Here’s a reason to watch the NCAA Tournament
There. Now you have a reason to watch the NCAA Tournament.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve lost interest in March Madness in recent decades. Living in Greater Boston, we are increasingly removed from big-time college sports. When the NCAA tourney unfolds, it feels like the rest of the country is having a party without us.
For folks in North Carolina, Kentucky, Indiana, and most of sports-watching America, the NCAA tourney is a three-week Super Bowl Sunday.
Not here. Sure, we have office pools and young folks obsessed with bracketology. Gamblers and fantasy players (is there any difference?) study every nuance of Gonzaga and Iowa State. But we have no dog in the fight.
Northeastern University won the Colonial Athletic Association tournament and will represent our region in the tourney when it plays Kansas in Salt Lake City on Thursday , but the noble Huskies have virtually no chance of getting to the Sweet Sixteen. It’s been a long time since any Greater Boston school was a factor in March Madness. (Sorry, UConn, you don’t count around here. Too many Yankee fans in Storrs.)
You have to be 80 years old to remember Bob Cousy and the Holy Cross Crusaders (they played their home games in the Worcester Auditorium) winning the NCAA Tournament at Madison Square Garden in 1947. HC also won the NIT with Tommy Heinsohn, Ronnie Perry, and Togo Palazzi in 1954. The Cross continued a rich basketball tradition into this new century, but despite throwing a scare into three monster teams (Kentucky, Kansas, and Marquette) from 2001-2003, the Crusaders have not won a (non-play-in) NCAA Tournament game since 1954.
Back in the day, Providence was sometimes a threat to go deep in the tournament. The 1973 Friars — coached by Dave Gavitt and led by NBA-talents Ernie DiGregorio, Marvin Barnes, and Kevin Stacom — were bound for the championship final against UCLA when Barnes got hurt on Final Four Saturday against Memphis State. In 1987, a Rick Pitino team led by guard Billy Donovan made it to the Final Four. But the Friars haven’t gotten out of the first round in this century.
Boston College made it to the elite eight in 1982 (Dr. Tom Davis) and again in 1994 under Jim O’Brien. O’Brien’s Eagles beat Dean Smith’s Tar Heels in ’94, and Bobby Knight’s Hoosiers in 1996. More recently, Al Skinner (who knew how to recruit) got the Eagles into the Sweet 16 in 2006. But hoop dreams are over at BC. The Eagles are no longer on the national radar.
Let’s not forget our friends at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. John Calipari took the Minutemen to the Final Four (also a Sweet 16 and Elite Eight) during the golden 1990s, but that appearance was vacated because Marcus Camby already had turned professional. Alas, the Minutemen have not won an NCAA tourney game since corrupt Cal’s Final Four was erased from history.
Harvard won first-round games in the NCAA tourney in 2013 and 2014. Vermont, which plays Florida State at Hartford on Thursday in the West Region, won first-rounders in 2005 and 2012. URI got to the Sweet Sixteen in 1988 and the Elite Eight in 1998.
The much-decorated UConn Huskies are four-time winners of the NCAA Tournament, most recently in 2014. Braintree’s Jim Calhoun was head coach of three of those teams, but even Calhoun (who also coached at Northeastern) would admit that Storrs, Conn., has never been part of the Greater Boston sports landscape. Ditto for Yale, which beat Harvard Sunday to gain the Ivy League’s automatic bid.
All provincialism aside, we have one good reason to watch:
Duke’s Zion Williamson.
Duke is the No. 1 overall seed and opens East Region play Friday in Columbia, S.C., against the winner of a First Four game between North Carolina Central and North Dakota State. Put a notification alert on your phone. Do not miss a Duke game. You may never have a chance to see anything like this again.
We can’t know what kind of an NBA player Williamson will be. Maybe he’ll fade into the quagmire of James Dolan’s New York Knicks or maybe he’ll get hurt or maybe he won’t be able to impose his will at the next level.
But there is no way to overstate the joy of watching Williamson right now. He is a 6-foot-8-inch forward/guard/center with the breadth of Charles Barkley, the hops of Dominique Wilkins, the inside moves of Kevin McHale, and the passing ability of Magic Johnson. He is a force of nature.
Zion tweaked his knee when his sneaker blew up while making a move against North Carolina late in the regular season. I believe it was the sheer force of the man’s cut that resulted in the explosion of his Nike. A lot of wiseguys suggested he shut things down for the year after that. Wait for the draft, they advised. Don’t risk your future.
Williamson rejected the advice and averaged 27 points and 10 rebounds in the ACC tourney (easily the best conference tournament in the land). Zion made 33 of 43 shots over three games, many ferocious dunks. He almost hit his head on the backboard about five times. He threw a halfcourt-length bounce pass through traffic that Larry Bird would envy. He played all 40 minutes of Duke’s clincher against Florida State Saturday. He is the best college player I have seen since Bill Walton hit 21 of 22 shots against Memphis State to win the 1973 championship for UCLA.
March Madness? I will root for the Northeastern Huskies. And then I will watch to see what Zion can do.