Montrezl

Montrezl

I’m sitting here watching the Michigan State/Louisville Elight 8 game. Any time I watch the Cardinals, I always keep my eye on Montrezl Harrell. We have a long history.

In my senior year of college, I watched a lot of college basketball with my roommates. One night in February we were watching Louisville/Notre Dame in one of the last great Big East matchups. Notre Dame would win in five overtimes, and it was one of the best games I’ve ever seen. In regulation, Notre Dame was down by eight with 45 seconds to play. They were down by seven with 34 seconds to play. They came back to tie the game in ridiculous fashion – they hit long three after long three, even after Louisville knocked down their free throws. In the second overtime, Notre Dame hit a three to keep the game going. In the fourth overtime, they hit another shot in the final seconds. Louisville had so many chances to win the game, but Notre Dame kept fighting and finally won in 5 OT.

Here are the highlights:

And here was a screenshot I took on my phone during the fifth OT.

5 OT

Anyway, back to Montrezl. As the game kept going, players were fouling out. Louisville was running out of players. They were forced to play a freshman named Montrezl Harrell. He was big, and a little uncoordinated, and he had one of the coolest names, and no one had heard of him. In the final seconds of one of the overtimes, he had a chance to knock down a free throw and win the game for Louisville.

You could tell he was nervous. He didn’t play much that year.

He air-balled. And Louisville lost.

After that, we joked about Montrezl, because we’re terrible people. We also became oddly fascinated with him, and so we continued to follow his collegiate career. There’s nothing I love more than following a random player obsessively (see Berroa, Angel).

Then a funny thing happened. Montrezl Harrell got better. And better. And better. Later that year, he won a national championship. In his sophomore year, he became a starter and averaged 14 points and 8 rebounds per game. This year, he was one of the best players in college basketball, averaging a double/double per game (with a much-improved free throw percentage of 60%). And now he’s leading the Cardinals to (potentially) another Final 4.

He’s become a household name. No one remembers that free throw.

The perfect bracket

March Madness is back. It’s a great time of year – the games are usually excellent, the stories are endless, and it means baseball is right around the corner.

Most people fill out a bracket with friends or in office pools for a little money, though Warren Buffett has offered $1 billion to anyone that makes a perfect bracket. Well, of course we all try for a perfect bracket, but I think it’s safe to say that Buffett won’t have to make the payout. Because while there is endless discussion on upsets and sleepers and cinderellas, there is one thing Buffett has on his side. Math.

In the tournament, 64 teams play a total of 63 games (if you exclude those four play-in games, which I do). Therefore, there are 2^63 possible outcomes, and the odds of picking a perfect bracket are 1 in 2^63, or approximately 1 in 9,223,372,036,854,775,808. Approximately.

If everyone in the US (~315 million) fills out a bracket this year, and for the next 100 years, the odds of a perfect bracket are 0.00000034152368%.

If everyone on earth (~7 billion people) filled out a bracket every minute for the next 100 years, there is about a 4% chance of a perfect bracket.

If everyone who has ever lived (~100 billion people) filled out a bracket every minute for 100 years, then, well, yes, odds are that someone would fill out a perfect bracket. But that’s a lot of people. And a lot of time.

These odds don’t take into account that not all games are equally weighted – a 16 seed doesn’t have a 50% chance of beating a 1 seed. But the point stands – it is incredibly difficult, nearly impossible, for a human to choose a perfect bracket. No one has ever done it.

NONETHELESS, I am confident that my bracket this year is perfect, though if you want any analysis you’ve come to the wrong place.

Here it is:

2014_Bracket

Down goes Syracuse

Well, I love a good surprise. Sports are full of them. When Kirk Gibson hit his game-winning home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, Vin Scully said his now famous line: In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened! The US beat Russia in the 1980 Olympics and Al Michaels exclaimed: Do you believe in miracles? Yes! I wasn’t alive for those, but I’ve witnessed my fair share of surprises. Rivera blew the save in Game 7. Tyree caught the pass. Luis Castillo dropped the ball. And then, yesterday, BC beat Syracuse.

