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.
See if O.J. Mayo is all he's hyped up to be at the Jimmy V. Classic on Dec. 4 at Madison Square Garden.
Howie McCormick/Icon SMI
New York is not necessarily the best place for a college basketball writer (like myself) to live during January, February and March. Given that none of the city-area teams (St. John's, Seton Hall, Columbia, Manhattan and even Rutgers) is particularly relevant on a national scale, everything requires travel. Trains to D.C. for Georgetown games. Flights to RDU for North Carolina and Duke. Five-hour, cross-country jaunts to LAX for UCLA and USC.
In November and December, however, a wonderful phenomenon occurs: the best of college hoops simply comes to us in Manhattan. I spent this morning -- once I finished my last college football preview piece, that is -- looking through hoops schedules with the intention of returning to regular blogging. And I've come to the pleasant realization that the top three early-season events are all at Madison Square Garden, just a short subway ride away. There's an absurd number of these tournaments/invites/classics in '07-08 -- 23, by my last count, not including the Big Ten/ACC, SEC/Big East and Big 12/Pac-10 jamborees -- and I've ranked them in order of quality:
1. JIMMY V CLASSIC, Dec. 4, Madison Square Garden Games: Kansas State vs. Notre Dame, USC vs. Memphis
This is the premier freshmen showcase -- basically, the '07-08 equivalent of putting Greg Oden, Kevin Durant and Brandan Wright on the same bill in the first month of the season. In forward Michael Beasley (of K-State), O.J. Mayo (of USC) and Derrick Rose (of Memphis), the Jimmy V will boast three top-five picks for '08. The headlining matchup between the Trojans and Tigers, who are both rather freewheeling on offense, could be one of the top games of the non-conference slate.
2. COACHES VS. CANCER CLASSIC, Nov. 15-16, Madison Square Garden Final Four picks: Kentucky, Memphis, Oklahoma, UConn
The CvC is the closest thing we have to an opening day in college hoops. And this year it'll offer us a number of important, early looks at the following: - Billy Gillispie's impact on UK, plus super-recruit Patrick Patterson - Memphis' chances for a title run, as well as if Rose's skills live up to Joey Dorsey's billing - Oklahoma's freshman savior, Blake (little bro of Tyler) Griffin- The progress of UConn center Hasheem Thabeet, who could be a lottery pick if he develops even a minimal offensive repertoire.
3. NIT SEASON TIP-OFF, Nov. 21 and 23, Madison Square Garden Final Four picks: Syracuse, Ohio State, Washington, Texas A&M
The preseason NIT was memorable as the stage for Butler's coming-out party in '06. But this time around, rather than a mid-major surprise, we're more likely to get an idea of whether Syracuse, with its talented underclassmen trio of Johnny Flynn, Paul Harris and Donte Greene, is ready to contend in the Big East or is still another year away.
4. CBE CLASSIC, Nov. 19-20, Kansas City, Sprint Center Final Four picks: UCLA, Maryland, Michigan State, Missouri
At this summer's Pan American Games trials, I had hoped to see UCLA's Darren Collison square off against MSU's Drew Neitzel in a battle of All-America-caliber point guards. Alas, Neitzel was the only one of the two invited to camp, and he, Villanova's Scottie Reynolds and Washington State's Derrick Low handled floor-general duties in Brazil. We'll have to settle for a Darren-vs.-Drew battle in KC, with both teams likely ranked in the top 10 of the polls.
5. LEGENDS CLASSIC, Nov. 23-24, Newark, N.J., Prudential Center Final Four picks: New Mexico State, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia
The title game of this first-year tourney should pit the Vols against the Longhorns, and considering what happened the last time they met -- a 111-105 win by Tennessee in overtime, with Chris Lofton scoring 35 -- it will be a must-watch game. Even with Kevin Durant gone to the NBA.
