Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Fall From The Top

For the Ohio State Buckeyes' basketball team and its fans, the 2011 NCAA Tournament was supposed to serve as a confirmation of greatness.

Ohio State expected success in the 2011 NCAA Tournament

Following a 29-2 regular-season record, a Big Ten Conference championship and the #1 overall seed for March Madness...the tournament was to serve as a mere formality, until the Buckeyes were celebrating an NCAA title by cutting down the nets in Houston.

News crews followed Ohio State on its March Madness journey

Ohio State contained all of the necessary components to win. They had a dominant interior force with freshman phenom Jared Sullinger, who averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds-per-game. They had an outside sharpshooter in Jon Diebler, who hit roughly half of his 3-point attempts on the season. The Buckeyes also featured some solid contributors -- such as William Buford, David Lighty and Aaron Craft -- who could get things done on both sides of the ball.

That's part of the allure of the Madness, however -- it almost never goes the way you expect it.

The Buckeyes had all the tools you'd expect from a winning team

After blowing out Texas-San Antonio and George Mason in their 1st two NCAA Tournament games, the Buckeyes advanced to the East Regionals and a "Sweet 16" date with the Kentucky Wildcats.

As fans descended upon Newark, New Jersey's Prudential Center, the numerous Ohio State supporters were caught in a wave of confidence. Some had their pictures taken in front of the arena while spelling out O-H-I-O with their arms. Others took in the sights-and-sounds of the nearby FanFest. There was no sense of nervousness among those clad in scarlet-and-gray, but rather anticipation for the upcoming game.

Many attending the FanFest wore scarlet-and-gray under their coats

Kentucky fans, on the other hand, almost seemed grateful for their Sweet 16 opportunity. After going 22-8 in the regular-season, the Wildcats stormed to the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship and a #4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Once there, Kentucky faced some tough tests...slipping by a spunky Princeton team in the 2nd round, then topping West Virginia in the 3rd round to advance to Newark.

Kentucky fans knew that their Wildcats faced a tough test

Inside the Prudential Center, the ticket distribution fairly represented the fans' expectation levels. There was far more Ohio State scarlet in the sold-out crowd of 18,343 than there was Kentucky blue.

Many in the sold-out Prudential Center crowd were cheering on Ohio State

If the regional semifinals were to be a mere checkpoint during Ohio State's road to Houston, Kentucky didn't get the memo. Trailing by 7 points in the 1st half, the Wildcats fought back and kept the game tight. At halftime, the Buckeyes and Wildcats were tied at 30.

The #1 team in the nation faces a challenge!

One of Kentucky's greatest strengths on this night was its defense, limiting Ohio State to almost 31% shooting in the 1st half, while blocking 5 shots. The Wildcats' cheering section would burst into a frenzy during every big defensive stop...and that excitement slowly began to catch on among the arena's neutral spectators. Could the #1 team in the nation really be in trouble?

Tough defense helped Kentucky keep the game close

As the 2nd half went on, it became clear that this game would be a fight to the finish. Hard-nosed play would lead to some bickering on the court, ratcheting up the intensity inside the Prudential Center. Neither team could establish a sustained run...whenever Kentucky would score, Ohio State would follow, and vice-versa.

Both teams were laying it all on the line

Ohio State's spectator strength-in-numbers was neutralized by a combination of Kentucky fans, and those who wanted to see a major NCAA Tournament upset. Little-by-little. the cheers would get louder for every made basket by the Wildcats.

Kentucky's confidence grew as the game wore on

As the game approached its final minute, Kentucky held a 58-57 lead. Virtually everyone in the arena -- regardless of rooting interests -- was standing and watching the action on the court.

With :36.2 left, junior guard DeAndre Liggins hit a driving bank shot from just outside the key, giving Kentucky a 60-57 advantage! The best team in college basketball was now clearly on the ropes, and Ohio State head coach Thad Matta called a timeout to discuss strategy.

