On a momentous March Thursday in 1997, my dad allowed me to play hooky from high school and we headed to Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena for the first round of the 1997 NCAA Tournament. The day consisted of four games, one of which featured #15 Coppin State Eagles beating the #2 seed South Carolina Gamecocks. At the time, it was only the third occurrence of the underdog besting the favorite in this seeding match-up. To this day, it still ranks as the most exciting live basketball game I’ve ever witnessed. Despite the significance of that day, it took another 18 years for me to finally see another NCAA Tournament game in person, but I figured it was time to make my return.
When I heard that the Consol Energy Center was one of the sites of the 2015 NCAA Tournament, I purchased tickets well in advance to another four-game Thursday of what the NCAA has now rebranded as “Round 2,” with the four play-in games being dubbed “Round 1.” With Selection Sunday fast approaching, I began watching every college basketball game I could and fantasized about the potential match-ups that Pittsburgh would host. Would we get a team with Pittsburgh ties like the Robert Morris Colonials or Western Pennsylvania native Archie Miller’s Dayton Flyers? Or perhaps our site would be awarded a big name program from a conference that our local teams rarely match-up against?
The bracket seeding was released, and I found myself a little disappointed with our draw. It did not include any teams with a local story. We didn’t get any of the sexy upset picks like the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks or Bobby Hurley’s Buffalo Bulls. The top seeds were familiar faces in Villanova and Notre Dame, having matched up for years with the Pitt Panthers in the Big East and Atlantic Coast conferences. We were awarded a couple of teams rarely seen in this region, but it was in the form of two bubble-watch teams, Texas and LSU.
Nonetheless, as I learned 18 years ago, even the most inauspicious match-ups can produce tourney magic. Plus, there is one sure-fire way to make any sporting event more exciting: by gambling on it! I decided I would place wagers on all four games and document the action here. Below are my picks, observations, and in-game notes as I sweated the outcomes of my wagers while attending another action packed opening Thursday of March Madness.
Game 1: #3 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (-12.5) vs #14 Northeastern Huskies
Notre Dame is riding high on the momentum of winning the ACC Tournament. Looking at Notre Dame’s results this season, they’ve had some huge victory margins versus small conference teams at the beginning of the year before conference play began. I’ve heard no analysts mention Northeastern as any kind of potential sleeper. My Pick:
ND 0 – NE 0, 1st Half 19:59 – “Northeastern wins the opening tip. I’m fucked!”
My note was a bit dramatic, but Notre Dame’s future NBA first round pick Jerian Grant got off to a sluggish start. Center Zach Auguste looked dominant when in the game, but he was sidelined with foul trouble through most of the first half. Northeastern center Scott Eatherton, who I’d categorize as a tall, average, white guy, took advantage of Auguste’s absence by throwing down a dunk and acting as the Huskies main source of offense. Notre Dame led by just four at halftime, but I still felt good about my chances.
ND 60 – NE 49, 2nd Half 6:38 – “Hell yeah! Notre Dame only needs to win the rest of this game by 2 points.”
I made this note after this sick handle and dish from Demterius Jackson to Zach Auguste. Auguste was back in the game and giving the Northeastern defense fits. Immediately after making this note, Northeastern went on a 12-4 run cutting the lead to just four.
ND 65 – NE 59, 2nd Half 3:26 – “Mike Brey is simply being out coached.”
Inevitably, every time I make a bet that is not panning out, I proceed to question the coaching. In those moments, I have no doubt that my team would be in position to cover the spread if only I were on the sidelines leading them.
ND 65 – NE 61, 2nd Half 2:04 – “Just need to get to overtime. Then, they will have a full five minutes to make a run.”
Shortly after this note, I abandoned this line of thinking and accepted defeat. If I couldn’t win my bet, I was going to become a Northeastern Huskies fan for the final two minutes and root for an upset. With 32 seconds in regulation, Northeastern coach Bill Coen made a defensive substitution pulling his leading scorer Scott Eatherton, who had four fouls. A wild turnover by Notre Dame left Northeastern in possession of the ball down by only two points, but with no timeouts! Northeastern’s biggest offensive weapon was stranded on the bench, and Auguste was able to tie-up the ball handler for a steal. Notre Dame averted the upset, but didn’t come close to covering the 12.5-point spread.
Game 2: #6 Butler Bulldogs (+2) vs #11 Texas Longhorns
I don’t understand how a team like Texas, with a record of 20-14, earns a spot firmly in Round 2 while teams like Boise State and Dayton are left to battle it out in Round 1. Those 20 Longhorn wins contain a few ranked teams, but nobody all that impressive. Even more amazing, the lower-seeded Bulldogs are a two-point underdog. This seems too good to be true. My pick:
BUT 0 – TEX 0, 1st Half 19:59 – “Butler wins the tip. I’ve got this by the ass!”
BUT 6 – TEX 5, 1st Half 15:49 – “Does Texas really have a player named Prince Ebay?”
It turned out to be Prince Ibeh, but it had me wondering how cool I would be if I had a name like that. I could stick with the royalty first name and online superstore last name and become Duke Amazon.
