Upstaging a very good National Championship game

Great players can’t always go home and succeed as coaches which St. John’s legend Chris Mullin found out after four years. AP Photo via Getty Images.

We’ve all seen it happen before. Who could forget the absurd publicity stunt by Alex Rodriguez, who revealed that he was opting out of his contract to become a free agent during the World Series?

He got killed for it. Eventually, apologized and then Hank Steinbrenner anted up an even worse contract that everyone knew would blow up in their face. At least A-Rod finally delivered a World Series in 2009 with a memorable postseason. Then came more headaches followed by a nice comeback and retirement.

At least Rodriguez was relevant. He is considered one of the greatest players of this generation. Even if performance enhanced, “It’s an A Bomb from A-Rod,” became one of legendary Yankees radio voice John Sterling’s memorable signature calls. What else could you expect from a very enjoyable and personable broadcaster, who makes listening to any ball game fun.

St. John’s hasn’t been relevant for a long time. That’s why the timing of the news that Chris Mullin would step down as head basketball coach after four largely disappointing years was off. Why would they leak it right before tip off of the National Championship game between Texas Tech and Virginia?

That about sums it up with my former Alma mater who can’t seem to get out of their own way. Shall I run down the list of coaches since Mike Jarvis took Fran Fraschilla’s kids within an eyelash of a Final Four?

Norm Roberts

Steve Lavin

Chris Mullin

???

When does it end? Don’t tell me Bobby Hurley either. You damn well know he’ll use the St. John’s job as a stepping stone to help his candidacy for his dream job at Duke. He and about four other former players under Coach K. Johnny Dawkins is probably the leading candidate whenever Mike Kryzewski gets tired of coaching now that the one and done rule is becoming extinct in two or three years.

I won’t get into all the ugly accusations involving Nike and former Blue Devil Zion Williamson. Adidas has its own scandal involving big name schools and players. That’s the despicable side of college athletics nobody wants to talk about. Especially on CBS and ESPN. But the black eye for a corrupt sport that’s gotten rich off kids is coming. Don’t blink.

I understand why Mullin resigned after four years. Like most coaches, he wanted financial security. So, he asked for an extension with two years left on his contract. Athletic Director Mike Cragg wasn’t gonna bite. Had the recent team led by Shamorie Ponds performed better in March than a ugly loss to Arizona State in The First Four knockout stage, maybe Mullin would still be at the school he made famous while starring for the legendary Lou Carnesecca.

Sadly, 1985 is a lifetime ago. That Final Four will always be fondly remembered by St. John’s fans like me and my father, who also attended the school. I was raised on the Redmen. The chant was, “Let’s Go Redmen, Let’s Go Redmen,” before the PC era dictated a name change. I’ll never get used to Red Storm even if it’s not a bad nickname. These days, students and alumni chant, “Let’s Go Johnnies!” Not a bad replacement. It just doesn’t have the same enthusiasm.

I’ve always been the same on this issue. It’s Sports! Not political crap. I wish those people would go away and lock themselves in a cave. I hope the Redskins never change their team name. It’s coming.

I’ll never change my opinion on how I feel about Mullin. I knew it was a big risk by the University. They hired the legendary former player with the big name as a draw. It worked. Attendance went up. So did notoriety even if they didn’t reach the NCAA Tournament until Year Four. It’s a shame it didn’t work out better for the city’s favorite son.

This doesn’t make Mullin a bad guy. There have been plenty of former star players who failed as coaches or managers. For every Gil Hodges, Lou Piniella, Joe Torre or Steve Kerr, there’s a Ted Williams, Wayne Gretzky, Jason Kidd or Willis Reed.

What it means is that not all former great players make good coaches. Mullin will always hold a special place in St. John’s hearts. That’ll never change. He can take pride knowing they got to see their name revealed on Selection Sunday for the first time since 2015 in Lavin’s final year. He too went out similarly with St. John’s losing to San Diego State in the first round before wanting an extension. He now is back doing excellent work for Fox Sports in studio on Big East games.

With his older brother Roddy passing away after losing a battle with cancer, Mullin had personal reasons for leaving his dream job. Family is very important to him. Maybe his heart wasn’t in it. Judging from the way most St. John’s huddles were with assistant Greg St. Jean handling most of the coaching duties, it’s for the best.

I wonder why they couldn’t wait until a well played championship game won by Virginia in overtime over Texas Tech, was over. Would it have killed them to wait 24 hours for well respected CBS college basketball insider Jon Rothstein to break the story? Timing has been off for a while.

How did St. John’s go from Joe Lapchick, Frank MacGuire, Lapchick II and Carnesecca to this failed Error? I misspelled it intentionally. There are a variety of reasons starting with how poor the facilities are. Nobody wants to stay home anymore. Upgrading the campus life and facilities would really help the recruiting process. Something Mullin left for former top recruiter Matt Abdelmassih, who bolted to rejoin Fred Hoiberg, who was hired by Nebraska. They worked together at Iowa State before Hoiberg made a unsuccessful leap to the NBA.

