March Madness live from the nation’s capital

by March 24, 2008

Aaron Kaplowitz, a Jersey native and Boston University grad currently in Israel, where he covers EuroLeague basketball for the Jerusalem Post. He will be attending all three weekends of the NCAA tourney, in person, for SLAMonline. He was in D.C. this past weekend. Adam Fleischer’s broader observations will be up later today.

By Aaron Kaplowitz

When the escalator from the Washington, D.C. Metro subway station
finally climbs its way to 7th street, the Madness of March attacks the
senses like a festive parade. Fans wearing their respective schools’
apparel blot the urban landscape with bold shades of red, yellow,
green and blue, while the smell of marinated meat and beer escapes the
local eateries, a cologne for the ticket scalpers serenading the
sidewalks with a most intimate confession: “I’ve got two tickets.”

Fans make their way into the Verizon Center with an extra hop in their
steps, every man an oracle imparting wisdom about the upsets,
buzzer-beaters and basketball bliss that await us over the next three
weeks. While the Final Four seems so far away, there’s no denying
the unbridled excitement that Day One of the NCAA Tournament brings to
college basketball fans.

In a half-empty arena, Tournament 2008 begins with Xavier and Georgia,
an improbable 14-seed. The story of the Bulldogs’ gutsy SEC
Tournament performance is well known by now, and even the Xavier fans
are thankful that Georgia made the Dance for one simple reason: the
school’s leggy cheerleaders.

When Georgia, however, takes a nine-point lead into the locker room at
halftime – despite not attempting a single free throw – the team,
which finished 4-12 and in last place during the SEC regular season,
makes a strong statement about the importance of peaking in March, and
about the indiscretion of placing a school from a power conference at
a 14-seed.

Xavier, led by Josh Duncan, decides to show up in the second half and
outscores Georgia by 21 points en route to a 73-61 win.

“We came out in the second half a totally different team,” says senior
point guard Drew Lavender, who finished with 13 points.

For the game, Xavier shot 28 more free throws than Georgia.

“I feel we played as hard as they did but they just got the calls,”
says Georgia junior Terrance Woodbury. “We still had an opportunity,
we just didn’t knock down shots we needed to knock down.”

But before anybody has time to dwell on Georgia’s incredible
late-season escapade, Purdue-Baylor has already begun. Just like
that, Georgia is no longer on the mind, and the school’s first round
exit is one in a line of 31 to follow, each program with its own
incredible five-month season that no longer carries relevance.

Known for its defense and grind-it-out victories, Purdue posts 90
points against an out-of-control Baylor team that lacks organization
and abandons any semblance of a game plan. Eight Boilermakers score
eight points or more in a total team effort that shows flashes of
Final Four brilliance. With only one upperclassman in the starting
lineup that should return complete next year, the Boilermakers are
definitely a team to watch for next season.

“They’ve still got a chance to make a lot of noise in this tournament
and I think they will,” says Baylor senior Mark Shepherd after the
game. “Purdue has a real bright future…”

With the day session over, a new batch of fans saunters to its seats
to watch a made-for-TV, 2-verses-15 yawner between Duke and Belmont.
The Blue Devils open the game with typical 2-seed complacency allowing
the Bruins from Nashville, Tenn. to hang with them. With a
combination of stifling defense 30 feet away from the basket,
perfectly executed back door sets through the high post and timely
three-pointers, Belmont manages to keep the game close throughout.

In its approach, Duke does everything right, and sometimes that’s just
wrong. The team’s guard-heavy perimeter-spread offense lacks
creativity to penetrate the Belmont defense and to create
opportunities in the paint, leading to rushed shots often behind the
three-point arc.

Furious with the sub-par post play, Coach Krzyzewski goes with a
five-guard lineup midway through the second half. With the talk of
“upset” filling the arena, most of the fans rally behind Belmont,
which holds a one-point lead with under two minutes to play.

A Gerald Henderson finger roll with 11 seconds remaining puts Duke up
by one, setting the stage for Belmont to hold its destiny in its own
hands in a classically scripted buzzer-beater scenario. The Bruins,
however, miss three opportunities in the final ten seconds, including
a botched inbounds lob under their own basket. There will be no upset
tonight as Duke dodges a .50 caliber and escapes to the second round,
a 71-70 victor.

“We were ready to play,” says Coach K after the game. “You won’t hear
any of our players say we overlooked them. No way. They’re just
really difficult to defend.”

Belmont head coach Rick Byrd, who coached the game of his life,
couldn’t get past the inbounds play he set up that could have won the
game.

“I should’ve run a play for a layup,” says Byrd. “If it’s not 100%
there, we call a timeout and run another play.”

Regret and second-guessing. Two closely related March Madness
diseases that take a lifetime to shake, and even then the highlights
remain. Byrd came within a basket of March glory, that one upset that
small schools dream of, the one that validates all the preparation and
practice. But not all is lost. This Atlantic Sun Conference school
proved to itself that it could play with the best. They don’t get the
win, but they get their time in the spotlight. And more important,
they get respect.

With a collective exhale following the Duke-Belmont game, the crowd is
treated to the final game of the day between two teams with tremendous
potential: Arizona and West Virginia.

The Mountaineers’ big three of Da’Sean Butler, Joe Alexander and Alex
Ruoff don’t disappoint, combining for 54 points to power WVU to a
75-65 victory in a game much closer than the final score indicates.
Somewhere, an Arizona St. Sundevil seethes.

After the game, there’s a morbid vibe in the Arizona locker room.
Players sit around in disbelief that their proud program will not
advance to the next round. NBA prospect Jerryd Bayless sits in a
folding chair, shirtless, sulking at the loss and trying to convey to
the press his disinterest in talking. Players appear upset and
embarrassed, unsure how to handle themselves.

But in March, for every loser there’s a winner and the Mountaineers
make sure to keep their end of the bargain two days later when they
continue their success against a Blue Devils team that is a far cry
from the school’s teams of yore. Sparked by Joe Mazzulla’s intrepid
stat-filling performance (13 points, 11 rebounds and 8 assists), West
Virginia overcomes a five-point halftime deficit to knock Duke from
the Field, 73-67.

In the victors’ locker room, a poetic message is scrawled on the
white-board: “We’re going to f—ing Phoenix.” Players devour
pepperoni pizza while diverting their attention to another tournament
game on a flat-screen television.

Across the hall, reporters and players alike speak in hushed tones in
Duke’s locker room. Teary-eyed Blue Devils, dignified, spend a long
time with reporters, painfully telling them everything they want to
hear about Duke’s shortcomings. Senior DeMarcus Nelson, who shot
3-of-17 on his way to eight points in two games, patiently talks about
the end of his collegiate career. Coach K makes his way in and
retreats to a separate room with Five-Star Basketball founder Howard
Garfinkel. A second-round exit makes for another total Duke failure,
a program with unreasonable expectations.

In the second game of the double-header, Xavier holds off Purdue 85-78
in a hard-fought game that fittingly ends a weekend of gritty
basketball in Capital City.

Sitting at his locker stall fielding questions, Xavier’s Stanley
Burrell hunches over his white Nikes with “Sweet 16” written in black
marker, underlined.

“I’m going to need to get Elite Eight boots,” he says, with a smile.