Talk hoops all year long in Luke Winn's blog, a journal of commentary, news and reader-driven discussions about the college game.
11/14/2007 10:49:00 PM
Gardner-Webb Takes Manhattan
Bulldogs on the downtown 1 train (from left to right: Thomas Sanders, Matt French, Takayo Siddle).
NEW YORK -- Six Gardner-Webb players were standing across the street from Madison Square Garden at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, soaking in the atmosphere of a city they'd never set foot in before -- a place with more than 2,100 times the residents of their school's hometown, tiny Boiling Springs, N.C. (pop. 3,866). An ad for a Dane Cook performance was on the Garden's video board, and a banner for the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic hung over one of the arena's main entryways. Freshman Nate Blank, a forward from Terre Haute, Ind., had spotted the banner first, and pointed out something peculiar: "Look at that," he said. "It's still showing Kentucky's logo."
The sign must've been made well in advance of the event, expecting Billy Clyde Gillispie's Wildcats to cruise through the two opening rounds at Rupp Arena and reach the Big Apple along with Memphis, Oklahoma and UConn. A week ago, Gardner-Webb threw a wrench in things by pulling off a monstrous, 84-68 upset of Kentucky. And so here are the Runnin' Bulldogs, on 7th Avenue and 32nd street in Manhattan, ready to take on Jim Calhoun's Huskies in less than 24 hours. The Gardner-Webb squad arrived around noon Wednesday, after playing a game the previous night -- they hadn't expected to reach New York, either -- and rushing to the Charlotte airport early in the morning. The banner wasn't the only thing that had failed to recognize their presence. Junior guard Takayo Siddle was wearing a fresh tournament T-shirt ... with Kentucky's logo on the back. "They left us off this, too," he said matter-of-factly, without a hint of resentment. Blank noted that the Bulldogs' logo had at least made it onto the tournament's official Web site, which was nice.
Gardner-Webb coach Rick Scruggs, who somehow managed to maintain a placid demeanor as his team took a 14-0 lead against UK and then held on for a shocking victory, told me via phone on Tuesday that he had once tried to get into Madison Square Garden. He was at the Final Four in 1996, the last time it was held in New Jersey and Kentucky won the national title. Scruggs traveled into Manhattan to get a peek at what, he says, "is one of what I consider to be the meccas of college basketball -- that and Rupp Arena. But security wouldn't let me in." Last week Scruggs won at Rupp. This week he'll be allowed in the Garden -- and allowed to stalk the sideline, no less.
Scruggs' players shouldn't be in awe of UConn, on a neutral floor, after knocking off Kentucky on its home turf. The Bulldogs were, however, somewhat out of sorts in the city. I met up with a group of them following their practice on Wednesday night -- Blank, Siddle, Matt French, Quincy Sarpy and last Wednesday's heroes, Grayson Flittner and Thomas Sanders, who combined for 43 points against UK. Walking up from their hotel toward the artificial glow of Times Square, they marveled at things big (the Garden, MTV's TRL studios, the NASDAQ video display) and small (boiled nut vendors, taxi cabs, steam coming out of manholes). "Why does it do that?" French asked of the white clouds billowing up out of the sewer. "It's right out of Ninja Turtles." Some of the Webb-sters are from decent-sized locales -- French hails from Melbourne, Australia, and Sanders is from Houston -- but Boiling Springs, where they left that morning, is a one-stoplight, zero-bar town in a dry, isolated county in North Carolina. Slightly different than New York City.
Bulldogs in Times Square (from left to right: Takayo Siddle, Nate Blank, Quincy Sarpy, Matt French, Thomas Sanders, Grayson Flittner).
All of the players were wearing Gardner-Webb garb, and were stopped a couple of times on the street by curious pedestrians. One man asked, "You guys ballers? What division?"
None of the players had been on a subway before, either, and I ended up playing the role of tour guide, taking them downtown on the 1 train from Times Square to Greenwich Village. The destination: John's of Bleecker Street, for classic New York-style, brick-oven pizza. There, the players told stories about the outbreak of basketball fever at their 3,000-student Baptist college, which has chartered buses take students on an 11-hour journey from Boiling Springs to Manhattan for tonight's game. "Kids camped out for three nights in the cold, trying to get a spot on the buses," said Sanders, the team's lone senior. "Tents were wrapping around our gym; they called it Scruggsville."
I asked them what the highlight of last season was; they had finished eighth in the Atlantic Sun Conference and never appeared on ESPN or ESPN2. Tonight will be their second appearance this season on the network's main channels. "We don't really want to talk about last year," said Sanders. "We only won nine games [they were 9-21]. There weren't any highlights." Flittner chimed in with a story of beating Western Carolina on the road in December. "We came back to win in overtime," he said. "That was probably the biggest thing that happened."
Gardner-Webb has attracted slightly more attention this season. Flittner asked me, "Why do you think the media jumped on our story so much last week?" They went from total obscurity to taking calls from the likes of the New York Times and the L.A. Times, and being followed around by ESPN camera crews. Whereas, he said, fellow Atlantic Sun member Mercer upset a ranked USC team -- with O.J. Mayo -- in a standard non-conference game a few days later and didn't receive the same level of attention.