Last night was different. There are surprises, and then there are SURPRISES. This was a Surprise, with a capital S. It was a miracle. It was impossible.  Do you know the last time a college basketball team below .500 beat the #1 team on the road? It was 1955. Eisenhower was President. This BC team lost to Toledo, lost to Providence, lost to Harvard, they had lost nineteen times and won six. They have one of the worst defenses in the entire country. Syracuse has beaten everyone, even in the now-stacked ACC. 25 wins, 0 losses. They are bigger, more talented, more experienced, they have future NBA stars, a Hall-of-Fame coach, and last night they even had their fans behind them. And for most of the game we were losing. Then we came back. We hit threes, we hit free throws, we forced overtime. There is no logical explanation for why we won. But we did.

This game was for Dick Kelley. He was the longtime basketball media contact and sports information assistant. I never met him, but he had a huge influence on BC sports, and everyone who knew the man respected and admired him. He had been battling ALS for two years and died last week. The team was wearing a DK patch.  After the game, Ryan Anderson gave an emotional interview. “We can’t be denied. DK is looking down on us. He’s got us.” Everyone said the same thing: Dick Kelley was smiling from wherever he was.

Last year we almost beat Duke at home, and I remember having a similar feeling of excitement and disbelief as BC took the lead in the final minutes. There was some emotion, too. I never told anyone this, but I wanted that win to be for my grandfather. He had died two nights earlier. I thought maybe a win would be a sign, because there was no other logical explanation. And, sure, maybe that’s an irrational thought, but sometimes you try to apply meaning to things, you look for signs even if there aren’t any. We didn’t win, and I wrote about that at the time, but that was OK. Because even if we didn’t win, it was an exciting few hours, and that’s all you can ask for when you go to a game.

If BC played Syracuse 100 more times, they’d probably win 99 of those. But every now and then, even with a 1% chance of victory, the underdog comes out on top. The 1% was last night. Sports can be predictable, outcomes can be expected, but surprises happen. It’s always good to be reminded of that.

SAGG

It was the philosopher E.F. Schumacher who wrote that what separates man from animals is our self-awareness. We are not only able to think, but we are aware of our thinking. It is this power that makes us human and also capable of transcending our humanity.

And then there’s the sports equivalent: the SAGG.

As a sports fan, the SAGG is about the best thing you could ask for. SAGG stands “self-aware great game,” or a game that is so great that you know it’s great when you’re watching it. It doesn’t matter how it ends, it doesn’t matter who wins, because the game itself is already an epic. Sometimes, during a SAGG, you can see the gravitas of the moment rub off on the players. They start to realize that, yeah, this is not an ordinary game. The game has transcended itself.

Joe Posnanski coined the term SAGG back in 2010. I can’t find the exact post, but I believe he created it after the Kansas State-Xavier Sweet 16 game, a game I’ve written about before. He wrote that sometimes games get to be so good that you just find yourself inside. And this, I think, is why we watch sports, to have moments like this where you know – where everyone knows – that the thing you are watching is a great thing. I suppose that’s true for entertainment in general.

A SAGG is a rare event – they maybe happen a handful of times per year. I think back to some over the years – the Twins/Tigers tiebreaker in 2009, the Giants/Packers 2007 NFC Championship, the Isner/Mahut Wimbledon match, the Derek Jeter dives-into-the-stands game, these are all games that created some amazing storylines and evolved into something that was unforgettable. And we knew it when we watched.

Here is something I’ve noticed – four recent college basketball SAGG’s all had an almost identical call from Dan Shulman and Dick Vitale. It’s happened once per year, and it’s funny because I only watch a handful of regular season college basketball games each year, but one more time I witnessed a SAGG with that same call again.

This is the Kentucky/Indiana finish from 2011, which ended Kentucky’s undefeated season.