Recruiting wasn’t something Lavin did well either. He didn’t go after anyone local. It’s so rare that a local kid like a Ponds chooses to stay and play for the hometown school. They lucked out. If only the former Jefferson High School star had made more improvement in his three years under Mullin and Mitch Richmond. They might be Hall of Famers. But they aren’t coaches. I never got what Richmond did during games. He seemed like one of the boys along for the ride.

The irony is I loved Run TMC at Golden State, featuring Tim Hardaway, Richmond and Mullin. I even had a classic gray and navy blue t-shirt with the three great Warriors on it in high school. Oh how I wish I had saved it along with my classic Marlins hoodie and Rockies jersey when both were expansion teams. Good times.

I wish the news on Mullin had come out today or tomorrow without the leaks on Twitter. Social media can have a negative affect. News travels faster. Sometimes, the reports are erroneous due to so-called reporters wanting to be first with the big scoop. Not to be political. There’s a lot of Fake News.

Virginia proved to be a team of destiny after somehow pulling off two miracles to stun Purdue and Auburn. Of course, Tony Bennett’s redemption team would need overtime to beat Texas Tech last night, going from the worst kind of history a year ago by becoming the only 1 seed to lose to a 16 against UMBC, to winning their first ever national title.

Full credit to DeAndre Hunter, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome for delivering when it counted. Maybe there is hope for Hunter, who at times looked flat for his 6-7 size that will make him a lottery pick in June. He sure came up big in the second half, scoring most of his game high 27 in crunch time. That included the game’s biggest shot off a Jerome pass with a corner trey that forced overtime. A bad miscalculation for a well schooled defensive team like Chris Beard’s Red Raiders.

It’s astonishing to think that Texas Tech had a 29-6 bench edge and lost. Hunter locked up Jarrett Culver, who took too many shots (5-22) for his 15 points. Davide Moretti and Matt Mooney deserved more opportunities late along with Brandone Francis. They still only needed to let Jerome score and make it a one point game. Stay home on the shooters. Something they practiced and executed repeatedly under rising star Beard.

I shouldn’t say that considering Guy’s heroics against Auburn. The Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player scored six points in crazy fashion on a huge three and three free throws to stun Bruce Pearl’s Tigers. Guy had 24 yesterday including four from downtown like the clutch Hunter, who boosted his NBA stock. Jerome filled the stat sheet with 16 points, eight assists and six rebounds. As a team, UVA made 20 of 23 free throws including all 12 in overtime.

None of this would’ve been possible without the whacky desperation play involving Mamadi Diakite and Kihei Clark against Purdue in the Elite Eight. The well executed missed free throw by Jerome off the front rim, allowing Diakite to tip it out to the back court. Then a hustling Clark running down the loose ball in reverse away from the basket before turning around and having the poise to see the clock and make a perfect pass back to Diakite for his 12 foot floater that sent that wild Regional Final to overtime.

There’s never been a more unpredictable play that saved a team than that. They overcame Carsen Edwards’ miraculous 42 points that included a jaw dropping 10 treys to pull that one out in OT. The three wins against Purdue, Auburn and Texas Tech all could’ve been losses. Let’s not leave out the missed double dribble on Jerome leading up to Guy getting fouled on a corner three- sinking all three free throws with one second left to break Auburn hearts along with Charles Barkley.

Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good. You have to have luck to win. We’ve seen it so many times. The ’96 Yankees. The ’86 Mets. The ’90 Giants. The last three won by Big Blue all had that unique quality. The ’85 Royals benefitted from a missed final out call to come back and beat the Cardinals in seven. Not every champion needs it. Some dominate like the ’96 Bulls and ’99 Yankees. Most do.

What will happen with St. John’s? As I get ready to do a guest spot on Madison Miller’s podcast, here’s some friendly advice. Offer the job to Tim Cluees. He’s been with Iona for a decade and done an outstanding job. He has ties to our school. Though it ended badly. Make amends and get the local guy who won’t use the school to get another job like Hurley.

At some point, they had better get it right. Or what’s the point of even having basketball at the once proud school?

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March Sadness: It’s Time To Dance

Flyin’ Zion! Zion Williamson is ready to rock and roll along with NCAA tournament favorite Duke. More on the field of 68 that includes St. John’s by the skin of their teeth. AP Photo via Getty Images

March means a madness is coming. Similar to the wild and wacky weather, it’s one of the best times of year for sports fans. Just about everything is in play. The NBA and NHL are wrapping up the regular seasons. The NFL is just over a month away from the big Draft at the end of April. Baseball is getting ready to start up for real.

