March Madness recalls local legends

IMG_0096As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, March 19, 2017.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association Men’s Division 1 Basketball Championship, better known as March Madness, kicked off last Tuesday, with 52 games scheduled through the weekend. Is your bracket busted yet?

“March Madness” entered the American sports lexicon in 1939, but in reference to the state high school basketball championship in Illinois, not the national collegiate tourney. The name only became associated with the NCAA in the 1980s, thanks to sportscaster Brent Musburger, who was familiar with it from his work in Chicago before joining CBS.

The 68-team tournament has given us other memorable terms, including Bracketology, which refers to the science of predicting the field and each round’s winners. In theory, every squad has a chance to run the table at the Big Dance, and I’m always rooting for a Cinderella or two to emerge.

According to the American Gaming Association, more than 40 million people filled out March Madness brackets this year. Beyond office-pool wagers, however, it’s easy to understand why college basketball’s annual extravaganza is so riveting.

While the NBA Finals have given us just 19 Game 7s in 70 years, the NCAA men’s tournament offers the drama of 67 such games – do or die for both teams – in three weeks. Having local quintets in the mix – the University of Rhode Island and Providence College both earned berths this year – makes the nationwide event even more compelling.

Brown University was the first Rhode Island school to receive an NCAA bid, in the tournament’s inaugural year. Brown was one of eight entrants, losing to Villanova 42-30 in the opening round.

The Bears returned to the tourney 47 years later, in 1986, and faced powerhouse Syracuse in its own Carrier Dome. Legend has it – or perhaps it was just my father’s whimsical musing as an alumnus – that Brown’s coach, Mike Cingiser, advised his players to grab the ball and run out of the Dome should they happen to score first. To their credit, the Ivy Leaguers were actually up by one midway through the first half before losing in a blowout.

URI has been to the tournament nine times, making a terrific run in 1998 that included knocking off top-seeded Kansas. The Rams came tantalizingly close to reaching the Final Four that year, but a late-game meltdown against Stanford resulted in a heartbreaking 79-77 loss in the quarterfinals.

Of all Rhode Island teams, Providence College has danced the most, with 19 tournament appearances and two thrilling advances to the Final Four. In 1987, a young Rick Pitino all but willed a group of overachievers, led by Billy Donovan, to the national semifinals, where they faced Syracuse – the same team that had obliterated Brown the previous year. The Friars’ three-point shooting, instrumental to their success all season long, finally betrayed them, and they lost to the Orange by 14. Meanwhile, Pitino and Donovan had been launched into basketball greatness.

Fourteen years earlier, in 1973, Providence made its first trip to the Final Four, squaring off against Memphis State in St. Louis. After Ernie DiGregorio whipped a did-you-see-that, 30-foot behind-the-back pass to Kevin Stacom for a lay-up on the game’s second play, PC seemed destined for the finals. Then Marvin Barnes, the team’s star center, twisted his right knee and March Madness turned into March Sadness for Friar fans. A 49-40 halftime lead evaporated as Memphis State exploited Barnes’s injury to win going away, 98-85.

Every March, I hear myself wistfully telling anyone who will listen – my kids, their friends, total strangers – that PC would have played undefeated UCLA for the national title in 1973 had Marvin not gone down. It’s as sure a marker of spring as chirping birds and blooming crocuses.

This year, the tournament’s famous nickname will become a misnomer by the last three games, with the semifinals and championship straddling the first weekend in April. Coincidentally, on the same day the NCAA men’s tourney wraps up in Phoenix, a different kind of madness will get underway in Boston.

Go Red Sox!

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