Intriguing stories behind the action in NCAAs
The start of the NCAA tournament is arguably the best week on the sports calendar, filled with great teams, exciting games, star players and, usually, plenty of upsets.
Mixed in with all the action are some interesting subplots, lots of little side stories within the bigger picture of who wins and loses – like a Big East reunion, a player who became close friends with a cancer-stricken girl and some Omaha love.
We’ve got a few of them here, dressed up in our handy little Pick Six format:
BIGGEST LITTLE FAN: Michigan State’s Adreian Payne had a big little fan on his side: ”Princess Lacey.” Payne met the 8-year-old two years ago while she was in the hospital for a cancer treatment and struck up an immediate bond with one of his biggest fans. Lacey has neuroblastoma, a fetal-nerve cell cancer and wears a blond wig because chemotherapy caused her to lose her hair. She’s been a huge supporter of Payne’s and he’s reciprocated by becoming a close friend, visiting her at the hospital and inviting her to games. Payne carried her around the court on Senior Night at Michigan State and last week she got to help the Spartans cut down the nets after they won the Big Ten tournament and she received a championship hat with the rest of the team. Hard to find a better feel-good story than that.
LONGHORN-SUN DEVILS CONNECTIONS: The second-round Midwest Regional game between Texas and Arizona State has jokingly been called the Patterson Game. That’s because Steve Patterson left Arizona State in November to become the new athletic director in Austin. Have to figure it’s going to be a little strange for him seeing his new school play his old one. On top of that, Texas coach Rick Barnes and Arizona State coach Herb Sendek are close friends, creating an interesting cross-court dynamic. They met in 1978 and worked together for a year when Sendek served as an assistant under Barnes at Providence. They’ve remained close ever since.
OMAHA!: We’re not there yet because both teams have to win their opening games, but if Creighton and Nebraska do get through to the third round, the city of Omaha could become the center of the hoops world for about 48 hours. Doug McDermott has made the Bluejays popular even outside of Nebraska and will be playing in the NCAA tournament for the final time, so there’s excitement there. Nebraska has drummed up interest for something other than the football team by reaching the tournament for the first time since 1998. If Creighton beats Louisiana-Lafayette and Nebraska gets past Baylor, they’ll meet Sunday in San Antonio. Omaha!
MCCAFFERY’S SON: Iowa coach Fran McCaffery had more than Tennessee on his mind heading into the Hawkeye’s First Four game against Tennessee on Wednesday night. McCaffrey has had a rough week, flying to Dayton to prepare for the game, then heading back to Iowa City to be with his family while his son had a thyroid tumor removed. The procedure for Patrick, who turns 14 on Thursday, went well on Wednesday morning and McCaffery rejoined his team for the game. Patrick will undergo more tests to determine further treatment options.
LONG WAIT: Mercer forward Jakob Gollon will play in the NCAA tournament for the first time after six years of what may be the most unique route to March Madness. He played two games as a freshman because of foot problems and nine the next season because of lingering foot issues and a new injury to his right knee that threatened to end his career. Gollon has played in Mercer’s last 141 games after having his eligibility in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons restored, and now enters the NCAA tournament for the first time after earning undergraduate and Master’s degrees. Mercer faces Duke in Raleigh, N.C. on Friday in the Midwest Regional.
BIG EAST REUNION: The NCAA selection committee got creative when it set up the East Regional pod of games in Buffalo, N.Y., creating a reunion of sorts with former Big East powers. Among the eight teams in that pod, which includes games in the East and South Regionals, are Villanova, Syracuse and UConn. They were once part of the hierarchy of the Big East, but split up during the recent conference realignment. Villanova is the only team left out of those big three after Syracuse left for the ACC and UConn headed to the American Athletic Conference. Syracuse plays the second game of the South Regional on Thursday in Buffalo then UConn faces Saint Joseph’s and Villanova opens with Milwaukee in the East.