All those stories pale in comparison to college basketball. March Sadness is a time of jubilation and devastation. It’s a time of excitement and disappointment. The games are exciting for hoop fans. Not just for the gamblers who live and die with risky teasers and parlays based on the plight of a few teams they take based on point spreads.

I don’t gamble. I don’t believe in it. Sure. I’ve wondered a few instances where I knew there were some locks if it would be worth it. But I’m not the betting type. Maybe if I had a bigger bank account, I’d consider it once in a while. Even then, I wouldn’t become a compulsive gambler. There’s far too much risk. My advice to anyone who bets is choose wisely. Don’t live and die by it. I hope someone reads this and understands the important message I’m sending.

As far as why I refer to it as March Sadness rather than March Madness, please use the reasons stated above. For some diehard fans of their favorite schools, it can be heartache and heartbreak rather than exhilaration and celebration. Try telling that to the experts who already broke down the biggest tournament there is. The NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Field of 68 that officially came out yesterday as revealed by CBS.

As an old school college basketball junkie who goes back to that memorable 1985 Final Four that featured three Big East schools including Alma mater St. John’s, and holdovers Georgetown and Villanova, I love this time of year. There’s nothing like it. Take any sport you want. I will stick with the thrill and agony of college athletes playing for something bigger.

I know it’s not all roses. There remain big time issues with how corrupt the NCAA college basketball system is. The investigations of key players and coaches from big programs like Arizona and LSU remain like a dark storm cloud hovering over. How that gets resolved is better off left unsaid. Personally, I think Sean Miller should’ve lost his job with Arizona. Look how poorly they played in losing to Buffalo a year ago with first overall pick DeAndre Ayton. You can’t tell me it wasn’t a huge distraction. They’re not in this year’s tournament while LSU is without coach Will Wade, who’s suspended. How will the Tigers perform?

There is big money being made off these players. No matter what way you slice it, everyone is profiting off them. It remains unfair and explains why there is so much criticism and cynicism when it comes to the NCAA. The age of innocence when I was growing up on Staten Island in the forgotten borough, idolizing Chris Mullin, Walter Berry and Mark Jackson is long gone. Back then, it was easier to root for your team without all the craziness. I’m talking about the brackets that we all participate in. Yes, I’m guilty as charged. However, I don’t do it for money. I do it for fun. It’s literally impossible to come up with the “Perfect Bracket.” Leave that to the nerds who have perplexing systems. No offense.

My true excitement in viewing what they revealed last night were seeing the match-ups. Along with the four number one seeds with an astounding three coming from the ACC in top overall seed Duke, North Carolina and Virginia, with only Gonzaga representing the WCC, it’s always fun to see where they seeded schools you have interest in. For me, Big East champion Villanova only got a six seed despite winning both the regular season and conference tournament in a electrifying game over Seton Hall. The Hall for their trouble received a 10 seed and draw one of those tough mid majors in number seven Wofford. A team some experts like to do damage. At the very least, it sounds like a game I’ll watch. Plus I love and respect Myles Powell. A really good scoring guard who’s improved in his Junior year under coach Kevin Willard.

As they continued to announce each region, time was running out on Alma mater St. John’s. When Belmont vs Temple was revealed early on as a play in for the 11 seed that will draw number six Maryland, I knew it was dicey. Especially when anyone with a pulse realized the other two play in games are 16’s to get 1’s. When CBS came back from commercial, the final region was revealed. The West would be do or die for the Jekyll and Hyde Johnnies, who lost four of their last five including a regrettable Big East Quarterfinal 32-point humiliation to Marquette that put Mullin’s team on the ropes.

As they rolled out No. 1 seed Gonzaga on the first page, suspense built. My reaction was either they’re in or out. Even if I knew it would be as the play in which I actually correctly predicted. Yes. On Sunday morning early in our household, I told my Dad, who’s also a proud St. John’s alum, that I thought they’d draw either Arizona State or Temple. As they went to the top of the screen again, there it was at the top in print:

6 Buffalo

vs

11 St. John’s or Arizona State

The committee definitely has a keen sense of humor. The same committee that pitted Richard Pitino’s Minnesota Golden Gophers against his fired Dad’s former Cardinals of Louisville, thought it would be funny to have former NCAA legends Mullin versus Bobby Hurley coaching against each other to play a very good Buffalo Bulls team that won 31 games. If it’s Arizona State, it would mean Hurley facing his former team. If it’s St. John’s, it puts “New York’s Team” against the more successful Division I program from New York State. Buffalo having upset Arizona last year by humiliating them led by C.J. Massinburg. They lost in the second round to Kentucky.

Personally, I think the luck of the Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day was looking down on fellow lad Mullin, who’s no stranger to the NCAA bubble. He cited his freshman year at St. John’s under legendary coach Lou Carnesecca when the Redmen were 18-11 and didn’t know they would be playing in the tournament. When Mullin knew there was practice, he realized they made it. There also was the crazy story 40 years ago when St. John’s was the last team in out of 40 back then. That team made a run to the Elite Eight before losing by two to Penn. Dad vividly recalls that team. Of course, I can’t. I was not even two.