BUT 26 – TEX 22, 1st Half 1:36 – “This isn’t a game of pop-a-shot, Dunham!”
Butler’s Kellen Dunham kept firing off shots early in the shot clock as soon as he touched the ball and was ice-cold in the first half.
BUT 39 – TEX 31, 2nd Half 10:23 – “Looking good, but Texas is sure to make a run.”
As expected, they did make a run cutting the lead to just one point. Kellen Dunham calmed down in the second half. He hit some key shots and got to the free throw line to compile 13 second-half points, allowing Butler to close out the game for a win.
BUT 56 – TEX 48, 2nd Half 0:00 – “This gambling stuff is easy.”
Game 3: #1 Villanova Wildcats vs #16 Lafayette Leopards (+23)
Never in the history of the NCAA Tournament has a #16 seed defeated a #1 seed. Unless you or a member of your immediately family attended the #1 seeded school, you are obligated to root for the #16 regardless of the damage the upset will do to your bracket. That is the emotional argument, now for the logical one. This Covers.com article acknowledges the trend of teams favored by 20-23 points failing to cover. My pick:
NOVA 29 – LAF 13, 1st Half 7:22 – “Ochefu looks like a full-grown man playing with little children.”
I knew early on this bet was a loser even with a 23-point cushion. The talent gap and size gap was too wide. Ochefu was dominating at both ends of the court, and Villanova showed no sign of letting up. Jay Wright was doing his best John Kreese impression, showing the Leopards no mercy. I even marked Villanova as a winner on my bracket with seven minutes still on the first half clock in an attempt to reverse jinx them.
NOVA 66 – LAF 32, 2nd Half 15:13 – “I could walk on at Lafayette and make the roster.”
Inevitably, every time I make a bet that is not panning out, and the players are being dominated so thoroughly that the coaching can’t be questioned, I have no doubt I could make the roster and add a positive contribution.
NOVA 84 – LAF 39, 2nd Half 15:13 – “This is Harlem Globetrotters vs. Washington Generals.”
Sorry for insulting the Washington Generals here. This game was a true abomination.
NOVA 93 – LAF 52, 2nd Half 0:47 – “At least everyone on the bench got to play.”
Game 4: #8 North Carolina State Wolfpack vs #9 Louisiana State Tigers (+2)
LSU has two NBA caliber players in Jordan Mickey and Jarrell Martin, but they’ve been plagued with inconsistency. The Wolfpack has a signature win versus #1 seed Duke, but finds itself in the middle of the pack in the ACC standings with 13 losses. In a game that is this much of a toss-up, I’m taking the team getting points. My pick:
Let me end my Lee Corso photo routine with a shot from dinner. I’m eating red beans and rice, sipping Abita beer, and wearing my Geaux Tigers Mardi Gras beads, so you know I’m taking Louisiana State +2 in this one.
LSU 40 – NCST 26, 1st Half 0:00 – “Jarrell Martin and Jordan Mickey are keeping the crowd awake with highlight reel dunks. LSU up 14, maybe this will be an easy one.”
Jarrell Martin and Jordan Mickey were looking like legit NBA prospects. Martin threw down several powerful jams. Mickey finished the half with a dunk of his own and was rejecting shots with authority. He finished the game with 6 blocks.
LSU 52 – NCST 40, 2nd Half 14:28 – “Tim Quarterman is straight ballin’.”
Guard Tim Quarterman went baseline for a double-pump to add to the growing LSU highlight reel. The sophomore finished the game with nearly a triple-double. His final stat line: 17 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals
LSU 62 – NCST 58, 2nd Half 5:54 – “It is never easy.”
Making this money is hard work.
LSU 65 – NCST 62, 2nd Half 1:03 – “C’mon, Jordan Mickey. You can do it. Just make one free throw.”
He couldn’t do it. He missed all four of his free throws in the final minute and thirty seconds. LSU finished the game with an ultimate choke job. The game was up for grabs, yet, it seemed like neither team was willing to take it. Finally, BeeJay Anya hit a leaner at the buzzer to give the Wolfpack a one-point victory. It was the best possible outcome, because it allowed me to see a game-winning buzzer beater, while the Tigers still covered the two-point spread.
I finish the day 2-2 owing only the vig and got to attend the most thrilling sports day of the year capped with a game winning buzzer beater. Long live the madness.
Bonus Photos and Coverage
My nephew skipped school to attend the afternoon session of games. I think kids can learn way more attending the NCAA Tournament than they ever could in a typical day of school. They can practice real-world mathematics figuring out how many more points my team needs to cover the spread. Their vocabulary is expanded listening to me berate the players for missing free throws. Sure, these aren’t words that are going to win them any spelling bees, but they are part of the skill set required to get by in this dog eat dog world.
Me marking yet another “X” on my bracket. I have developed a tradition of filling out my bracket on Selection Sunday. I carry the paper bracket with me at all times during March Madness. Well, at least until I tear it into shreds in frustration.
Other than the shitting in litter boxes, I guess there isn’t much difference between the NCAA Tournament and Pittsburgh’s annual furry convention.