My answer had three parts: The story was amplified by the fact that their victim was Kentucky; the Bulldogs hit college hoops' most legendary program with a gut punch before Billy Clyde's revival could begin. The game was also on national TV, on a night where there were few other entertainment options. (Mercer's win came on a Saturday.) And most importantly, the nation is always ready and willing to fall in love with a tournament Cinderella. Even if the tournament is in November.
Kansas State freshman Michael Beasley has totaled 62 points and 38 rebounds in his first collegiate games.
It's difficult to ascertain when, exactly, the college hoops season begins. Sports Illustrated's preview issue -- what I've been working on lately rather than blogging -- comes out tomorrow. The first real "tournament" of the winter, the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic, takes place on Thursday and Friday at Madison Square Garden. Some teams have already played two regular-season games. Others have yet to play one. Basically: we're right in the middle of the beginning. And already, there has been no shortage of surprises: 1. The Zestier Mayonnaise
University of Illinois-Chicago's Josh Mayo was a huge prospect coming out of Merrillville, Ind., in the Class of 2005. So huge that he was assigned two stars in a photo-less, news-less profile in Scout.com's recruiting database. So huge that he wasn't even in Rivals.com's recruiting database. USC's O.J. Mayo, meanwhile, was a slightly huger prospect coming out of Huntington, W.V.: five stars in every recruiting service, and the No. 1 overall prospect in Scout.com's rankings. O.J. also was on the cover of SLAM last month standing in front of a Bentley. They are neither brothers nor cousins, nor did they, coming into this season, appear to be operating in the same basketball universe.
Until they went and actually played the games, that is. When the first weekend of the 2007-08 season was said and done, Josh Mayo > O.J. Mayo. The pride of Merrillville -- now a junior at UIC -- dropped 34 points on 11-of-17 shooting in an upset of Bradley on Saturday. The Fresh(man) Prince of L.A. had 32 against Mercer -- but he needed 27 shots to get there, also committed eight turnovers, and his Trojans lost by 15. To Mercer! Prediction: When Mayo is still taking 20-plus shots a game in three or four years -- for a bad NBA team -- he will not care about this. And Josh Mayo will still have yet to appear in a national publication, standing in front of a Bentley.
2. The Yellow Tie ... and that other thing
Oh, does Billy Gillispie long for the days -- just a week ago, really -- when his yellow tie was the only thing Kentucky fans were worried about. (Seriously, there was enough buzz over Billy Clyde's sartorial decision in UK's first exhibition game that Lexington columnist John Clay was justified in discussing it in his new YouTube series. He paraphrased the reactions of a few fans as, "Why was Billy Gillispie wearing a yellow tie? Doesn't he know he's in Kentucky? He's supposed to wear blue.")
Now the 'Cats, who were to be one of the main attractions in this weekend's 2K Sports College Hoops Classic at Madison Square Garden, are stuck at home, game-less, for two weeks after a rather stunning collapse: an 84-68 loss, on Wednesday, to a Gardner-Webb team that won nine games the previous year, and drew fewer people to all of its conference home games combined than UK did to its Big Blue Madness. (Thanks to mid-major guru Bill Trocchi for that absurd stat.)
3. B-Easy There, Young Fella
First came the rumors, that Kansas State freshman Michael Beasley (nickname: B-Easy) had scored 42 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in a closed scrimmage against Marquette. Then came non-nationally televised confirmation of his dominance: Through the Wildcats' first two games, he's averaged 31 points and 19 rebounds. The opponents were Sacramento State and Pittsburg State, but do you see anyone else putting up those kinds of numbers? I ranked instant-impact freshmen in a gallery a few weeks ago and put Beasley fourth, behind UCLA's Kevin Love, Memphis' Derrick Rose and USC's Mayo. In hindsight, I'd revise the order of my top five to Beasley, Rose, Love, Indiana's Eric Gordon and O.J. Mayo. Rose will get the most wins of any of them ... but Beasley, as crazy as it sounds, could actually surpass Kevin Durant's freshman numbers of 25.8 points and 11.1 rebounds per game.
4. The D2 Invasion
Grand Valley State, the Division II team that sunk No. 8 Michigan State in the Spartans' first exhibition game of the season, appeared in this blog-space last Monday. When I asked the Lakers' L.J. Kilgore if he'd played in any environments as tough as the Breslin Center, he mentioned that the University of Findlay's Croy Gymnasium is rather intense, because "it gets so loud in there that it seems like a million people are against you." This was rather amusing, since Croy is more than 12,000 seats smaller than Breslin. I also figured it would be the last I heard about either Grand Valley State or Findlay all season. Four days later, Findlay upsets Ohio State in Columbus, 70-68. And much like the stunning Josh Mayo > O.J. Mayo development, we also have this: the Division II Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference > the big, bad Big Ten.