My reaction when I saw my school in as part of the Field of 68 was relief. I expected it. Overall, I think they did a good job. Maybe I don’t agree with Tennessee as a No. 2 seed while the ACC Big Three of Duke, Carolina and Virginia all are 1’s with Gonzaga. Michigan State was shafted by being given a 2 seed after beating Michigan three times including the Big Ten Championship. Their reward was being placed in the Duke bracket. They’re on a collision course with the Blue Devils in an Elite Eight showdown.

I thought Villanova could’ve gotten a 5 seed instead of a 6. They worked hard to win the Big East Tournament for a third straight year, outlasting the scrappy Pirates 74-72 with a Powell trey rimming out. Now, they’ll draw Saint Mary’s in the dreaded 11/6. St. Mary’s held Gonzaga under 50 points to end their run of dominance in the West Coast Conference. If the Wildcats advance, they would likely have to contend with good No. 3 seed Purdue. For Jay Wright’s defending champs, it’s not only about proven senior leaders Phil Booth and Eric Paschall. For a team that lost four starters last year to the NBA including Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman, they have had younger players step up. Collin Gillespie, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, Saddiq Bey and Jermaine Samuels all played key roles in helping the Wildcats win the Big East. We’ll see if they have the Wright stuff later this week.

Teams whose bubble burst include TCU, NC State, Clemson, Indiana, Alabama and UNC Greensboro. There will always be schools who get left out. RPI was replaced by NET with the committee measuring how many wins bubble teams got in Quadrant I and Quadrant II. Top tier was considered. Even though they played a weak non-conference schedule, St. John’s had a big win over VCU. A fixture in the Big Dance eight of the last nine years, VCU is in a good 8/9 game versus UCF in the East Region. Combined with two victories over Marquette and a big home win over Villanova, plus a split with Seton Hall that included a controversial loss in Newark, it was just enough to get the Red Storm in.

Surprising runs by Oregon, Saint Louis and even St. Mary’s knocking off the Zags hurt the other bubble schools. I wonder if Murray State led by projected top three lottery pick Ja Morant would’ve made it had they not beaten Belmont to win the Ohio Valley. Probably not which would’ve been disappointing for basketball fans that are excited to see how the legitimate big scoring and great passing point guard looks. They’re the No. 12 seed that’ll get No. 5 Marquette in a scintillating guard match-up featuring Big East Player of The Year Markus Howard. It should be a entertaining back and forth frenetic style. Circle that one on Thursday in the West Region.

Everyone knows how electrifying Zion Williamson is. The dominant athletic force for Duke is the difference between being average and competing for another national title under Mike Kryzewski. The 6-7, 285 pound explosive power forward plays the game with such a passion that he reminds me of Charles Barkley. His vertical leaping ability allows him to alter shots and block shots while absolutely controlling the glass. He’s extremely quick getting to the basket and a highlight reel that has invigorated college basketball fans with his enthusiasm at both ends. What I like most is he’s the antithesis of a me first athlete that we see too often these days. He also isn’t reliant on the three ball. He can occasionally step out and shoot it, but his arsenal is all about beating players off the dribble for And-1’s, powerful dunks, offensive rebounds and easy finishes in transition.

It’s astonishing what Flyin’ Zion means to Duke, who also boast projected top three lottery pick R.J. Barrett at combo guard/forward. The freshman class Coach K has that includes sharpshooter Cam Reddish and shutdown guard Tre Jones is remarkable. They’re uniquely talented despite not being a great shooting team from long distance. This isn’t a deep squad. That’s why they went 3-3 without Williamson when he missed six games due to a mild knee sprain. He never considered going back on his word to sit out for the NBA Draft. He loves college and is all about winning championships like Duke did in a great ACC Title Game over North Carolina.

Wouldn’t a Duke vs North Carolina NCAA Final be a ratings bonanza? Wow! Given how well both teams are playing entering the tournament, it’s a strong possibility. Carolina will have a harder road after being placed in a tough Midwest that features No. 2 seed Kentucky, No. 4 Kansas, No. 5 Auburn along with potential bracket busters Iowa State, Wofford and Utah State. That’s no picnic for Roy Williams, whose high scoring team will start with area local Iona, who won the MAAC for a fourth consecutive year to earn their way in as a 16 seed.

Virginia is back as a 1 seed in the South. A year ago, Tony Bennett’s club made the wrong kind of history by becoming the first ever top seed to lose to a 16 when UMBC out played them to easily pull off the huge upset. What I’ll remember most is how well Bennett handled the humbling loss. He really was honest about what happened and didn’t shy away from it, giving full credit to the University of Baltimore Maryland County for how well they played to earn the historic achievement.