DeAndre Liggins scores a big basket to help Kentucky's upset bid

Although the Buckeyes were down, they most certainly were not out. Playing with the heart of a champion, Ohio State drove the ball into the frontcourt. The Buckeyes put the ball in the hands of their sharpshooter, Jon Diebler, who calmly nailed a 3-pointer with :22.1 remaining. The game was now tied at 60! The crowd erupted in appreciation of this classic contest.

Jon Diebler sinks a 3-pointer to tie the game!

Rather than call a timeout of his own, Kentucky head coach John Calipari decided to try and take advantage of the chaos. The ball was in freshman Brandon Knight's possession.

The Wildcats' guard, who averaged over 17 points-per-game on the season, dribbled near the NCAA logo at center-court as the seconds ticked away. With :09 remaining, Knight -- who only had scored 7 points in this game -- began his drive to the basket. Dribbling with his right hand, Knight crossed the three-point line...then pulled up for a jumper from 18-feet away...and the shot goes in!

Freshman guard Brandon Knight came through when it mattered most

With the score now 62-60 and :05.4 left, Ohio State frantically moved the ball up the court. It wound up in the hands of William Buford...and as his 3-point attempt sailed toward the basket, the Prudential Center crowd held its collective breath. It bounced off the rim as the final buzzer sounded. The Kentucky supporters erupted into cheers, while the Ohio State fans groaned.

William Buford's last-second attempt just missed its mark

Just like that, the #1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament was eliminated. There will be no championship coronation for Ohio State this year, nor will there be any debates of this team's place in history. A trip to the Final Four even eluded the Buckeyes. In a cruel twist of fate, a 34-3 season was now considered a disappointment.

Kentucky pulls off the astonishing upset!

As the Wildcats and their fans celebrated the monumental victory and started looking forward to Sunday's East Regional Final against North Carolina, the Buckeyes absorbed the epic defeat. The players walked slowly toward the locker room, their heads tilted downward. Some scarlet-and-gray-wearing fans immediately headed for the exits...while others stared blankly at the court or scoreboard, wondering what went wrong.

The Ohio State season comes to a shocking halt

On the street outside the arena, some Ohio State supporters held up their tickets for Sunday's game, desperately looking to sell them for a reasonable price. For many Buckeyes' fans, it would have been too painful to return to the Prudential Center...and watch others playing for a Final Four spot that they thought was rightfully theirs.

The Wildcats move on to the Elite Eight

Someday, many of these fans will look back on the 2010-11 Ohio State basketball season and think fondly of the memories that this team provided. But the heartbreak of a Friday night in Newark, New Jersey will remain at the forefront of their minds...as a season and a dream came to a sudden end.

The Prudential Center is now a "house of horror" for Buckeyes' fans

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Going Mad -- Part 2

As the 2011 NCAA Tournament continues, I keep reflecting on last year's in-person brush with March Madness...

With Providence's Dunkin' Donuts Center still buzzing from Robert Morris' near-upset of Villanova, it was time for the 2nd Thursday afternoon game...pitting the Southeast's #7 seed, the Richmond Spiders, against the 10th-seeded St. Mary's Gaels.


After a short break, it was time for Richmond vs. St. Mary's

It's one of the perks of attending the NCAA Tournament -- getting to watch teams and players that you wouldn't normally get an opportunity to see. What Richmond and St. Mary's lacked in terms of power-conference sex appeal, they made up for it in their basketball ability.

Mid-major powers go head-to-head

The Spiders came into the game with a 26-8 record, playing in the tough -- but underrated -- Atlantic 10 Conference. Richmond boasted some solid backcourt players, including junior guard Kevin Anderson (over 17 points-per-game), and senior guard David Gonzalvez (almost 15 PPG).

The Spiders are sittin' pretty in Providence

St. Mary's, on the other hand, brought an inside-outside game to the table. The Gaels were led by 6'11" senior center Omar Samhan, who averaged around 20 points and 10 rebounds-per-game for the entire season. On the perimeter, guards Mickey McConnell and Matthew Dellavedova rarely met a three-point attempt they didn't like. It was a successful recipe, as the Gaels -- who play in the West Coast Conference -- carried a solid 26-5 record into this game.

