Here are a few of the warning signs: ♦ Without looking it up, you can name the conference tourney finalists in the MAAC, MAC, MEAC, and MVC;
♦ You appreciate the difference between the Mid-Continent Conference and the Midwestern Collegiate Conference;
♦ You watched ESPN until 1 a.m. Monday night to find out whether St. Mary’s or San Francisco would represent the West Coast Conference in the Field of 64.
Answer yes to any of the above, and it’s evident that you’re infected with more than March Madness. You have the pre-tournament tremens, compounded by a late February Funk.
Happily for all you with this strange seasonal ague, there is a cure: If you leave things alone for the next several weeks, they will play themselves deliriously out.
Between now and Sunday evening, when March Madness officially begins, there’ll be hundreds of men’s and women’s conference tournament games. Maybe thousands. Maybe millions. (No reliable count has ever been attempted.) However, over at the Scene Sports Desk (the bar at McCabe’s Pub), the buzz has been about four particular contests, none of them recorded on any stat sheet:
Little Ricky vs. Fast Eddie. Like Banquo’s ghost haunting Macbeth, Eddie Fogler materializes to spook the proceedings every time Rick Pitino plans to throw a party. It happened when Pitino’s Kentucky team lost a No. 1 ranking and the SEC championship at Memorial Gym in 1993. And dang if Fast Eddie didn’t schlep off to South Carolina and put the same nasty mojo on Little Ricky again this year.
Last Sunday, the Wildcats were holed up in the basketball equivalent of the Death Star, raring to grab back a share of the title from Eddie’s uppity Gamecocks. With all the drippy festivities of Senior Day in Lexingtonindividual banners for each Wildcat upperclassman, dimmed lights, and 24,000 teary-eyed Shiites bleating, “My Old Kentucky Home”it would have been difficult for any opponents to hold their composure (or their lunch).
But Fogler, perhaps applying strategy learned from his wily old mentor, Dean Smith, coached his team into a performance as cool as rolled steel. Simultaneously, he outcoached Pitino, whose Wildcats were last observed flapping around like so many chickens in a gullywasher. It had to be particularly galling for Ricky. It wasn’t just his No. 1 regional seeding that was evaporating; his luster as the favored model for all would-be coaching geniuses was fading too.
In many ways, Fogler represents the anti-Rick. Pitino is loose and glib. In public at least, Fogler is more often clipped and taciturn. Pitino’s fashion sense is informed by GQ; Fogler always looks like his sartorial inspiration was Lee J. Cobb in Death of a Salesman. Ricky employs a well-practiced but frenetic style; Eddie controls every move like a puppeteer.
In the end on Sunday, viewers spotted Eddie cracking a smile while Ricky spewed obscenities at the officials, departed in a huff, and whined about a call the refs (correctly) did not make. If you watched carefully, you may also have seen the axis in the SEC tilt discernably toward Columbia.
Ron Mercer vs. Drew Maddux. This matchup of local interest, between former Goodpasture teammates who went their separate ways, at first appears so lopsided that even a rum-flushed pundit could call it. But consider carefully: Would you rather drive a Porsche for two years or a Taurus wagon for four?
For all of Mercer’s surpassing skills and soaring potential, and for all the fawning over him by recruiters, Kentucky reaped a relatively slim return. As a freshman, Mercer mostly deferred to his elders, asserting himself only now and then. (Fortunately for UK, one of the thens was the NCAA title game).
As a sophomore, Mercer emerged in the second half of the season as the SEC’s best player. Now, instead of dominating the opposition for two more years, he’s migrating to the NBAand leaving Pitino with a gaping hole to plug.
Maddux enjoys no prospect of turning pro early, if ever. Still, by playing the tortoise in this race, he may contribute a smart and solid presence to Vanderbilt for four full seasons. As more players of Mercer’s caliber leave college early for cash-green pastures, coaches may have good reason to wonder whether they might have been better off with a less flashy, longer running Maddux model. Ask Dean Smith, whose Tarheels needed a full season to recover from the exeunt of Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse. Or inquire of Bobby Cremins, whose Georgia Tech squad has been a Ramblin’ Wreck in more ways than one since Stephon Marbury split after just one year.
The Rev. Dale vs. The NCAA, Bob Knight, Greed, Injustice, Anti-Zen Forces, and Other Windmills Too Numerous to Mention. It’s not really accurate to suggest that Dale Brown’s sanity was questioned during his quarter-century at LSU. There was never any question; it was universally accepted that the Rev. Dale, who retires after this season, was seldom more than a few steps ahead of a straitjacket.
One minute, he’d sermonize about St. Francis or quote a German theologian, and the next minute he’d be rumbling with a UT player or engaging a heckler in a shouting match. Then it would be on to Eastern mysticism, literacy in America, or Lord knows what else.
But much of what passes for loopiness in Brown is an unrestrained readiness to say what he’s thinking. And the Rev reads and thinks about a lot of things most coaches don’t even think about.
When Dale rhapsodizes about social or religious ideals, as he often does, it’s easy to dismiss him. But his shtick is not an act, unless he’s more gifted than John Gielgud. Nor is it difficult to believe that both Zen and samurai impulses can coexist in adjoining lobes of one brain.
Brown, the Southeastern media’s favorite whipping boy, never stood out (Understatement Alert) as a sideline strategist. But if you were looking for one coach in America who would return a writer’s call on a Saturday morning and cheerfully gab for an hour, Dale was your man.
Vandy vs. The Selection Committee. They could improve their odds with another W this week, but Vandy’s bubble-bound men will win an NCAA bid. Probably. In part because the selectors smile on their difficult schedule (seven of Vandy’s 10 losses were to ranked teams). In part because of their uncommon success on the road. But mostly because the SEC’s strong recent tourney performances merit five entries for the league. That giant sucking sound, by the way, is from the Big 10.
How it looks from the La-Z-Boy
Barring any conference tournament weirdness (yeah, right), here’s how the Field of 64 will shape up:
Top Seeds: Kansas, Minnesota, South Carolina, Duke
Deuces & Treys (2 and 3 Seeds): Kentucky, North Carolina, Wake Forest, Utah, Cincinnati, UCLA, Iowa State, New Mexico
Mortal Locks: Arizona, California, Maryland, Clemson, St. Joseph’s, Xavier, Villanova, Illinois, Colorado, Louisville, Georgia, Tulsa, Princeton*, Old Dominion*
Pretty Definite: Pacific, Mississippi, Temple, Boston College, N.C.-Charlotte, Bowling Green, Indiana, Iowa, Syracuse, College of Charleston*, Providence
Bubbleheads (Just In): Vanderbilt, Massachusetts, Georgetown, Tulane, Marquette, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Purdue, Stanford, Hawaii, West Virginia
13s & 14s: Illinois State, Butler, South Alabama, Tennessee-Chattanooga, Navy, Murray State*, Valparaiso, St. Mary’s*
Bottom Feeders: Boston U., Northern Arizona, Charleston Southern*, Fairfield*, Coppin State, Long Island U., McNeese State, Mississippi Valley State,
Just Missed: Rhode Island, Miami, Utah State, Texas, Michigan, Oregon, Fresno State, Colorado State, Wisconsin, Virginia
* Already qualified as of Tuesday