While the big-name college basketball teams are sorting themselves out over the next 12 days—the top teams trying to pin down high seeds; the mid-level teams in the power conferences trying to play their way from the dreaded bubble into the NCAA basketball tournament—this is also the time when the little guys get their moment in the sun.
March Madness actually begins tonight. The Big South starts its postseason tournament. By the end of the weekend, if you count The Ivy League, five automatic bids will have been handed out.
For me, the one bid tournaments are about as much fun as anything that takes place during the basketball season. Very few of the kids playing are going to be one-and-done and you aren’t going to hear a lot of speculation about their pro futures. All they care about at that moment is the game they are playing because most are one loss away from the end of their season. A majority of the seniors are one loss away from the end of their careers.
That’s what makes these tournaments so much fun. When Mike Brey was coaching at Delaware he often said that winning The America East Tournament was the equivalent of getting to The Final Four for Duke—which was where he had coached prior to moving to Delaware. “And winning a game in the NCAA Tournament is like winning the national championship,” he added.
We all know that on rare occasions one of the little guys will slip through to the sweet sixteen. George Mason’s Final Four run in 2006 belongs in a different category but it is worth remembering that the Patriots didn’t come out of a pure one-bid league. In fact, they got into the tournament as an at-large team, much to the chagrin of Jim Nantz, Billy Packer and others.
The real one bid leagues are the one where no one even discusses an at-large bid, where the committee has already penciled the champion in as a No. 15 or No. 16 seed most years. Of course there can be exceptions going in either direction. In 2006, coming off a first round upset a year earlier over Kansas, Bucknell came out of The Patriot League as a No. 9 seed—and promptly lived up to it by beating Arkansas. This year, the opposite is true in the league. The only conference team likely to avoid being sent to the dreaded play-in game in Dayton is top-seeded Lehigh. Anyone else wins the PL Tournament—which begins tomorrow but doesn’t end until March 12th because of (you guessed it) television—and they’re probably headed for Dayton. At the moment that teams cuts the nets down though, it won’t be thinking about Dayton. It will be nothing but pure joy.
That’s why Brey’s description is so apt. When you watch these teams play for their championships you can see how much it means to them. None of them are thinking about the fact that they may face a first-round game against Syracuse, Kansas or Kentucky. Or that they might be going to Dayton. It doesn’t matter. They want to be champions and they want to see their name go up on the board on Selection Sunday and they want to be part of The Dance.
Sure, it is all cliché but it is real. I remember being in Lafayette’s locker room after the Leopards beat Navy 10 years ago to win The Patriot League title when I was researching, “The Last Amateurs,” and it was about as joyous a place as I’ve ever been. A week later, as a No. 15 seed, the Leopards were beaten badly by Temple but that didn’t change the memories or the feelings they had for one another after beating Navy.
The little guy that no one wants to play this year is Cornell. It will be interesting to see how the committee seeds The Big Red. They have one bad loss—at Penn—but their other three losses are to Seton Hall and at Kansas and Syracuse. They’ve won road games at Alabama, at Massachusetts and at St. John’s. They played a tougher non-conference schedule than most schools in the BCS conferences play.
Jim Boeheim has said Cornell should be a No. 4 to a No. 6 seed. That won’t happen. I think if they had run the table in the Ivy League they might have sneaked into a No. 9 seed ala Bucknell four years ago. Now, I think they’ll be more like a No. 11. One thing about the committee—they hold a bad loss against a little guy against it more than they do a big guy.
That’s all for a week from Sunday. For now, the next 10 days are about the little guys having that moment they will all remember forever. If you think the U.S. hockey team looked heartbroken, check the faces of some of the losers in these conference tournament finals—especially after a last-second game-decider. The Olympians all believe they’ll get another shot in Sochi in four years and many will. Most of the kids who lose one-big finals know they won’t get another shot. Most teams that rise in these conferences are led by seniors so this may be their last chance.
ESPN has done a lot of bad things through the years but ‘Championship Week,’—giving the one-bid kids their moment in the sun—was brilliant. It also wasn’t a coincidence. It was the brain-child of Tom Odjakian, who worked at ESPN then and works at The Big East now. Odjakian is a Lafayette graduate. He wanted his school and others like it to have a chance to play their championship game on national TV. This is what he came up with. Good for him. This will be fun.
