Saturday, March 14, 2009

Grooving On March Madness!

I will be the first to admit I am a bit of a fairweather college basketball fan. I only tend to start paying attention at conference tournament time, and even then, only when one of my teams has a shot at making the Big Dance, also known as the NCAA Tournament.

Fortunately for me, both of the teams I root for are perennial contenders. Maryland is the team I grew up watching. My first taste of college basketball came in the early 70's watching Lefty Driesell's great teams with Tom McMillan and Len Elmore and Howard White and Jim O'Brien. Back in the days before three-point lines and shot clocks, you had to be careful when North Carolina got a 3 point lead on you, because Dean Smith would put his players into a four-corner offense, and stall until the game was over!

My favorite memory of those early years is that when Lefty's Maryland teams would build up a big lead at the end of the game, the pep band would strike up a chorus of "A-men", and the entire crowd at Cole Field House would sing along non-stop until the game was over.

Later on, as Maryland was going through its dark days after the death of Len Bias, and was stuck with Bob Wade as coach, I was wrapped up in starting my career, and being, as noted, a fairweather fan. But I have continued to follow the Terps each year under Gary Williams. And even though he has had his critics, I have remained firmly in his corner. Williams is an exciting man to watch - and even though he catches no shortage of grief for failing to recruit big stars, I can't help but admire his ability to motivate second-rate talent and get more out of them than anyone has a right to expect.

He's certainly doing that this year. He has the shortest team in the ACC, but he's managed to win two conference tournament games, and it would not shock anyone if he could pull off two more. Hopefully, the Terps have done enough to go to the NCAA's, because now I've been sucked in, and I would hate to see them go to the NIT!

My other team is Syracuse, where I went to college. I became an SU fan at a curious time - at the dawn of the Big East conference. Syracuse's new rivalries were still being born - against St. John's and Villanova and Seton Hall and Connecticut... and most of all against Georgetown! The first game I went to at SU was the last game of my freshman year, which also happened to be the last game the Orangemen played at the old Manley Field House. They had a 56-game home winning streak, and they were playing the Hoyas. And they lost. I have hated Georgetown and John Thompson ever since.

I have not followed Syracuse so much on a year-to-year basis as the years have gone by, but I do follow them at tourney time. There are still several ties that bind. First of all - SU unbelievably has the same coach now as it did when I went to school there a quarter-century ago! Jim Boeheim grew up in Syracuse, played at Syracuse and has coached at Syracuse for the past 33 years. Secondly - for some bizarre reason, SU and Maryland seem (to me, anyway) to run in parallel universes. Jim Boeheim and Gary Williams are virtually best friends, and the two teams won consecutive National Championships - Maryland in 2002 and Syracuse in 2003. Finally, there is a special tie this year. One of the stars of the current Orange team, Andy Rautins, is the son of a guy who played at SU when I was there, Leo Rautins. So it's fun to watch him play, too.

Reading back through what I've just written, I realize that I really don't have deep enduring ties with either of these teams - or even the sport of college basketball... certainly nothing like my passion for the Redskins. But it doesn't take much at the dawn of each spring to get that interest going again... to watch players I don't know take to the court... and to find myself pumping my fist with each three-point basket they sink. All in the name of team colors, names and nostalgia. It still feels damn good.

As I write this, Maryland will play hated Duke this afternoon in the ACC semis, and Syracuse will play Louisville tonight in the Big East final. SU is going to the NCAAs... and Maryland should squeak in.

Hope they're not in the same bracket!

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