St. Mary's huddles during a timeout

This matchup featured an interesting contrast in styles. Richmond preferred a halfcourt game, averaging just under 70 points-per-game. St. Mary's specialized in transition basketball and an up-tempo pace, scoring nearly 80 points a game. Which approach would come out on top?

The Spiders and Gaels face off

As the game unfolded, I took some time to get to know the people sitting around me in Section 220. After roughly three hours of basketball, conversations are bound to ensue. It was interesting to learn that not everyone was there to cheer on a specific team.

Seated to my left were two guys in their mid-30s, who -- like me -- traveled from New Jersey for the event. One was wearing a beaten-up, orange Tennessee Volunteers hat...the other a simple, black t-shirt without a team name or logo. To be honest, I can't even remember their names...but I remember their story.

Every year, eight U.S. cities are selected to host the 1st and 2nd rounds of the NCAA Tournament. For the last five years, these guys chose a city to visit, and built their entire weekend trip around college basketball. It didn't matter which schools would be there...this was all about getting away from home, watching some quality hoops, and establishing memories that would last throughout their lifetimes.

Two star guards match-up -- Mickey McConnell vs. Kevin Anderson

Meanwhile, the game between evenly-matched teams was even on the scoreboard at halftime. Samhan led St. Mary's with 17 points and 7 rebounds in the 1st half, while Richmond countered with Anderson's 11 points. It was 36-36 as the teams went to the locker room to discuss their 2nd half strategies.

Tied up at halftime

Now that the Villanova fans in attendance had time to catch their collective breath, many turned into scouts for this game. Either Richmond or St. Mary's would be the Wildcats' 2nd round opponent in the tournament. Rather than cheer along and react to the plays on the court, many of them watched intently...determining strengths and weaknesses.

The winner faces Villanova in the 2nd round

In the 2nd half, the Gaels took over, giving those who traveled thousands of miles from northern California reason to cheer. Richmond could not find an inside answer to Samhan, who finished the game with 29 points and 12 rebounds. McConnell added 23 points on 5-9 shooting from 3-point range, and a minor upset was in the books, as St. Mary's cruised to an 80-71 victory.

Omar Samhan scores two of his 29 points on a fade-away jumper

A memorable afternoon session was now over. The Dunkin' Donuts Center cleared out, as arena workers began preparing things for the evening session. In roughly two hours, more Madness would ensue...

St. Mary's advances!

To be continued during next year's NCAA Tournament...

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Going Mad -- Part 1

The 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament is now underway, ready to captivate the nation once again. In this upcoming series of blog entries, I reflect upon last year's trip to the Big Dance...

The phenomenon of March Madness continues to grow.

Every year, fans and non-fans alike are drawn to the NCAA Basketball Tournament for various reasons. For some, it's the spectacle of the games themselves. For others, the lure of gambling brings a vested interest. For a third group of people, it's the cameraderie involved -- as "bracket," "Cinderella" and "Final Four" become regular parts of the American lexicon.

For college basketball lovers, the tournament's early round games are a dream come true. The drama of "win-or-go home" takes full effect...as teams compete throughout the day, bidding for their chance at glory. The favorites are faced with fulfilling their expectations, while the underdogs look to become a household name overnight.

Certainly, television coverage adds to the tournament's appeal...as CBS jumps from game-to-game, keeping track of the nation's most exciting matchups. But what is it like to actually be a part of the Madness...watching the events unfold in front of your very eyes?


It was almost exactly one year ago -- March 18th, 2010 -- when I ventured to Providence, Rhode Island to experience a full day of the NCAA Tournament. From the first tipoff at noon until the final buzzer at sometime around midnight, only college basketball would be on my mind.

Welcome to March Madness!

