Thursday, March 15, 2012

March Madness

In basketball, the 'Madness" strikes every 66 years like clockwork.

I GOT ANOTHER T-SHIRT OUT OF IT. So it's all over now. The ESPN announcers all got to say "Hovvid" with a smirk, and the SEC champion beat the Ivy champion convincingly if not without a few moments of concern. Interestingly, the hottest three-point shooter in the game was the president of the Harvard Lampoon, and I'm pretty sure from the following Associated Press preview, Harvard wasn't the only team with genuine college students on the court [boldface added]:

Harvard Vanderbilt Preview

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - It's one thing to be the Harvard of the South. It's another thing to be Harvard.

Although there's hardly time this week to break down the subtle and not-so-subtle differences in the classrooms at Vanderbilt and the school that gave us Jeremy Lin, the gap - if there is one - between top SEC and Ivy League basketball talent will be on display Thursday in a second-round East regional game at The Pit.

This is one of those 5 vs. 12 matchups that always intrigues the office-pool players. But it doesn't take a 4.0 GPA to know that the schools playing in this matchup (Vandy's the 5, Harvard's the 12) are a bit different from the rest.

"People keep bringing that up since we got matched up with them," Harvard guard Oliver McNally said.

Though the NCAA selection committee steadfastly has denied it looks for irony when it sets the brackets, this kind of game certainly has some meaning in a year like this - with big-name universities across the country seeing their reputations sullied by sports programs that seem to have little connection to the academic mission.

"There are a number of different terrific programs that do it in a way that you're attracting great kids," Crimson coach Tommy Amaker said. "You love being around and teaching and coaching those kind of individuals."

Amaker has seen this story from both ends. He played for Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, where educational standards are high, then went to Michigan and tried to clean that program up after years of scandal. He did clean things up but didn't win enough. After he got fired, Amaker took the job at Harvard - a school with, well, a pretty good academic reputation but absolutely no tradition on the basketball side.

This is the Crimson's first NCAA appearance since 1946.

"When I committed, I was the first one with coach Amaker in the program, and they were coming off a pretty mediocre year. They were 8-22," said McNally, a Bay Area kid who had places such as Santa Clara and St. Mary's on his radar. "I got questions from people. `Is it D-I?' Things like that. But I knew what I was getting into."

Like all Ivy League schools, Harvard (26-4) plays the majority of its games on Friday nights and Saturday to avoid missed class time. There's no conference tournament. ESPN rarely shows up. And there aren't a ton of basketweaving classes available on the course catalog.

"My top two choices were here and Princeton," senior forward Keith Wright said. "I was recruited to schools like Illinois, UVA, VCU, great basketball schools. But it came down to the academic side, because I know that ball is going to stop bouncing eventually."

There are exceptions - most notably, that guard who plays for the New York Knicks by the name of Lin. But Crimsonsanity? Well, a win over Vanderbilt might get the ball rolling.

"This was my biggest dream going into college," McNally said. "I'm a huge college basketball nerd. It's the best sporting event in the world. To get here, whether I'm starring or on the bench, I always wanted to play in this."

Although nobody raises a stink at Harvard if you go 50, 60 years without making a dent on the national scene, Vanderbilt walks a more delicate line: "They want us to be Harvard Monday through Friday and beat Alabama on Saturday," as Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings puts it.

"I think the thing about a job like the one we have is that you just aren't allowed to make very many mistakes," Stallings said. "If you make a mistake on a player, then it's more hurtful than if you're at a school that can remedy and rectify that mistake more quickly and more easily."

In a move that was more symbolic than game-changing, Vanderbilt actually folded its athletic department into the Division of Student Life nine years ago.

Though the pros and cons of that move were widely debated, the results have remained about the same. The football program struggles, and the basketball program under Stallings is a steady, if not spectacular, winner. This is the fifth NCAA appearance in six years for the Commodores (24-10), who deal with many of the same issues in recruiting players as does Harvard.

"There aren't any quick fixes at a school like Vanderbilt, and there certainly aren't quick fixes at Ivy League schools either," Stallings said. "But Ivy League schools are competing with one another, and we're competing with those other guys."

"Those other guys" include Kentucky - the team the Commodores beat last Sunday in the SEC tournament final, snapping the 24-game winning streak of a team that still received the tournament's overall No. 1 seed.

Not a bad way for the "Harvard of the South" to put its name on the map.

Stallings said he's not beneath selling his school as such.

"I've used that `Harvard of the South' a few times, and I hope that the Harvard people don't take that as a slap in the face," he said. "We obviously feel like we'd be comparing ourselves to greatness."

In a year when the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill -- one of the nation's premiere academic universities -- is facing major penalties for academic fraud and providing undue access to professional sports agents for its middling football team, it's refreshing to see two clean athletic programs play a clean game -- no fights, no hard fouls or other thuggery, no coaches throwing chairs on the sidelines, just, uh, basketball. Vanderbilt's team is better than Harvard's, so they won. How things ought to be.

Sport lends itself to absurdities, which is probably the best explanation of the nonsense Latin in Harvard's age-old fight song.

I know we'll see better basketball in the next days and weeks, but I enjoyed the hell out of tonight's game, even though we lost. Congratulations to Vanderbilt for winning and to both teams for getting to the Big Dance the hard way. By playing the game with honest-to-God students.

A trend that could catch on? I doubt it. But something to hope for. Best of luck to Vanderbilt against leviathan Wisconsin.

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