The Cavaliers have a lot to prove. Led by the trio of Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and expected lottery pick De’Andre Hunter, they’re capable of scoring more than last year’s team. In particular, Guy is the key with some good half court sets freeing him up from three. He is the glue of the team. Hunter is an athletic combination guard that can create match-up advantages. Jerome is more distributor than scorer. Virginia remains the nation’s top defensive team allowing 54.6 points on average. They aren’t always in sync offensively. Strong second halfs have helped them pull away in close games.

The biggest threats are No. 2 Tennessee, No. 3 Purdue if both get by potential tough second rounds against Cincinnati and Villanova respectively if form holds. Kansas State is on the same side as Virginia, but get an early test from No. 13 UC Irvine. Keep an eye on the bottom of that section with No. 12 Oregon hot having played their way in by winning the PAC-12 Tournament led by crafty point guard Payton Pritchard. Learn his name. He can ball for a little guy. If the Ducks make a run under good coach Dana Altman, the junior will lead the way. He was on their Final Four team in 2017.

A final thought on St. John’s playing in the tournament for the first time since a disappointing first round exit at the hands of San Diego State in 2015. I know they’ve been consistently inconsistent since Big East play started back on that controversial night at Seton Hall. A game that nearly cost them an at large bid.

They’ve gotten a reprieve. This is a opportunity of a lifetime for a school that hasn’t advanced out of the first round since 2000. I was 23 barely out of St. John’s with a Bachelor’s degree in Sports Management. That’s how long it’s been. The glory days of Ron Artest, Bootsy Thornton, Lavor Postell, Erick Barkley and Tyrone Grant leading the team to within striking distance of its second ever Final Four in 1999 are long gone. Reggie Jessie out of Bishop Loughlin was the key Sixth Man on Mike Jarvis’s team that lost by three to Ohio State and Scoonie Penn. I still hate him all these years later.

I watched it at a local bar with close buddy Timmy Amass. It was agonizing. They played so poorly, but a last ditch effort nearly pulled off an unthinkable comeback. That included a pair of long three’s from Artest, who would go on to a successful NBA career that had a bit of everything, including helping the Lakers win a championship in 2010. Believe it or not, he now coaches in the D League.

For Mullin’s team that prominently features former Jefferson star Shamorie Ponds, who was third in the Big East in scoring and again All Big East First Team, here is a chance to prove they belong. Playing Arizona State won’t be easy this Wednesday night in Dayton, Ohio. ASU is more experienced having lost in the same play in last year. You know they’ll be out for vengeance. Interestingly enough, the schools did face each other in 2017-18 with the Sun Devils coming away with a 12-point win.

None of that matters when they tip off after 9 EST in two days. Mustapha Heron and Marvin Clark have necessary experience. Heron played for Auburn before transferring. Clark with Michigan State for two years under Tom Izzo. When the Johnnies are right, they play strong defense, forcing turnovers and getting out in transition. They spread the floor and involve everyone.

It still would be beneficial for Ponds to look for his shot early. He’s their best player. I know he’s changed his game somewhat by involving more teammates to make himself more marketable to NBA scouts. But Ponds is a streaky scorer in the classic NYC sense. He can get hot and be unstoppable when he’s driving and hitting the floater. That can open up his step back from downtown. He’s also a good passer getting over five assists per game. Ponds can do it at both ends by being a ball hawk. He can get his active hands on balls that lead to steals.

Heron is your classic tweener who can play bigger than his 6-5, 220 frame. He averaged just under 15 points and grabbed 4.7 rebounds. He’s most effective when he’s using his speed to drive and score inside the paint. He can occasionally step out and drain the three if it’s open. Having him on the floor to rebound along with good scoring sophomore L.J. Figueroa are essential. Both will be important keys to a victory. Figueroa is a good long range shooter who also paces St. John’s in rebounds (6.2). He must stay disciplined.

Clark needs to stay out of foul trouble. He’s a good perimeter threat, who also grabs over five rebounds. He’s a senior who’s been here before. This is a chance to make up for a forgettable night against Marquette where he fouled out with no points last Thursday.

It’s so contingent on the starting five because Mullin only uses two off the bench. Bryant Trimble, Jr. is a spot up three-point shooter and Sedee Keita is a shot blocking presence who is used for defense due to his size (6-9, 240). He has little offensive game. It’s too bad Mikey Dixon transferred. They could’ve used him. It reminds me of Malik Ellison, who plays for Pittsburgh. His numbers have decreased on a team that didn’t have a good year.

Justin Simon remains the most under appreciated player on the Red Storm. Selected as the Big East Defensive Player of The Year, the junior guard stepped up his game in the conference tournament. He was instrumental in the must win over DePaul that was barely enough to squeak in. Simon isn’t going to score from the outside. He’s good at attacking the rim and getting out in transition. He does the little things well that help you win at this crucial time of year. The younger son of former NBA pro Miles Simon is a real team leader, who’s the defensive catalyst. In the two wins over Marquette, he held the explosive Howard to a combined 26 points. He’s a good all around player who does a bit of everything for St. John’s.