The Dunkin' Donuts Center served as the epicenter for this inherently unique fan experience. Roughly 11,000 people from all walks of life gathered to watch eight teams take the court in four separate 1st round games. Some were there to watch their current school or alma mater take part in the tournament, while others simply arrived to be a part of the action.

Basketball fans from around the country converge on Providence for the weekend

In-and-around the arena, a wide array of colors and logos catch the eye. On this day, fans of the Villanova Wildcats, Robert Morris Colonials, Richmond Spiders, Saint Mary's Gaels, Georgetown Hoyas, Ohio Bobcats, Tennessee Volunteers and San Diego State Aztecs mingled together in the concourse and seating area.

Fans arriving at the Dunkin' Donuts Center

As fans still filed into the building on an unseasonably warm and pleasant New England day, the first game of the afternoon was about to start. On paper, it was a decided mismatch...as Villanova, the South Region's #2 seed, faced off against Robert Morris, the #15 seed.

Not many expected a close contest between Villanova and Robert Morris

The Wildcats, a stalwart in the mighty Big East Conference, sported a 24-7 record for the season...and appeared in the Final Four during the previous year. For Villanova fans, a national championship was a realistic proposition.

The Wildcats carried some lofty expectations into the tournament

Robert Morris, on the other hand, went 23-11 in the Northeast Conference, winning the NEC Tournament to qualify for the Big Dance. For Colonials' fans, the goal was simply to not get embarrassed by a more-talented Villanova squad.

The Robert Morris Colonials were just happy to be there

Right off the bat, the beauty of the NCAA Tournament was on full display. The underdogs from Robert Morris came to play, and held a 28-22 halftime lead. A buzz was starting to develop throughout the Dunkin' Donuts Center. Could the Colonials become only the fifth #15 seed to win a tourney game?

The upset-minded Colonials outhustled Villanova to a 28-22 halftime lead

Some fans in the arena knew little-to-nothing about Robert Morris University, but that didn't prevent them from joining in the cheers of the red-clad RMU supporters for every made basket and defensive stop. As the 2nd half progressed, not only was Villanova competing against a feisty Colonials team...but they would also have to overcome the underdog-loving crowd.

Robert Morris' play was winning over the sold-out crowd in Providence

Trailing 55-47 with 4:19 remaining in the 2nd half, Villanova made its run...tying the game at 58 and forcing overtime! There was already high drama in Providence, and the first game hadn't even concluded yet!

Scottie Reynolds sank some clutch free throws during Villanova's comeback

Despite their superior talent, however, the Wildcats couldn't pull away from the NEC Champions. With Villanova holding a 73-70 advantage, Robert Morris still had a chance to tie it in the final 10 seconds.

Robert Morris still has a chance in overtime

The entire arena stood as the ball was brought in-bounds for the final play. Colonials' senior guard Mezie Nwigwe dribbled near the three-point line. Tightly defended, he goes up for the game-tying shot as the clock is about to expire...and the ball bounces off the back of the rim. The Villanova fans in attendance breathe a sigh of relief, while everyone else lets loose a loud "Ahhhhhh!!!" The upset bid was so close, but yet so far.

Heartbreak for the Colonials

For Robert Morris and its fans, a moral victory and some name recognition would have to do. The team from suburban Pittsburgh left the court to a standing ovation from the sold-out crowd.

Robert Morris lost the game, but won respect

During the half-hour break between contests, a game-within-the-game ensues on the Dunkin' Donuts Center concourse. Like vultures preying upon a dying body in the desert, fans of the winning team traditionally descend upon the losing team's seating area...looking to buy tickets for the next round's game. It is generally an unspoken transaction at first...with people's fingers extended in the air, indicating the number of ducats they're seeking.

The Madness was already underway in Providence, but there were still three games yet to play!

To be continued...

'Nova survives...what a way to begin March Madness in Providence!


Saturday, March 12, 2011

My Blue Heaven

With the NCAA basketball postseason getting into full swing, I reflect upon my recent trip to Tobacco Road and one of the country's hardwood havens...

