March Madness

It’s not supposed to snow close to a foot in the middle of March. Even in New Hampshire. Yet here I am on a “snow day” with my power flickering on and off precariously, while wind howls and snow falls outside. That’s bad news on a number of fronts, not least of which is that the high school team I coach started practicing yesterday. After one day of relatively decent conditions in a parking lot, we’re going to be scrambling for the foreseeable future. Yes, so will our opponents, but we graduated a lot of talent and need the work more than they do, and we lack the steady access to an indoor facility that some of the better ones have. I guess we’ll try to control what we can control and see where that leads us.

My own tennis continues to be a frustrating journey which may or may not ultimately lead me back to where I’m trying to be. Last week our team dropped another close one, this time at Mountainside. Their guys were out for revenge after the 5-0 thumping at our place and they brought all their top players, while for some reason we left the available Jeff Siegel home. Chris and I went against Glenn and B in a close match which ended all too familiarly, with another supertiebreaker going into the loss column. We dropped a close first set when Chris was broken at 4-4, but the real culprit was our failure to consistently return what were not especially fast or high-kicking serves. I dropped my serve early in the second but we got off the mat and took five straight games by getting more accurate with our returns and more aggressive at the net. Then the momentum shifted yet again as they came up with some great shots in the ‘breaker while I stopped moving my feet and hit a hideous double fault (my only one of the match) into the bottom of the net. Overall, though I served better after implementing some changes made during a midweek practice session with Adam Hirshan and John Pelkey: basically, move my front foot close to the line and keep it stationary, and keep my shoulder turned longer. I didn’t describe that particularly well but as long as I don’t toss too far to the left it actually does work better than what I was doing before. The other positive from this match is that I was a good teammate and helped Chris with some advice at certain points when he was struggling. Rather than getting down on myself or my partner when things weren’t going well, I regrouped and we were able to dig in and make it a close match. Ultimately, though, a loss is a loss and I’m 3-4 this season. All those four defeats have come against strong players in supertiebreakers, but as Bill Parcells once observed, “you are what your record says you are”. Right now my record says I’m average, and I don’t like being average, but over time maybe I can change that. We struggled at some other positions too. PJ and Adam, who had played so well against Glenn and B, had more trouble with the bigger-hitting Atherley and King and lost in two close sets, the second a tie-breaker. Jeff Hannum just didn’t show up mentally (again) and lost a match he should have won against Tim Lesko, 4-6, 0-6. The last point of the match said it all as he shanked an easy forehand into the side curtain on his own side of the net. Our two singles player was a new guy from Concord, Adam Lesser, who at first sight looks to be a prototypical baseliner with heavy spin groundstrokes and an aversion to playing the net. He came through easily against Jeff Adie, a doubles player pressed into playing singles on this particular day. Todd and Paul McManus gave us a big point at third doubles, winning 4 and 4 against a decent team. Todd hit some crushing overheads while Paul played steadily and was able to hold serve at key moments. That allowed us to outscore Mountainside over the home and away legs of the competition by 7-3, a significant margin. If we can beat HH 3-2 to gain a 5-5 split, and get seven or more points against the other teams, we should make districts yet. I can only play two more times, though, since I found out that during April vacation I have to have hernia surgery. The doctor was optimistic about me returning to work and even to some types of physical activity within a week, but said I need to stay away from the twisting and turning of tennis for about six weeks. I don’t get to hit much in April and May with my coaching anyway, and at least this way I’ll be able to come back and play during the summer. Still, it will be agony if our team goes right down to the wire competing for that second spot. Maybe I can help with some strategy or moral support if nothing else.

Finally, it’s that time of year for my favorite sporting event, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Last year I tried to watch all the games and keep a running diary on my iPhone of what was happening, and it worked for three days before I actually got a life. This year I make no promises, but will post what I can. I’m not a big preview guy but for the moment I would like to highlight one matchup (or potential matchup) worth watching at each round of competition, along with my prediction for each.

