My favorite weekend of the year is the opening weekend of March Madness. I've been filling out brackets since I was kid and getting sick, coincidentally every year the Madness kicked in round about Wednesday night during the ESPN preview shows. To my awesome parents credit, I don't think by the time I got to high school I even had to feign the symptoms. If I was allowed one or two days of hooky I'm glad they were those two days every year.
Still, as great as college basketball still is (Dunk City anybody?), a couple of things have jaded me about the tournament. One the kids leaving early and having to learn a new cast of characters every year. Marshall Henderson this year, Derrick Williams from Arizona last year, Kyrie Irving, the Kentucky roster, and on and on and on. Hi Otto Porter, glad I'm learned who you were for 40 minutes or so. Guess what there will be no redemption story for you because you are headed to three years of an NBA bench if you are lucky, if you are really lucky you'll have a long journeyman career. Or you a future D-Leaguer, and guess what I won't know your name in about 10 months time.
Yeah, it's hard to grow attached to kids when they are one or two and done. Once upon a time, veteran experienced senior laden teams ran into veteran experienced senior laden teams and the impact was palpable. You didn't need a program guide, you knew all about the top five or six teams and you watched players grow into stars.
They did the 30 for 30 special on NC State and you saw just how incredible their run was and how great college basketball used to be. The Cardiac Pack winning the ACC tournament against Ralph Sampson and UVA, Michael Jordan and UNC, and then all the come from behind wins in the tournament, and the greatness of that Clyde Drexler, Akeem Olajuwon Houston team in the finals. Those teams, including that underated NC State team, would roll over most teams these days.
However, the flip side to the exodus every year is that while the major programs are in constant state of rebuilding, the secondary majors do build veteran senior laden teams that become tournament staples. The power of the Atlantic 10 this year is evidence of just what it can mean to have guys stick around school. Granted there is no more fertile a coaching farm than the A10 (Shaka Smart, Brad Evans, Chris Mooney, even newcomer Danny Hurley is touted for big things et al). Butler, St. Louis, La Salle, Temple and VCU all made their mark on the tournament. Sure all but La Salle didn't get over the hump in the second game but Butler and Temple were both a couple of plays away from putting three out of 16 teams from a mid-major conference.
The A10 conference is also fertile for programs worth raiding, another new evil of college basketball.
String together some success and suddenly the Davids become the Goliaths. Gonzaga got a taste of their own medicine going from Hunter to hunted, Richmond the original 15 seed to knock off a two seed (yeah, that was a loaded, loaded Syracuse team too) is now being discussed as a possible Big East member, and George Mason and Davidson candidates for the A10.
As Florida Gulf Coast will learn there is little to compare to in raising the profile of a school then wearing the Cinderella hat. Just about every school that has tasted it for a long run, or stringed together multiple runs, realizes the importance of basketball. Florida Gulf Coast's web servers have crashed from all the traffic. Their applications will increase 100 fold and their alumni will suddenly become 100% more engaged with a school that has only been in existence since the 90s.
FGC will, undoubtedly strive to recapture the thrill of making a National splash, and have already been raising funds to keep their coach and super-model husband at their beachfront school. Yes, they have a beach outside their dorms (so what if it's a lake they are minutes away from the real beach) and things like wakeboarding, jetskiing etc are said to be free to the students. No wonder they recruited all those kids that can jump out of the building that nobody's heard of.
Also, side note, why in the world was this school that already beat Miami this year seeded 15th. Did nobody look at how bad the 14s were this year? Did the committee not watch a single tape of the FGC?
Dunk city is the reason the tournament is still great, even if the product is suffering in other places. The one seeds aren't the giants they used to be and while the sense that anything can really happen is amazing when it does it's a little bit cheapened. Upsets used to mean more because it wasn't a young, talented but tournament inexperienced team getting toppled it was a loaded team of seniors on their last go who just ran into the wrong underdog on the wrong day.
Now those teams dealing with four years of tournament heartaches are the former underdogs who are now programs.
College basketball has changed and though the magic isn't quite what it used to be, it's still the best time of the year for anybody.
Now... I'm off my soapbox...
This year I of course was glued to the tv for the first round games. I cheer for the school I went to, its conference mates and UNC (born in Carolina, brother who used to go to Dean Smith basketball camp, autographs of every player on the 1980 team... so on). In North Carolina, college basketball is what college football is here, once you are hooked you are hooked.
So, I look at the 100k guarantee poker tournament at the Beau Rivage and saw that Day 1A would be going on during UNC's first round game at Villanova. Considering there was a good chance that the game would be UNC's only of the tournament, or UNC's only win of the tournament, I wasn't going to be playing poker and having to make critical decisions during it.
Thus, I opted to only fire one bullet on Saturday. Plus, I like first round games better than second round games (and I know as of this year I'm supposed to call them second round and third round games... but that point will miss many that read this).