Take a moment and think back as far as you can remember.

What were your interests, your likes, your loves, your dislikes? Did they linger throughout your childhood? Did they stick with you as you grew up? Are they still a part of you now?

Despite hundreds of miles standing in the way, my fascination with the University of North Carolina -- and in particular, its basketball program -- has been everlasting. How the love affair began, I couldn't tell you. Maybe the school's colors appealed to my then-4-year-old eyes. Perhaps it was the team's uniforms. Maybe it was their constant exposure on national television. Although it stemmed from such innocent and arbitrary beginnings, the interest continues to this day.


During President's Day weekend, I decided to take a trip to Chapel Hill, NC, to watch the nationally-ranked Tar Heels' basketball team go up against the Boston College Eagles.

This journey was about more than a basketball game, however...it was an opportunity to reflect upon my life and consider its current direction. It's so easy to get caught up in the hustle-and-bustle of everyday adult life -- our relationships, our friendships, our careers, and our responsibilities. But for a few hours on Saturday, February 19th, Chapel Hill and the UNC campus served as my temporary time machine to simpler, more carefree days.

Nothin' could be finer...

Chapel Hill is the quintessential college town, balancing university and residential life. Nowhere is that more apparent than on the main strip in the downtown area, East Franklin Street. A combination of shops, restaurants, fast-food eateries, nightlife spots and UNC-themed stores dot the landscape...with campus buildings just a short walk away.

Chapel Hill's Franklin Street on a Saturday afternoon

Upon taking my first steps on Franklin Street, I flashed back to my initial visit in 1991, as a 12-year-old. Much like then, I looked around in awe and wonder...taking in all the sights.

How intertwined are the community and the school? Ask the owners of the "Shrunken Head Boutique," a Franklin Street store that has been around since 1969, specializing in selling UNC apparel and items. It has been owned-and-operated by the same people for the duration of its existence...and they openly share stories about their craziest and happiest times. Owner Shelton Henderson recalls his most memorable moment. "After UNC won the national championship in '82. We were up until 4 AM after that game, making t-shirts...and we couldn't even keep up with demand!" Other stores in the area -- despite having fewer years under their belts -- probably have similar tales to tell.

The Shrunken Head Boutique -- a pillar in the Chapel Hill community

After spending a couple of hours (and a few dollars) on Franklin Street, it was time to walk the UNC campus. I adore the picturesque setting. Brick building after brick building -- some dating back to the late-1700s and early-1800s -- surround you. Brick paths guide students along the manicured college greens throughout the spacious (and -- befitting the town's name -- hilly) campus.

The South Building -- one of the oldest on the UNC campus

About halfway into my campus walk, I encounter some UNC basketball history -- Carmichael Auditorium -- home of the men's basketball team from 1965 to 1986, and the current home of the women's team. Head coach Dean Smith perfected his craft there, eventually leading to the construction of an arena that would be named in his honor. It was where legendary names in Tar Heel basketball history -- Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Phil Ford, to name a few -- thrilled and delighted fans. Over 10,000 people would pack Carmichael on a game-by-game basis back then...prompting the need for a larger facility.

Carmichael Auditorium housed the UNC men's basketball team for two decades

Continuing the walk, I would eventually reach my destination. The Dean Smith Center sits near the bottom of a hill along the outer edge of campus. Completed in 1986, its brown exterior is topped with a black roof, and a small white dome atop the structure.

The Dean Smith Center -- home of the Tar Heels

Upon walking inside, I became a little kid yet again...as Carolina Blue blood started to rush through my veins. In about 45 minutes, I would be watching the Tar Heels take the court in a pivotal ACC matchup with Boston College.

The murals alone can get you excited for Carolina basketball

The Dean Dome's concourse is an ode to North Carolina's basketball tradition. Numerous murals appear, displaying great moments in Tar Heel history. In addition, there are framed-and-enlarged team photos of every ACC and NCAA championship-winning team that UNC has ever had! When you're not approaching a concession stand for refreshments, you can take part in a self-guided history lesson.