If they are to get the win versus a good Arizona State team, St. John’s must stay out of foul trouble and rebound. They’re not going to have the size edge. So, they must battle for every loose ball and hustle. Executing on both ends will be important. In the ugly 32-point blowout defeat to the Golden Eagles, they didn’t have their legs. A thin team to begin with, that can’t be the case on Wednesday.

I’m curious to see how they respond. Judging from the excited reaction at around 6:30 yesterday when they saw that they had made it, it means everything to these kids. Now, they must play like it. Mullin doesn’t believe in using his past experience as a motivator. He wants it rather to be about the present St. John’s team. Go out and have fun. Get ready. Win.

It won’t be easy. Nothing ever is for them. Maybe that’s how it has to be. We’ll see if they’re ready. Everyone will be watching. It’s the most excitement I’ve had for a game in years. For old times sake, “Let’s Go Redmen!”

Brackets Set: Villanova and Duke both in East, Gonzaga, Carolina, Kansas other 1’s

On Sunday night, the Field of 68 was revealed for the upcoming NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament. Let the madness begin. The four 1 seeds weren’t a surprise. Defending champion Villanova is the number one overall seed in the East. Unfortunately, they got a raw deal with ACC champion Duke sent to their region as a 2 seed.

While that’s unfair, the crack committee gave Gonzaga the 1 seed out West. Pac 12 champ Arizona is the 2 seed. Notre Dame could play spoiler as a dangerous 5 seed. They’ll likely have to get by Jekyll & Hyde 4 seed West Virginia. If they do, a Sweet 16 match-up against Gonzaga is possible.

If there is a region that’s loaded, it’s the South. Led by top seed North Carolina, it also features the always talented Kentucky as a 2 seed and high scoring UCLA as a 3 seed. What a power bracket that is. Carolina has an easier road with potential second round opponent Seton Hall and Sweet 16 match-up Butler. Kentucky and UCLA look like they’ll lock up in a dream NCAA Sweet 16 showdown for a shot at the Elite 8. Only dangerous floater Wichita State can prevent it. Somehow, they are the 10 seed. Good luck to Dayton.

The Midwest features the top seeded Jayhawks of Kansas. A very talented team led by Player of The Year candidate Frank Mason III, they shouldn’t have a problem the first two rounds. If Iowa State makes the Sweet 16, they can challenge them. They have to deal with 12 seed Nevada. On the bottom half, Louisville is the 2 seed and Oregon is the 3 seed. Both are superb teams capable of making deep runs. That section features a good 6/11 match-up between Creighton and Rhode Island. Rhode Island is a team to watch. Featuring Staten Island’s own Hassan Martin from Curtis High School, they could push Oregon in the second round. But the Ducks should prevail and advance to the Sweet 16. Michigan enters red hot having won the Big Ten. They could be a sleeper who busts some brackets.

I can’t get past the fact that they stuck Duke in Villanova’s bracket. It seems cruel. Why put those two in the same region? If the Wildcats are the number one overall seed, shouldn’t they have gotten a weaker 2 seed? It makes no sense. A Duke vs Villanova Elite 8 match-up at MSG is great theatre. But it’s a shame that only one can come out of the East and make the Final 4. They underseeded Wisconsin sticking them in the 8/9 game against Virginia Tech. Expect the proven Badgers to test the Wildcats in the second round. There’s always at least one 12 over a 5 upset special. I don’t know where it will come from. But N.C. Wilmington should give Virginia a game. Baylor is the 3 seed. They’re good but could be knocked out in the second round by underrated 6 seed SMU. A team that doesn’t get enough credit.

So, whose bubble burst? For starters, Syracuse. Their RPI of 84 with bad losses to St. John’s, Georgetown and Connecticut was too much to overcome. Even though they posted three wins against top 10 opponents and won 10 games in the ACC, they were left out in the cold. Had they won one game in the ACC Tournament, it would’ve been enough to get in over USC, who’ll be in one of four play-in games when they take on Providence.

California also was left out along with Illinois State. Illinois State lost in the championship game in the Missouri Valley Conference to Wichita State. The Shockers beat them by 20. California posted two wins in the Pac 12 Tournament against Oregon State and Utah. But they fell short against Oregon in the semifinals losing by eight.

One of the best stories is Northwestern making the Big Dance for the first time in school history. They are coached by former Duke player and assistant coach Chris Collins. Northwestern will make history when they play Vanderbilt in a tough 8/9 game out West. It won’t be easy. But you know they’ll have fun and give it everything.