And then in 2012, Austin Rivers hit this shot to beat UNC:

And then in 2013, Butler beat Gonzaga on this crazy finish (the 1-minute mark):

And now we’re in 2014, and on Saturday night Duke hit this shot to send the game to overtime against Syracuse:

Each time, Dan Shulman screams Yes! or Ohhh! and Dick Vitale says I can’t believe it! or Unbelievable! with that same cadence. Four. Straight. Years. This is what SAGG’s are made of.

**

Anyway, the entire country was treated to the opposite of a SAGG, the anti-SAGG, on Sunday, when the Seahawks destroyed the Broncos in the Superbowl.

Here’s one quick thought that I would like to share. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Seahawks. In 2005, I picked them to go to the Superbowl, and everyone told me it was an awful pick. And then Shaun Alexander went on to have one of the greatest seasons ever for a running back. The Seahawks coasted into the Superbowl as the #1 seed in the NFC, but of course by that time no one remembered that I had picked them in September.

Well, that Superbowl didn’t end well for them, but here’s my most vivid memory from that game: as the PA guy introduced the Seahawks, and the players ran onto the field, a song started playing. I didn’t know what song it was, but I thought it had one of the coolest intros ever. For months I tried searching for it. Remember, this was back in 2005, so there was no Shazam, there was no Twitter, so I had to dig to find that song. And it took me awhile, but I finally found it. It was The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony.

So last night I was curious to see if the Seahawks would run out to that same song, almost a decade later. They did.

My 2013 NCAA bracket

Screen Shot 2013-03-19 at 4.08.52 PM

March Madness is upon us. As always, these picks come with the caveat that I have no idea what I’m doing. The odds of picking a perfect bracket are 1 in 9,223,372,036,854,775,808.*

*500,000 times larger than our national debt.

Nevertheless, I will attempt to justify some of my selections:

– A 12 always beats a 5. This year I like Oregon (the Pac 12 champion) and Cal to advance to the Round of 32.

– My biggest upset is #13 South Dakota State over #4 Michigan in the first round*. Michigan started the season 20-1 and was ranked #1 a few months ago, but they have lost 6 of their last 12 games. Also, I correctly picked a Michigan upset last year, so I thought I would do it again.

*The NCAA now refers to the four play-in games as the ‘first round’ and the Round of 64 as the ‘second round.’ So technically this is the second round. Even though it shouldn’t be.

– I also have Montana beating Syracuse. Why? I don’t know.

– Other first round upsets: St. Mary’s over Memphis, Belmont over Arizona, Iowa State over Notre Dame, Cincinnati over Creighton, Oklahoma over San Diego State, and Minnesota over UCLA.

– A handful of 1’s and 2’s lose in the Round of 32 each year. I don’t see Gonzaga, Kansas, or Georgetown reaching the Sweet 16.

– There’s still something magical about Butler. I have them in the Elite 8.

– Duke has only lost once with Ryan Kelly (to Maryland, last week). I think they’re the best team in the Mid-West Region and have them in the Final 4.

– Ohio State won the toughest conference in college basketball this year, and they are better than Gonzaga. I think they’ll be in the Final 4.

– That said, I have another Big 10 school winning it all: Indiana. I have always had a soft spot for the Hoosiers. I think this is their year.

The next few days are some of my favorite of the year. 10+ hours of college basketball each day that will inevitably feature buzzer beaters, upsets, and crazy finishes. Maybe one of them will top my favorite game of all time.

Heartbreak

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Last night was one of the most exhilarating and heart-wrenching experiences I have ever had as a sports fan.

Duke, ranked fourth in the country, came to Chestnut Hill to battle BC in a game that Duke should have easily won. I was able to score a last-second ticket, but I wasn’t expecting much out of the game. It’s been a tough year for BC basketball. During warmups you could see how much more disciplined, refined, and talented Duke’s players were.