The money teams will be everyone’s focus soon enough. For now, let’s get fired up for a potential Coastal Carolina-Radford final in The Big South. Or Stony Brook-Vermont in The America East.
Let the you-know-what begin.
Okay, I had a number of people contact me yesterday about comments Michael Wilbon made about me during an online Washington Post chat yesterday. Wilbon’s angry with me because we have a fundamental disagreement about Tiger Woods—and, I guess it is fair to say star athletes in general.
This though is about Woods. He defends him. I don’t. There’s really no need to go through the details: What we’ve both written and said is out there if you want to find it.
Wilbon got mad two weeks ago because I joked on Tony Kornheiser’s radio show that he had put aside his professionalism when it came to Tiger. As he proudly told The Post in his chat he called my cell phone and left a profanity-filled message. I responded by leaving him a message that was, I think he’d agree, considerably calmer but sticking to the essential point: we disagree on Woods. He isn’t going to back away from his position; I’m not backing away from mine.
I don’t know if the question during his online chat yesterday was a setup. I do know the person I’m really mad at is some guy I’ve probably never even met calling me, ‘Junior.’ Anyway, Wilbon responded by saying on the one hand he didn’t ‘give a damn,’ what I thought but on the other hand said he’d called and screamed profanities at me. If nothing else, the profanities let me know he cared. I was touched. He also said something about not being ‘subservient,’ to me. I don’t think I’ve ever asked Wilbon or anyone I’ve worked with to be subservient to me. In fact, I’ve never written these words: “As I was being driven from Bristol to New York on Sunday.” (Nor will I).
The only thing Mike said that’s just untrue is that I confuse my opinions with facts and legitimacy. Having been a columnist for a long time now I not only know the difference between opinion and fact I’m accustomed to people disagreeing with my opinions—sometimes angrily. It’s part of the job. As for legitimacy, that’s clearly up to the readers too.
Wilbon also says he’d put his journalistic credentials up against mine any day. That’s fine. Mike’s been very good at what he does for a long time. I feel pretty comfortable with my journalistic credentials though and here is where we differ (in my opinion): Guys like Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Shaq—the rich and famous guys Wilbon thinks of as friends—have public relations machines that tell the world how great they are. If they do something good, it should be reported. But when they screw up, they don’t need us taking a bullet for them. The people in sports who maybe need a boost every now and then (when they do something good) are the kids in The Patriot League; the football players at Army and Navy; the golfers who end up in Q-School.
Those are the stories I enjoy doing the most and the people I tend to gravitate towards. That doesn’t mean the big names don’t have stories to tell—I think I’ve told my share of those stories too. And gotten to know many of them along the way. WIlbon loves hanging with big names and telling people about it. I'm looking forward to dinner with Paul Goydos this week. Neither one of us is right or wrong. We're just different.
Let me close by saying this: When Abe Pollin fired Jordan several years ago Wilbon was one of many in Washington who ranted against him for doing it. Pollin’s decision was proven correct when Ernie Grunfeld came in, hired Eddie Jordan as coach and rebuilt the Wizards into a playoff team—four straight years—before Gilbert Arenas’s injuries and stupidity brought the team down again. When Pollin died, instead of simply writing the words, ‘I was wrong,’ about Pollin’s decision (hell, we all get it wrong sometimes; I thought Tiger would be playing golf this month) he went off on some tangent about how it was a shame Abe never forged a better relationship with Jordan.
Come on Mike, you’re better than that.
In conclusion? Wilbon and I have been friends for 30 years. We’re pissed at one another right now. I hope we’ll sit down and agree to disagree and move on at some point in the future. In the meantime though I guarantee this: I will NOT criticize his clothes. He dresses VERY well.
Final note of the morning to poster Case: Not sure if you were joking but I was never scheduled to work The Patriot League quarterfinals. I’m in Florida right now—it’s raining dammit—to do some golf this week and some baseball. The league’s known since August I was going to miss that game. I’ll be back for the semis on Sunday. But thanks for paying attention!