I would love to pick Seton Hall over North Carolina if the second round match-up comes down. The Pirates play strong defense and have the low post interior presence of Angel Delgado. They also boast budding junior Desi Rodriguez and explosive guards Khadeen Carrington and Myles Powell. But Ralph Willard’s team will be hard pressed to stop Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks inside. Combine that with floor general Joel Berry II and it could prove too difficult. Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson round it out.

There’s so much to like about this tournament. The play-ins are Tuesday and Wednesday. Kansas State will battle Wake Forest with the winner advancing to a 6/11 game against Cincinnati down South. The other play-ins are North Carolina Central against UC Davis for the chance to be the first 16 to beat a 1 in the Midwest against Kansas. Basically, there’s a better chance of me landing in Mars. NEC winner Mount St. Mary’s battles the University of New Orleans for a chance at Villanova. Good luck.

It should be a great weekend coming up. The first weekend is the best part of the tournament. The action starts on Thursday with second round games wall to wall followed by more games Friday. Then comes Saturday and Sunday when we learn which teams are going to the Sweet 16. It’s fun filled and usually has your share of upsets, buzzer beaters and unsung heroes. Let’s go!

Why Bill Walton is the most fascinating broadcaster

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March Madness is upon us. Every year, it’s a hoop fans’ dream. College basketball takes center stage over every other sport. Yes. Including baseball even though my Keeper League gets going soon with a Minor League Draft. Then the real thing in April.

Right now, the focus is on the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament. Conference tournaments are wrapping up. Among the best were the epic between Notre Dame and Duke in the ACC Championship Game played at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.  A terrific back and forth game that had everything.

Duke became the first team to ever win four games in four days to take the ACC Tournament. More impressively, it was how they did it and who they beat in the last three rounds. They came back first to beat Louisville in the quarters. Then mounted an unreal comeback to stun North Carolina in the semis. A game that changed thanks to Roy Williams leaving starting guard Joel Berry II in with three fouls early in the second half. He picked up number four and that swung the momentum. By the time he got back in over 10 minutes later, it was too late.

The Blue Devils are stacked. While everyone talks about cheap but effective two guard Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard and freshman future lottery pick Jayson Tatum are the best players on the team. Tatum and Kennard combined for 44 in a come from behind 93-83 win over their arch rival on Tobacco Road. So, what did Coach K’s team do for an encore? Only show more mental fortitude coming back against Mike Brey’s polished Notre Dame Fighting Irish 75-69.

Trailing throughout with Notre Dame power forward Bonzie Colson killing them inside and out with a game high 29 with nine rebounds, it looked they were finally out of gas with under 10 minutes left in the second half. The Irish were getting strong play also from V.J. Beacham, Matt Farrell and underrated guard Rex Pflueger. But the Blue Devils are never out of a game due to the game’s best coach. Mike Krzyzewski is so good at adjusting strategy.

Duke only goes about seven deep. But the talent and versatility they possess along with athleticism make them a legit candidate to win the national title. It didn’t happen right away for the preseason favorite. They struggled and finished fifth in the ACC. But with the development of Tatum combined with the strong outside shooting of Kennard and Allen, they are explosive. Tatum led them with 19 points and eight rebounds including a huge play in which he went coast to coast for a lay-in. He also went long for a put away off an in bounds finishing off a three-point play to end the game. Amile Jefferson did some good work inside scoring 14 on an efficient 7-of-8 shooting with three blocks. Matt Jones only had one basket but it was a money go-ahead trey off a nice set up in the final minute.

I am not a Blue Devils supporter. But I have the utmost respect for the program Coach K runs. I came away very impressed with Duke. The way they handled themselves in the face of adversity is what’s most impressive. They showed so much resiliency rallying against quality competition to pull out wins. They can score with anyone in the country. They’re well coached and execute. And they won’t miss free throws like what we saw with Arizona, who held off Oregon minus big shot blocker Chris Boucher to win the Pac 12 championship 83-80 in Las Vegas.

Speaking of the Pac 12, between the comical and always entertaining Bill Walton and ESPN sidekick Dave Pasch, they are so much fun. If you want laughs, then there’s no one better than Walton. He took on ESPN Bracketology ‘expert’ Joe Lunardi during the call when Mr. Looney Bin said Gonzaga is a 1 seed over the Arizona/Oregon winner. The exchange is priceless:

Walton must’ve used the Conference of Champions 100 times over the past 72 hours. It was pure comedy along with his classic tie dye Pac 12 t-shirts. One which quirky partner Pasch proudly sported during the final broadcast. Walton is so much fun. He doesn’t care about logic or statistical research. He cares about talent and players. No question the Pac 12 is a better conference than the West Coast Conference which the Zags dominated losing only once when BYU stunned them in Spokane 79-71 on Feb. 25. Otherwise, they’d be entering the NCAA Tournament a perfect 33-0. They ran through the WCC Tournament sweeping through Pacific, Santa Clara and St. Mary’s to finish the regular season 32-1.