Team photo of the 1981-82 national champions on the concourse

Inside the seating area, the rafters provide another reminder of Tar Heel basketball greatness. There are 43 jerseys hanging from the ceiling on one side of the court, signifying the great players who have donned Carolina blue-and-white. Of those banners, 8 are displayed on a light blue background. Those indicate retired numbers that will never be worn again by a UNC player.

Those jerseys in the rafters are an impressive sight

On the opposite side of the arena are North Carolina's 6 national championship banners, complete with the team's final overall record for that season. They are purposefully made to be larger than any other banner on display in the arena...and to Tar Heel fans, they are larger-than-life.

North Carolina's national championship banners are proudly displayed

As gametime draws closer, the atmosphere inside the Smith Center becomes more intense. The UNC pep band plays both contemporary music and traditional fight songs as the players get ready for the game. Students near the court cheer as current Carolina head coach Roy Williams tosses them t-shirts. The video boards display UNC statistics and trivia. For the next 2-or-so hours, North Carolina Tar Heels basketball would become the center of my universe.

Underway at the Smith Center

The first 20 minutes of the game featured deliberate play and shoddy execution. Boston College, who entered the game with a 16-9 overall record and 6-5 ACC mark, kept within striking distance of the #19 Tar Heels as UNC took a 21-20 lead into the locker room at halftime.

Sophomore forward John Henson's tip-in helped UNC to a 21-20 halftime lead

During the intermission, the 1971 Tar Heel basketball team was honored for the 40th anniversary of its NIT championship win. Nearly the entire roster from that team made the trip to Chapel Hill to take part in the festivities...revealing the loyalty that they still have for the university.

The 1971 NIT championship team is honored at halftime

The 2nd half proved tough for the 19-5 (9-2 in the ACC) Tar Heels as well. Although UNC had established a 13-point lead during a couple stretches of play, the Eagles fought back. Could BC pull off the road upset?

Junior center Tyler Zeller scores two of his 16 points in the game

As the game approached its conclusion, UNC held a 48-46 lead. Boston College had the ball with 20 seconds left. Everyone inside the Smith Center was nervously on their feet, anticipating the final shot. Would the Eagles play it safe and go for the tie? Or would a 3-point attempt be launched for the win?

Boston College huddles up to discuss strategy

Following a timeout, UNC and Boston College players left their respective huddles to take the floor for the final play. The crowd of 21,159 cheered, almost all of them pleading for a Tar Heel defensive stop.

The ball is brought in-bounds. It rests in the hands of junior BC guard Reggie Jackson. He stands slightly behind the three-point line as the final seconds tick away. Jackson starts dribbling toward the hoop...and with five seconds left, he stops short. He's going for 3! The ball arcs toward the basket as players and fans alike watch helplessly. It strikes the rim...and bounces away! North Carolina escapes with a narrow victory as the Smith Center crowd celebrates. I jumped around with the same joy you'd see in a young child.

Junior guard Reggie Jackson's game-winning shot attempt bounces off the rim

The 48 points scored by UNC established a dubious single-game record -- the lowest total by a Tar Heel team in the history of the Dean Smith Center. Yet despite the ugly number, the result was a beautiful win.

UNC survives Boston College's upset bid

After the game, I remained in my seat in Section 224 for several minutes...smiling about the victory and quietly absorbing the sights-and-sounds as people made their way to the exits. The band played the UNC alma mater, "Hark the Sound," as the remaining fans sang, swayed and then clapped along with the music.

Celebration as the UNC alma mater plays

This was my first visit to Chapel Hill in eight years. Although a lot of time had passed, it still felt "comfortable"...and despite having no official affiliation with UNC, the passion for a school I started rooting for decades ago had not subsided.

While my future has yet to be determined...but it's pretty safe to say that Carolina will be in my mind.

Some things never change as you grow up...