March 18th, 2005

Why We Watch: 2005

I feel terrible for my dad, who essentially paid $60 to watch a game that he will always want to forget. And I've been rooting for Syracuse since 1978 myself, so I can't say I'm happy with the way things turned out either. But the Vermont-Syracuse game was wonderful theater. Vermont is clearly better than a 13-seed, as their media-friendly coach Tom Brennan told ESPN earlier in the day. Rather than complain, though, they conquered.

Taylor Coppenrath gave the Orange plenty of trouble. In the end, though, it was Cameroon's Germain Mopa Njila and Pawtucket's T.J. Sorrentine who made the difference. Sorrentine's three-pointer from far beyond where an NBA arc would have been was mind-blowing. Had Vermont been playing anyone other than a Pac-10 team or WCC team, I would have been on their bandwagon without reservation. Now I get to climb aboard in the hope that they do the same thing to Michigan State that they did to my father's alma mater.

Luckily for me, my disappointment over the Syracuse result and the way that Stanford got plastered was offset by one of those NCAA tournament experiences that make the whole event worthwhile: 14-seed Bucknell beating 3-seed Kansas. I was on my knees in front of the television for the last several minutes. Every time it seemed like Kansas would close the deal, Bucknell made another great play. Astonishingly, the underdog Bison survived a two-shots-and-the-ball intentional foul in the last minute, scoring with three seconds left after Kansas had taken the lead. That play was remarkable with German -- or is it "German," since his dad went to Lafayette in my birthplace of Easton, Pennsylvania? -- sophomore Chris McNaughton getting the ball in the paint and arcing a shot over all-everything Kansas senior Wayne Simien. It's a sad irony that Simien, who played superbly, couldn't get the stop on McNaughton and then missed a Christian Laettner-style turnaround on the final play. What a game!

The lesson in the madness thus far is not only that the teams from power conferences are no longer as good as they once were, thanks to early departures to the NBA, but that teams from lower-ranked conferences are often much better than they would have been five or ten years ago because of the influx of foreign players. Pacific and Gonzaga are excellent examples. Tonight Vermont and Bucknell joined them in that category. Despite what many commentators are saying about the mediocrity of college basketball as a whole. I'm seeing lots of fundamentally sound play that is greatly helped, as is now the case in the NBA, by the different experiences and skills that foreign-born players bring to the court.
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