It’s not like the Zags are pushovers. This is their best team. They placed five players in double digits and have quality wins over Iowa State and Arizona. It’s more a question is do they play enough quality opponents out of conference. The wins against the Cyclones and Wildcats came early as did a win over Florida. It’s not their fault they play in a weaker conference. They went out and beat who they were supposed to.

The question is is a 32-1 Gonzaga better than a 30-4 Arizona. That is a debate Walton was willing to have with Lunardi at least having the humor to have a UCLA football helmet present in studio as Walton was giving him the business. The Wildcats boast the uber talented Finnish four prospect Lauri Markkanen, who has a great touch from three and can score inside. He only took four shots making all four and didn’t shoot one three finishing with 11. Markkanen has shot up NBA Draft lists and probably will go in the top 10 assuming he leaves school.

Allonzo Trier is the emotional leader of Sean Miller’s Wildcats. He makes them go. A catalyst at both ends, Trier finished strong with 23 points, eight rebounds, three assists and hit on 10 of 11 from the charity stripe. He was money. Markkanen felt the pressure missing a pair of free throws late to give the Ducks a chance. He’s 84 percent from the line but went 3-of-6.

What makes Arizona tough is their size and athleticism. Chance Comache came off the bench for 10 hitting a key baseline jumper off a nice pass. Brooklyn’s Rawle Alkins contributed nine including a big trey from the key. A player St. John’s chased but didn’t land. Kadeem Allen had a strong night going 5-for-9 from the field with 13 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Miller has the ability to play eight which gives him enough options. They’ve been knocking on the door for a while. Maybe this is the year Arizona gets back to the Final Four.

As for Oregon, the Pac 12 regular season champs made it a game despite falling behind by as many as 14. They played scrappy and proved they are capable against anyone. Conference Player of The Year Dillon Brooks kept them in it during the first half with 16 of his 25 points. He certainly made a lot of big shots including three from downtown. It wasn’t until Tyler Dorsey, Jordan Bell and Dylan Ellis woke up in the second half that the Ducks chipped away at Arizona making it a game. Dorsey erupted for 23 including three triples but had a wild miss on a bad possession trailing by three that sealed their fate. Bell finished with a double double (16 and 10) and Ennis scored 12 to become the fourth Duck in double figures.

Ultimately, Arizona had enough of a cushion to hold on despite some nervous moments after misfiring from the line. Oregon showed a lot of grit without Boucher, whose loss was felt. That could impact their seed. They went 29-5 and deserve a 2 seed. But I could see them slipping to a 3 due to the committee. That would be a shame.

Villanova won the Big East Tournament at MSG pretty convincingly over Creighton 74-60. Led by tournament MVP Josh Hart’s 29 on 9-of-18 shooting including four treys and Jalen Brunson’s 17 points and five dimes, the defending champs will enter the tournament as the likely number one overall seed with a 31-3 record. The 31 victories are the most by a defending champ entering the Big Dance.

With Hart doing in Seton Hall in a two-point game they deserved to win with Jay Wright admitting such, he was even more dynamic along with Brunson, who slashed and dashed the Blue Jays while draining three treys on an efficient 5-for-7 from the field. Last year’s buzzer beater championship hero Kris Jenkins was better as expected scoring 14 including two from downtown on 6-of-13. The explosive and experienced trio combined for 60 of Villanova’s 74 or an identical amount to Creighton’s total of 60.

The Blue Jays were no match. Not even with freshman sensation Justin Patton, who did in Xavier in an electrifying semifinal won by daring teammate Marcus Foster. Patton was held to 10 points and five rebounds while fouling out. Foster had 13 and only made one three on five attempts. Cole Huff had 13.

The bottom line with Villanova is once they survived Seton Hall 55-53 in an old school drag it out Big East throwback, they weren’t gonna be denied. The Pirates showed a lot of fight. Angel Delgado had a clean look at a chippy but pushed it too hard watching as it went off the back iron and out. If he and former Lincoln star Desi Rodriguez are the focal points, that will open it up for sharpshooters Khadeen Carrington and Myles Powell to do some damage. They could be a tough out in the tournament. Hopefully, it’s not as an 8 or 9 seed.

Every conference tournament has been enjoyable. The Big Ten is tomorrow with Michigan probably having played itself in by making the championship game versus Wisconsin. But do they need one more win to secure their spot and burst the bubble of another team such as Syracuse, Wake Forest, California or Illinois State? We’ll see.

Kentucky is loaded and probably will beat Arkansas to win the SEC tournament. Led by the talented freshman class of future lottery picks De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, they’re a handful. Fox and Monk can take over games at any moment while local Newark product Isaiah Briscoe also must be accounted for. When it comes to March, John Calipari’s Wildcats are always a threat.

It really should be an interesting Selection Sunday. Does Syracuse have nine lives? Or will their bubble burst? They made the Final Four last year with a better team. They went 18-14 and lost to St. John’s. It should be fun.