Fun of March: Teams carry different perspectives into tourney
RALEIGH, N.C. — Walking into every locker room in PNC Arena during Thursday’s media availability, they all had one thing in common: every available television was tuned into the NCAA Tournament, and every player not holding court with a member of the media was glued to the screen.
As Wisconsin and American were in a back-and-forth game on a television directly in his sight line, Duke graduate student Andre Dawkins said that while most players don’t fill out a bracket like the rest of the nation, they’re still watching. And there’s nothing quite like the Round of 64, as was proven on Thursday with four overtime games and three others decided by five points or fewer.
"It’s fun to watch the other games and see what the other teams are doing just because every year there’s so much crazy stuff going on," Dawkins said. "Especially the first few days, you’re just flipping back and forth, close game here, close game there, game-winning shots, stuff like that. It’s fun to watch but at the same time, you’ve got to make sure you focus on what you’re trying to do, which is trying to advance."
For Duke sophomore transfer Rodney Hood, he’s been watching since he was a boy. He grew up a Duke fan in Mississippi, and he still remembers the 2001 national title game: Gilbert Arenas vs. Jay Williams, Loren Woods vs. Carlos Boozer. He was watching March Madness even before he turned 10 years old. Just like seemingly everyone else around the country.
"Every year, everybody’s glued into the March Madness. It’s a big-time atmosphere," Hood said. "You want to be in it, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m (at Duke) is to be in this situation."
But for teams like Duke — a No. 3 seed, a team that makes the NCAA Tournament every year — it’s as much about business as it is about fun.
"I mean, I don’t think so. I don’t think so," Duke point guard Quinn Cook said when asked if Duke enjoys the experience as much as teams that are just happy to be there. "You’re just so worried about just one game at a time. Some people get too hyped up in a potential matchup in each region and stuff like that, but you’ve got to take it one game at a time."
No. 1 seed Virginia is expected to win, too. However, it’s the Cavaliers first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2012 and first No. 1 seed since 1983, and many of their players on the roster have never been on this stage before. So it’s certainly a balancing act for the Cavaliers between understanding they’re there to do a job and living in the moment.
"I’m just trying to not blow it out of proportion," freshman point guard London Perrantes said. "I know this is a huge thing for everybody to make it to the tournament, but we just want to go out there and play our game and try not to get too excited, which is pretty hard. But we know that we’ve got to keep our cool, play our game and we’ll be fine."
Yes, once Virginia got the No. 1 seed, the Cavaliers were excited. But the feeling didn’t last long, according to sophomore Justin Anderson, and the hunger just kept building. As did the reality that if they lose, this — the No. 1 seed, their successful season to date — will be an accomplishment, but not the accomplishment.
"When you’re growing up, you’re like, ‘Wow, if I’m a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, I’ll be so excited. I’ll do whatever it takes to get there.’ Now that we’re there, it’s like, ‘All right, we’ve still got to go play ballgames’," Anderson said. "The championship trophy is not going to be given to us. We’re not just going to fly out to Dallas and just play in the Final Four."
Memphis and Tennessee are two more programs used to making the NCAA Tournament, but Tennessee hadn’t been since 2011 and Memphis is a freshman-laden group that is filled with first-timers.
The Volunteers won their First Four game in Dayton and immediately hopped a flight to Raleigh, getting about four hours of sleep on Wednesday night. But they’ve gotten a taste of the NCAA Tournament experience and it just makes them want more.
Sophomore Derek Reese was running on fumes, but he said the NCAA Tournament is everything he thought it would be and more.
"I’m just trying to take everything in because it’s my first time, my first experience. Everything is different and new to me, so I’m just loving it right now," Reese said. "Just to experience it, I couldn’t wait to actually play in the tournament and feel that experience."
Memphis transfer Antonio Barton is the only player on Tennessee’s roster with tourney experience, and he’s been sort of like the guru everyone else has turned to for advice.
"I’m just telling them expect everyone’s best. Nobody wants to go home. Every team is going to come out and be give it their all," Barton said. "So you’ve got to take punches and be able to give them at the same time."
Back in his former team’s locker room, there was a sense of newness combined with expectation. Memphis has been in the NCAA Tournament in eight of the past nine seasons, but considering how many freshmen are on the roster, it’s hardly old hat.
Freshman Nick King noticed the difference right away.
"It does feel different, just because it’s the NCAA Tournament. It’s a different vibe. You see things that you never saw before and done things that you never done before," King said. "Practicing at the North Carolina gym. I’d never been there before. That was a great experience."
As a native of Memphis, though, he knows what the NCAA Tournament means to the basketball-crazed locals.
March Madness is practically a holiday.
"University of Memphis, Derrick Rose (in 2008)," King said. "I watched every single game. They even closed school for us to watch those games. During class when the game came on, everybody was watching the game. We just sat there and watched the game."
Then, of course, there are the teams that — as they say — are just happy to be there.
It’s not that these teams don’t want to win. In fact, playing with the hunger to win combined with the freedom of a relative lack of expectations can be an advantage to an underdog. But the players on these teams have a special level of appreciation for the experience.
"I want them to enjoy the moment," 16-seed Coastal Carolina coach Cliff Ellis said. "At the same point in time, you have a chance to do something nobody else has done. Nobody has done. And somebody’s going to do it. So let’s make a point of doing something we can to be the ones that do it. Is it a difficult task? Yes. Is it impossible? No."
George Washington’s Keaton Savage, who returned from a fractured foot in the CAA Tournament but is doubtful to play against Memphis tomorrow by his own admission, is still savoring his first NCAA Tournament.
"This is a first-time experience to me, so I’m just soaking it all in. It’s a great experience for us as a team," Savage said. "When we first came to the hotel, they had our fight song playing and the whole hotel staff down there clapping for us. That was pretty cool. Just traveling, being on the road with the guys is always fun, playing in different arenas, NCAA logo everywhere. So it’s fun."
George Washington certainly gets attention locally in the Washington, D.C. area, but it’s spread out amongst a plethora of area teams.
Argentinian Patricio Garino, gregarious by nature, was certainly enjoying it.
"I like the media a lot," he said with a grin. "I like to talk. I love to talk."
Before he came to the U.S. to go to high school, he had no real idea what the NCAA Tournament was. He said NBA games would run in his native country, but certainly not the NCAA Tournament. "He learned quickly, though.
His home country is learning, too, as he said the Final Four aired there for the first time just 2-3 years ago.
"Thinking about the past and knowing that I’m here right now, it’s something weird but I’m enjoying it. It’s something different," Garino said. "I’ve never felt like this before. Maybe playing for the national team, it was a little similar, but not at all like this. Huge venues, a lot of people around all the time — it’s something incredible."
Massachusetts hasn’t been in the NCAA Tournament since 1998. The program has been building back up to this point for awhile now, and the moment when the Minutemen heard their name was as special as senior Sampson Carter imagined.
"It was everything I thought it would be," Carter said, "but it really wasn’t easy. It took a lot of hard work. We fought some adversity through the season. We started off real well, then we took a couple punches and we had to get back up. It took a lot of hard work, but it’s worth it."
There weren’t a ton of reporters in Massachusetts’ locker room, but even as a nearby television showed the end of a tight game, barely any of them looked at it.
They just kept looking around — at each other, at the walls, at the ceiling — at everything.
"It’s a big-time feeling, maybe because we grew up watching this Tournament all through our life," Carter said. "Now that we’re finally here, there’s a little butterflies. I’m just excited and I can’t wait to get on the court and show what I can do."