First-round games (formerly “play in”): Long Island University-Brooklyn (vs James Madison). The Blackbirds play streetball at its finest, with no-look passes, tricky dribbling and almost non-stop fast breaks. This is the third consecutive Big Dance for their core group, and if the 2012 Northeast Conference Player of the Year, Julian Boyd, hadn’t torn his ACL early in the season, they would have landed a better seed and might even have had a chance to win their second- round game. A glaring lack of height, a near-total absence of defense, and an impending matchup with Indiana will keep them from coming close this time, but they’ll still be one of the most fun teams to watch, so catch them while you can.

Second-round: Bucknell (vs Butler). Twenty-seven years ago, player-coach Dave Paulson, a senior-to-be at Williams College, led the Con-20 dorm team to the championship of the St. Paul’s ASP basketball league with wins over Brewster, Ford and my own Center Upper squad. This spring, after a long journey through the coaching ranks, his Bison claimed the Patriot League title. I’ll be rooting for him in his first tournament game against Butler. Dave may be destined for bigger things once this senior-laden team completes its season, but don’t think Bucknell is an automatic one-and-done. Mike Muscala, one of the nation’s most versatile big men, leads a fundamentally sound team that beat Arizona in last year’s NIT. This game should be in the 50s or low 60s and go right down to the wire.

Third Round (weekend games): Saint Louis (vs Oklahoma State if predicted seeds hold). Saint Louis is a terrific story. The Billikens pushed 1-seed Michigan State to the limit in last year’s third round and many observers said the coaching job done by Rick Majerus with that group was one of the best they’d ever seen. The team returned all its key players but unexpectedly lost its coach when Majerus was forced to retire during the summer for health reasons and then died early this season. This an unselfish team that plays terrific defense and finds the open man, and interim coach Jim Crews has them back in sync after an understandably slow start. Oklahoma State is a team to watch in its own right, with some great athletes and point guard Marcus Smart, a terrific all-around player and, although just a freshman, an inspiring leader too. I’ll root for whichever team emerges from this game to give top seed Louisville a run and I’m confident that they will.

Sweet Sixteen: Michigan State (vs Duke if seeds hold): All coaches care, but take one look at Tom Izzo on the sidelines and you can tell he cares with every fiber of his being. Izzo’s teams are renowned for their rebounding, toughness and ability to peak in March. If their outside shooting holds up, the Spartans have the size and physicality to take down a Duke team that has only lost once with senior forward Ryan Kelly in the lineup.

Elite Eight: Miami-FL vs Indiana (if seeds hold). Jim Larranaga, the magic man behind George Mason’s miracle run to the Final Four in 2006, is doing it again. In just his second year in Coral Gables, the relentlessly upbeat Larranaga took a senior-laden team that had never previously done much to ACC regular-season and tournament titles by stressing defensive improvement. Indiana, a terrific offensive team, has struggled with teams like Wisconsin and Butler that slow the tempo and grind out possessions. Miami fits that mold, and I think the Hurricanes, led by point guard Shane Larkin (son of Baseball Hall of Famer Barry) pull the upset here.

Final Four: Florida vs Miami (if my predicted bracket holds). Florida had the best point differential in conference play of any BCS team in the country this season and not all of that can be attributed to playing in the mediocre SEC. The Gators are my surprise pick to come out of the Midwest, where they are seeded third. Now fully healthy for one of the few times this season, Florida will edge Miami in a defensive battle as Billy Donovan, just as he did in ’06, ends a great Larranaga run.

Championship Game: Gonzaga vs Florida. Not too many people think Gonzaga can make it to this point despite the Zags’ number 1 seed in the West region, but this is a deep and talented team that does everything well. Unheralded Kelly Olynyk has had an All-American season alongside Elias Harris up front, several quality guards offer complementary strengths, and the defense has improved over the course of the year. Wisconsin will pose a major threat in the Sweet Sixteen but a miracle finish gets Gonzaga through, and they have too balanced an offense and too much interior presence for Ohio State in the next round. They win a thriller over Louisville (or perhaps Saint Louis, my Cinderella pick), to reach the final game and then use their greater depth and superior free-throw shooting to knock off Florida, 78-73. Do you believe in miracles? Yesssssssssssss!!!!!

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