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Saturday, March 19, 2005

Playing to Win

The writers love to talk about the mid-majors, although no one really can define what that term means (I tried). Does it mean the second tier of college hoops conferences, or does it refer to a select group of teams that is always dangerous and can beat a Top 25 team on any given day? Or does it refer to a group of schools from the non-elite conferences that play better basketball than the bottom half of the schools from the elite conferences?

Does it really matter?

Because yesterday, two very interesting basketball programs won in the biggest upsets of the NCAA Tournament. Kyle of the Mid-Majority Report had asked us all to adopt a mid-major, so I chose Vermont because of Tom Brennan's story, the coach with the radio show who will be hanging up the sweats and the whistle after this season, and because of the big redheaded kid, Taylor Coppenrath, who has emerged as a bona fide NBA prospect. No one has ever expected Vermont to do much in college basketball. Until now, that is.

The Catamounts stayed with heavily favored Syracuse all game long, had a lead late in the game, only to see the Orange tie the game and send it into overtime. My guess is that at that point most fans figured the OT would favor the Orange, if only because they played a tougher schedule against tougher competition. Well, the Catamounts hung tough, got a three by PG T.J. Sorrentine that was taken from well beyond NBA range, and in the end it was the Catamounts and their fans who were dancing. I, for one, had predicted that Syracuse would go to the Final Four, but I was pulling for the Catamounts in this game. In favoring Syracuse, I went against one of my prime theories, which is to be weary of all teams in the NCAA Tournament who won their conference tournaments (where the conferences in question get more than 1 bid, i.e., the high majors) with the exception of Duke. Score: The Theory 1, SportsProf 0. Better score: Vermont 60, Syracuse 57.

And then there was the Bucknell Bison, about whom I posted early in the season when they upset then #10 Pitt -- at Pitt. Bucknell is located in Lewisburg, PA, birthplace of Christy Mathewson, and along with two other schools holds the distinction of having the oldest college basketball program in the country. I spoke with a few friends late yesterday afternoon and e-mailed another with my premonition that Bucknell was going to upset Kansas last night in OK City. My reasoning was rather simple -- the Bison played a tough schedule and the Patriot League is a different Patriot League from what you might remember -- a league whose schools now give hoops scholarships (with the exception of Lafayette). Bucknell fielded a fiesty, athletic team last night, and they played a great game to beat a top team. I recall reading on another blog, perhaps Yoni's, that the RPI computer had forecasted that Kansas was going to win the NCAA Tournament. So much for the numbers; it's the kids who play the game! So congratulations to Bucknell Coach Pat Flannery and his kids for an amazing 64-63 win over Kansas. Check out the Patriot League Hoops blog and the Hoop Time blog, because they're partying over there with good reason!

They say in the tournament that you should bet the chalk, the favorites. Somehow, today, the cheer for Kansas is simply Rock, Jayhawks (or, unfortunately, Rocked Jayhawks). The chalk, at least for the Jayhawks, is gone this year. (For what it's worth, the color commentary early on by Bob Wenzel was somewhat patronizing, as Wenzel suggested that Kansas coach Bill Self was resting senior swingman Keith Langford for the second game in the tournament and just wanted to help him get his legs back given that he had missed a lot of practice on account of a stomach flu and a sprained ankle. Memo to Wenzel: someone should have told Bucknell that all they were supposed to do was scrimmage).

Coach K hit it on the head last night when he was interviewed after Duke beat a very tough Delaware State squad. Basically, he said that while many people might have expected Delaware State that, no one told Delaware State that, and they went into the tournament playing to win. Which brings me to a solid (if sometimes obvious) point brought home indelibly by Princeton Hall of Famer Pete Carril -- you play to win. Period.

Some commentators before the tournament referred to the 12th through 16th seeds as schools whose season were made by making the tournament, that they were just happy to be there. That's just so wrong. All kids who play, at any level, play to win. Yes, they're as happy to be at the Big Dance as anyone else, but they'll continue to play their best because that's what they've been coached to do.

And they win some games precisely because of that attitude, and precisely because it didn't occur to them that they weren't supposed to win.

Just ask Vermont and Bucknell.

And the timber that now is Syracuse and Kansas.

Orange Crushed and Rocked Jayhawks.

Meanwhile, the Green Mountain Boys and the Woolly Mammoths live to fight another day.

And that's what this tournament is all about.

Bet the chalk? Sure, but that's because of probability.

Love the underdogs? Absolutely, because it's all about heart.


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