A weekend at the NCAA tournament

The third weekend in March is when everyone pays close attention to college basketball. If not everyone then a significant amount of people who were not paying close attention to it until then.

It is the NCAA tournament which is among the best postseason events to watch on television if not the best.  The single elimination concept creates bigger urgency knowing that a season or a college career can be over quickly.  It plays well on television but it plays even better in person.

Until this weekend I had no idea about the in person part. I suspected seeing it in person would be something really cool but never had the opportunity.  When I was at St. John’s the closest I came to being involved with the NCAA tournament was producing the 1998 first-round loss to Detroit from Chicago in my first weeks of the campus radio station at 9 pm on a Friday night inside a quiet building.

So other than putting the phone on hold and pushing a button to get it on the air, I never had direct involvement.  I did cover basketball for college media but the one year I did extensively was 2000-01 and it was the only time the team didn’t make the NCAAs while I was there because of how terrible they played down the stretch. The disappointing season came a year after they were a two seed and I watched them lose to Gonzaga at the bar of the ESPN Zone in Times Square.

I don’t remember when the announcement was made but when it was announced the first and second round would be coming to Brooklyn, I thought how cool it would be to work at such an event. I just didn’t know how or for who.

Then I started to help the Associated Press on college basketball last year by doing quotes for various games in 2014-15 and occasionally writing some game stories this season along with running quotes.  Helping out with quotes in New York means you’re helping out a Hall of Fame basketball writer in Jim O’Connell and by aiding the game stories in such a way it earns you a spot in the NCAA tournament.

Sure it would have been cool to write some things, but in the roughly 34 hours I was at the tournament I sat by the court and on the side where Iowa’s Adam Woodbury beat Temple and where Notre Dame’s Rex Pflueger beat Stephen F. Austin.  I even asked the following questions at some of these press conferences and I’d like to think they weren’t dumb and the answers were decent.

March 17

Q:You were the associate head coach four years ago when you lost the 16 game to Syracuse by seven. What are some things you can impart from that experience to the team in this game?
COACH MCDEVITT: We talked about this week that one of the reasons we felt like we were in that game was because of the preparation leading up to the game. Our team wasn’t — that year, in 2012, just happy to be here. They wanted to win and felt like they could win. So we talked to our young men here about having the same kind of attitude and effort leading up to the game.

Our practices were going to have to be tough. The attitude toward the game was going to have to be we want to win. Otherwise, you have no chance before the ball goes in the air.

Some of the players were up here talking about buying into the defensive system. From your perspective, what was that like getting the buy-in like pretty early in the season?
BOB HUGGINS: It really wasn’t that hard. I kind of asked them if they all wanted to play, and they all said they did, and I said, well, we can play all of you, but we’re going to have to play this way. You know, it’s going to take a great amount of effort on every one of your parts, but you’re all going to get to play. I really think it’s helped our team chemistry. I think it’s helped our esprit de corps, so to speak.

I think it’s been really good. I think they enjoy it.

Q. You mentioned Coach Huggins. In the one year you spent working with him in ’06/’07 at Kansas State, what are some of the things that you picked up from him?
BRAD UNDERWOOD: Well, there’s two things that Huggs did that were unbelievably impressive to me. One is, as a head coach, I’ve never been around or had seen anyone who spent as much time recruiting as he did, as a head coach. Fabulous, fabulous recruiter and spent tremendous time.

The other thing is he’s the single best communicator with people and with players that I’ve ever seen. Just had an unbelievable way of effecting young men in a positive way and can get on him and get the best out of them on the basketball court and then just so caring and so involved in their everyday life. It’s a reason he’s been successful and as a hall of fame coach approaching 800 wins. His players love him to death, and it was a great learning experience for me.

March 18

Q. Obviously, you practiced for it, but what is it that you were able to do to limit your turnovers? You only had seven against a team that’s known for forcing turnovers.
BRAD UNDERWOOD: Well, we don’t rely on one ball handler is a big part of it. We’re positionless. You saw in the first half, we had TJ Holyfield, the freshman five, who’s really a small forward in nature, bring the ball up the court. C.J. Williams, we recruit those type of guys. Thomas handles the ball a lot. It’s all matchup based for us, and it was a reason two years ago in the VCU game that we were able to have some success because it’s multiple ball handlers. We did talk about playing under their hands. And then staying 15 feet from the guy with the ball. So when they ran and jumped, we had great spacing, and we wanted to attack from there.

March 19:

Q: You mentioned earlier that you’ve been hearing all the talk about the second round going back to the summertime. I’m just wondering, what are some of the conversations like? 
DANIEL OCHEFU: No, just fans coming up to us saying, we’re going to make it this year. We’re going to get them this year. We’re going to get past the second round. Back then, we didn’t even know if we were going to be in the tournament yet. It was just going through the whole year hearing that, it was kind of annoying, but everybody has the right to say just because it just means they expect better things of us, just like how we expect of ourselves.

On TV you see the joy and you see the agony. In person, it’s magnified significantly.

Other than the two Villanova blowouts, the other four games were compelling.

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There was Iowa-Temple going to overtime with the Hawkeyes winning on a tip-in off an air-ball. There was Stephen F. Austin celebrating its win over West Virginia and the dramatics of Notre Dame beating Michigan late Friday night and Stephen F. Austin Sunday.

In game, you see the emotion and excitement and occasionally hear things over the crowd noise, such as coaches like Bob Huggins yelling at the refs and imploring his team to get it together.

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You see players like Thomas Walkup become a media star, talk about his beard and other things. It’s not the first time he has pulled off the upset. They beat VCU in the 5-12 game two years ago but being a 14th seed seems even more magnified.

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You hear things like the Notre Dame players say it’s on to Philly after getting to the Sweet 16 as they run to the locker room after getting a miracle tip-in from someone who rarely scores a point.

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You hear the applause inside the Villanova locker room and the relief that they can finally answer questions about winning the second round after a narrative which essentially began when the Wildcats lost to North Carolina State.

You hear the quiet din of the Iowa locker room, reflecting on a successful season but also lamenting not having an answer for Villanova. You hear the emotion of Stephen F. Austin coach Brad Underwood when talking about his best player by saying:

“He’s a better kid than he is a player, and that’s what I’ll miss. He’s funny. He’s smart. This is what this is about. He’s everything that this is about. It’s relationships, it’s people, it’s a student-athlete with two degrees. It’s a student-athlete who made himself great. How do you not fall in love with a kid like that?

“And we use the term love a lot in our program. He’s got a wonderful family. There’s not enough adjectives to say what I feel about that young man. He’s going to go make it in whatever endeavor he chooses beyond basketball, with basketball, whatever. I love that kid to death.

The NCAA and sports leagues give us many justifiable reasons to be cynical and negative.

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The event known as March Madness shows some of the human side of it. Seeing it in person enhances what you see on TV even if all I did was contribute to six game stories and six advance stories by getting quotes from locker rooms and press conferences.

Four straight days at an event can be tiring but thinking about what you saw keeps me energized, especially after seeing what unfolded on TV in other venues. Next year Madison Square Garden gets the East Regional and it seems likely Brooklyn will get future NCAA tournament games.

Based on this weekend, I look forward to being at the NCAA tournament again and seeing more shining moments.