 21-14 and missed the NCAA Tournament. I did indeed black that year out.
To close this season, the Orange lost four of its last five games and I was telling anyone who would listen it was destined for an opening-round loss in this year’s Big Dance. Then Madison Square Garden happened and a run to the Big East Championship game that reminded the country why we rose to No. 1 for a week this season. The talent is there. The ability to put it all together for a string of games is there. Shots were consistently falling, defense was being played and we even made free throws. Then, of course, the second half of the Louisville game took place and I went back into panic mode, but that’s besides the point. Could Syracuse win it all? I’m going to go that far. A return trip to the Elite 8 would be be a very successful conclusion to this roller coaster season. And it all starts with Montana on Thursday.
Enjoy the Madness, everyone.