This is a far cry from the Maui field of 2005, which was won by a loaded UConn team and included an epic battle between Adam Morrison and Michigan State. While it could still provide a decent finale between the Dukies and Golden Eagles, it's tough to see anyone knocking off Marquette. The Blue Devils' perimeter posse of Greg Paulus, Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler will be decent -- but can they really play enough D to stop Dominic James, Jerel McNeal and Wes Matthews, who took down Coach K's boys last season in Kansas City?
7. LAS VEGAS INVITATIONAL, Nov. 17-24, Las Vegas Field: BYU, Hartford, Iona, Jackson State, Louisville, North Carolina, Old Dominion, South Carolina State
The overall strength (or lack thereof) of the Vegas field is irrelevant: the whole point is to generate a UNC-vs.-Louisville title game on Thanksgiving weekend. Most of us pundits have been speculating, based on their late-season surge and near-upset of Texas A&M in the NCAA tournament, that Edgar Sosa and the Cards could be a Final Four team. But can they run with a Carolina squad that has all the pieces in place to win a national title? This could be a near-equivalent of the Florida-Kansas bout in Vegas last November -- and Louisville's prime opportunity to jump into the top five of the polls.
8. OLD SPICE CLASSIC, Nov. 22-25, Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Field: Villanova, Central Florida, George Mason, Kansas State, N.C. State, Penn State, Rider, South Carolina
The deodorant/aftershave invitational does not have a real headliner, but some intriguing storylines may develop. There's a chance N.C. State could emerge looking like the favorite to finish second -- ahead of Duke, Virginia or Virginia Tech -- in the ACC. And this would also be a nice stage for South Carolina's backcourt transfer duo of Devan Downey (Cincinnati) and Zam Frederick (Georgia Tech) to remind the nation of their talents, and establish the Gamecocks as a darkhorse in the SEC.
9. HALL OF FAME CLASSIC, Dec. 1, Boston Games: UConn vs. Gonzaga, Providence vs. Boston College
Gonzaga consistently has more cojones than any other team when it comes to non-conference scheduling, last year taking on Duke, Washington State, Texas and North Carolina out of conference, to name a few. Throttling UConn on the Huskies' home coast -- something the Zags are capable of doing with Josh Heytvelt in the lineup -- would go a long way in justifying their return to the top 25 after a turbulent down year.
10. GREAT ALASKA SHOOTOUT, Nov. 20-24, Anchorage, Alaska (Alaska-Anchorage, Butler, Eastern Washington, Gonzaga, Michigan, Texas Tech, Virginia Tech, Western Kentucky)
11. WOODEN TRADITION, Dec. 15, Indianapolis (Purdue vs. Louisville, Butler vs. Florida State)
17. BLUE RIBBON CHALLENGE, Nov. 9-22, Gainesville, Fla., and New Brunswick, N.J. (Florida, North Carolina Central, North Dakota State, Rutgers, Tennessee Tech)
18. SOUTH PADRE INVITATIONAL, South Padre Island, Texas, Nov. 23-24 (Vanderbilt, Iowa, Austin Peay, Bradley, Valparaiso, Maryland-Eastern Shore, Florida Gulf Coast, Utah State)
19. RAINBOW CLASSIC, Dec. 19-22, Honolulu (East Tennessee State, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana-Lafayette, Ohio, St. John's, St. Mary's, Tulane)
20. TOP OF THE WORLD CLASSIC, Nov. 15-18, Fairbanks, Alaska (Alaska-Fairbanks, Akron, Colorado State, IUPUI, Oregon State, Tennessee State, South Carolina Upstate, Portland State)
Check back to see if these yet-to-be-filled-out events are worth roadtripping (or turning on the tube) for: PUERTO RICO CLASSIC (Arkansas, College of Charleston, Marist, Miami, Providence, Temple, Virginia Commonwealth, eighth team TBA), BB&T CLASSIC (Maryland, George Washington, George Mason, plus three more TBA), WOODEN CLASSIC (UCLA vs. Davidson, other game TBA)