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Smells like team spirit

Lack of pretense helps makes tourney special

Posted: Monday March 21, 2005 10:10AM; Updated: Monday March 21, 2005 10:25PM
Villanova's Mike Nardi (12) and Randy Foye celebrate after defeating Florida on Sunday.

The smell was the first thing I noticed: earthy and pungent, sweaty and thick, stale and moist, ripe and sour, swirled with a vague touch of menthol. It was the smell of worn-out shoes and damp socks, the essence of hard work. Go in any NBA locker 10 minutes after the game ends, and even though an incredible athletic contest has just ended, it doesn't smell like a locker room. It never does. Fancy colognes, lotions, fresh sneakers -- these are the dominant scents. Locker-room attendants scurry around, quickly grabbing any dirty towels or jerseys that are dropped to the floor.

But in Ohio University's locker room on Friday afternoon in Nashville, just after Ohio lost a heartbreaker to Florida in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, things were different. There were no hanging Louis Vuitton bags, no wool suits in the lockers, no gator-skinned loafers. There were towels on the floor and, most noticeably, it stunk -- and I mean that in a good way. Anyone who played sports in high school, particularly those of us who played at public schools with limited funds, will know precisely what I'm talking about.

As a reporter that spends most of my year in NBA arenas and locker rooms, covering the NCAA tourney this past weekend and filing occasional reports from the games for SI.com has been eye-opening (and closing, but more on that later). I still love the NBA, the way that game is distilled down into something nearly scientific, where it's all about positioning and angles and exploiting occasional holes in the system. The NBA game is glossed and shined, but after sitting in the front row in Nashville for a weekend, I realize the college game is a beautiful thing because of the little things.

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For instance, after being introduced, each of the Louisiana-Lafayette starters ran over to the bench and removed their warm-up tops, then gently deposited them into a plastic clothes hamper on the floor behind their bench. No ballboys chasing after them to grab their gear.

Players standing during the game routinely blocked my view, and I didn't care. How I can be mad at players who care enough about their teammates to get off their butts and root for them? Even Villanova's Curtis Sumpter, who was out with a bum knee, did his best to cheer for his squad yesterday against Florida, limping to his feet to cheer and yell.

The pep bands indeed provided pep, although the Villanova band pulled a fast one by frequently playing Rocky Top, which helped win over all the neutral Tennesseans and sent the Florida fans into a tizzy. The band later played perhaps the sloppiest version of Ants Marching ever heard.

Late in Ohio's loss to Florida, just as the Bobcats were closing in on the Gators, freshman guard Jeremy Fears picked off a pass, drove to the rim and missed a dunk. After the game, in a morose Ohio locker room, I asked Fears what happened on that play. He shook his head and said, "Man! Wow! Did you see what happened? That's the first dunk I missed all year, man. I made about 40, and that's the first one I missed." At the worst time, too.