The tournament couldn't have started out any better. Besides that one Bud Light commercial where the guy is happy to be on a blind date with a lesbian, I mostly enjoyed the day. La Salle got me off to an early start wiping up on an overrated Mountain West team and then the A10 schools kept rolling. After the first round they were undefeated and on the giving end of some blow outs.
BTW, I pegged LaSalle (and considered St. Marys) as a team that would exploit the play-in game advantage?
As VCU demonstrated getting an early start on the Madness can lead to big things. Everybody talks about the extra game and the extra travel (and La Salle's legs looked weak in the second half v. K-State) but they forget that one big reason the tournament was originally expanded to 64 teams was to make things fair... for the high seeds.
DePaul in three straight years played the winner of a play-in game as a one seed (79-81? or around there) and lost to the 8-9 champion each time. They were not alone as many high seeds fell. The logic, at the time, for this was that the lesser teams found their gear in the warmup games while the higher seeds couldn't get things started.
In this new era, I think this still holds true. What happens now is early on Sunday the play-in teams are notified before the brackets are released so they can begin to travel to Dayton for a Tuesday or Wednesday game. They travel play the game, win and then travel to their site for the "Second round game." I think it's a huge advantage that they don't even really have time to contemplate the enormity or spectacle of the tournament they just go play. Then go play again. Yes, the downside is it's a lot, but as VCU and UCONN proved a lot of games in a short span may take something out of you but it also makes you sharp.
La Salle has great veteran guards. That's one of the two most important elements for success. The other is being there before. They haven't. But even if they lacked tournament experience, guess what they got it in their play-in game and are rolling.
So, La Salle along with SLU, Butler, VCU, and Temple AND UNC all gave me happiness. My brackets weren't half bad either, so I was on a high. Throw in the soccer game in the blizzard late Friday night and I had about as good of results as a sports fan could ask for.
Oddly, poker sometimes seems to be tied into the success of my teams. Last year I was a final table in a circuit event in Tunica. I liked my table position and loved my chances to get a ring. Going on at the same time Duke-North Carolina. Like the Heels I was rolling along. Then maybe one of the worst five minute spells I've ever had.
We are down to four handed. I raise utg, the big stack in the Big Blind reraises and I shove KJ. He calls with K8. I flop a jack. Two cards later we split the pot each with a King high straight, he getting runner exactly runner to get there. The very next hand I look at pocket aces in the big blind. The button raises. The big stack calls from the small. I shove after I look at the two aces. The button folds and the big stack calls with Ace Jack. I can taste my ring. He finishes with a straight and I bust. I take two steps away from the table, allow myself for the first time that day to look at the giant movie screen showing the Duke-UNC game and see Austin Rivers of Duke drill the game winner. What?!?
Saturday was little different. The A10 teams kept falling. VCU, who as a rival to Richmond, I cared the least about and was probably happy they lost, got smashed early. Then St. Louis another popular final four sleeper pick took it on the chin. Meanwhile I began play much like my teams, badly.
The competition wasn't much to speak of, afterall this was the table where I had one guy who has never won anything in poker sternly tell us the only way to win one of these things was to stick it in and hope to get lucky. He did just that way too early and his KQ overcame the Aces of somebody else and he triumphantly held court. A half hour later he was gone but unfortunately I wasn't the guy who would get his eventually gift of chips.
Later I saw one guy bet pre-flop, cbet an all spade flop, bet a spade on the turn, and triple barrel the river. He won the hand with top pair king kicker no spade. The guy who called him on every street had top pair jack kicker no spade. Can't complain with the table draw.
Then instead of fleecing the sheep I decided to join the herd.
An active player overbet his standard raise and my radar told me jacks. Even with pocket tens I decided I should call and try and hit a set. A guy in the blind called behind me. Sure enough, I flopped a set of tens on an A Q 10 board (two clubs). Checked to me, I bet it and was called in two spots. The guy with the jacks I guess was fishing for a king.
The turn was a club and we all checked it. On the river, a brick, the player in the blind led out for 4k (into a 6 to 8k pot) the other player folded. I stewed and not being able to beat anything (really) called with my pocket tens. He triumphantly peeled over this set of queens like they were the stone cold nuts. When really the only hand I could call with (and I shouldn't have) that he could beat was my pocket 10s everything else beat him. I also stew just as long with a straight or a baby flush given the action. Given the player I think he could bet AQ there, so maybe he could see me calling the same hand there. Anyway, horrendous call on my part.
Later, I hero called a woman with third pair and she started to muck. Great read. Then she said, "I can't be good here and turned over third pair... Ace kicker." Totally, a spot I struggle with when I think my hand is good and trust my read, but my holding is so weak she could still have it beat. Thus, I should be raising not calling. Also, the action to me dictated she had to have something. I would run into pocket tens later with A9. Flop a nine and nothing else and exit the tournament.