But, you know what? This is why they play the game, and this is why college basketball is awesome – it is a sport where upsets do happen. If Duke had lost, all of the top 5 teams would have gone down in the last week.

BC took an early lead before Duke did what it always does – score a lot of points in a short period of time. We were tied 27-27 at the half and then, somehow, BC started pulling ahead into the second half. With two minutes left, we were up by five. With 90 seconds left, we were up by four. With a minute left, we were up by two. Was this really happening?

The student section began making their way to the lower court – yes, if we won, we were storming the court. A lot of people have theories for when fans should storm the court. But, I think, if you are an unranked, sub-.500 team that beats a top 5 team in your conference then yes, it absolutely merits court storming. Finally, after four long years of BC sports, we – the seniors – were going to have a defining moment.

And then Duke hit a big shot and made a free-throw to go up by one. We still had a chance – down one with 25 seconds to go. We drove down the court, had an open shot, and it missed. The game clock expired. Final score: Duke 62, BC 61. Heartbreak. This one really hurt. The students, I think, felt betrayed.

Maybe it’s been the fact that BC sports have been a disappointment in football and basketball. I mean, I’ve had fun at games. There have been some good times. But, remember, this was a school that was ranked #2 in football in 2007, that beat UNC and Duke in basketball in 2009, that went to a bowl game in twelve straight years, that reached the Round of 32 every year from 2004 through 2007 (including a 20-0 start in 2004 and a Sweet Sixteen appearance in 2006). In my four years, we have had no bowl wins and no NCAA tournament appearances. We haven’t been ranked in either sport, and we haven’t beaten a ranked opponent.

I don’t want to say that my graduating class got jipped – but it was certainly a disappointing four years compared to what BC students are used to seeing. Hockey, of course, is an entirely different story. Two national championships, four Beanpots (we clinched our fourth tonight), all under the winningest coach in college hockey history. But I’ve never been into hockey the way that I am with football and basketball.

Again, I don’t want to come across as vain here. Or envious. I’m not, and I recognize that a lot of people won’t ever get the chance to attend a school with strong D-1 sports programs. And, overall, I have been insanely spoiled as a sports fan between the Yankees and Giants.

But, for one night, we had a chance to make national news – and to experience something that none of us would ever forget. In some alternate universe, I’m writing about that. Instead, we came up short. One point short.

Indiana, Kentucky, and the best game I’ve ever seen

I set aside a few hours on Saturday to watch the Indiana/Kentucky sweet 16 game. It was the first game I’ve watched in this year’s tournament, and I was expecting a close, hard-fought game.

And for the most part, it was. Indiana took the lead late in the first half, and it looked like they might actually take down mighty Kentucky (after all, Indiana beat them a few months ago in what was probably the best game of the year).

But you probably know how this ends – Kentucky pulled ahead in the second half and won by twelve. There were no upsets this weekend, though Ohio did take UNC to overtime.

This weekend marks the two year anniversary of what is probably the greatest college basketball game I’ve ever seen. It featured Kansas State and Xavier, two schools vying for a spot in the Elite 8. I was a freshman sitting in an overcrowded room at the time, and I can still remember how exciting, thrilling, dramatic, and heart-pounding the game was. The highlights are below, and they still give me chills (the best part comes at 1:30):

My bracket

March Madness is probably my favorite time of the sports year – exciting games, big upsets, and great finishes. It was excruciatingly difficult not watching the first sixteen games on Thursday, but I was following along on ESPN.com to see how my teams were doing.

In short, it was not a good first day for my bracket. Only 11 out of 16 picks were right. On the bright side – my final four is the same as President Obama’s.

I wish I could give a detailed explanation of my picks, but truthfully, I went on gut rather than any stats or predictions out there. I did not watch many games this year. For the most part, I made pretty conservative picks – though I do have Michigan State losing in the round of 32 and Ohio beating Michigan in the first round.

Lots of games are still left, so hopefully my bracket can rebound in the coming weeks.