Today, the Sweet 16 officially kicks off. It's taken just about this much time for my mind and body to recover from this past weekend-plus in Pittsburgh, taking in my third annual trip to the NCAA Tournament. Despite the three rivers converging on the other side of my home state, this time I did not go swimming.
It began a week ago today, bright and early. My friend came and picked Josh and I up at my house at 5:30 a.m. and we headed west. On the way, we picked up two more friends of ours, one right outside Philadelphia, the other more than halfway across the state.
For those of you who watch "Last Week Tonight" with John Oliver, we actually drove right under the collapsing bridge that has a bridge under it to catch the debris.
Thankfully, nothing fell on us, and it was a smooth ride, taking us well less than anticipated to pull in to the Steel City. Once we got there, we dropped our car off at the hotel across from PNC Park, but since our rooms weren't quite ready yet and our day was beginning with the first game of what is now called the second round, we headed across the bridge toward the Consol Energy Center.
On the way, we stopped a little dive bar called Mahoney's. This was the type of place where the owner clearly enjoys his product, and quickly we were treated to some Pittsburgh hospitality. An older gentleman named Mark began to talk our ears off as we enjoyed a beer, and before long he bought us all a round of drinks. Then he asked us if we've ever had a scotch he jokingly called "lap frog." He was referring to Laphraig, and none of us were familiar. So Mark said, "I'm gonna go get a bottle, and I'll be right back."
We thought he was full of it. The owner, who was now behind the bar, knew he wasn't. The second Mark left the bar, he set up shot glasses for us all and let us know that Mark was indeed coming back with a bottle of scotch.
Sure enough, minutes later, Mark returned, bottle in hand, and the shots were poured. We sipped them until they were gone, welcomed to Pittsburgh in quite a pleasant way.
After our drinks, we headed out to take in the 12:15 tipoff between Notre Dame and Northeastern. With a nice buzz — and no booze inside (thanks, NCAA) — we took our seats in the lower level behind the baseline. Expecting a blowout, we were treated to a great game to kick off the field of 64.
Not remotely scared, the 14-seed Huskies went toe to toe with the 3-seed Irish, led by Scott Eatherton, who gave Notre Dame fits. It was especially nice to see the alleged Notre Dame fans sitting directly in front of us squirm. I say alleged because while the kids wore Irish gear, the grown men they were with all donned Carolina blue — this despite the fact the Tar Heels were nowhere near Pittsburgh. And they donned the same gear, pretty much, throughout the entire weekend. It was a bit odd, but I digress.
Several times in the second half, the Irish stretched the game to a double-digit lead, threatening to pull away, but the Huskies never quit. They fought all the way back, and with 32 seconds left, Northeastern cut the ND lead to two. But Zach Auguste, who dominated with 25 points on 10-14 from the field, hit two late freebies to give the Irish the 69-65 victory.
After that exciting opener, we headed up to the concourse just in time to see UAB edge out Iowa State and bust plenty of brackets. It was sweet.
Then it was time for Butler-Texas.
As yet another close contest was going on in front of our eyes, we heard portions of the arena roar. Why? They were watching the darlings of the tournament, the Georgia State Panthers, another 14 seed, give the 3-seed Baylor Bears the second big upset of the day. It was capped by coach Ron Hunter's own son hitting the game-winner and Hunter, who injured himself celebrating when GA St. made it to the tournament, falling out of his chair in joy. It was awesome, every bit of it.
As for the Texas-Butler contest, it was basically Kellen Dunham vs. Isaiah Taylor and Jonathan Holmes … and it turns out Butler's sharpshooter won out. It was hardly an upset, given the Bulldogs were the better seed and the Longhorns were trashed by many for their inclusion, but it was fun to witness nonetheless. No matter what the rankings, Butler is still David and Texas Goliath, and no one wants to see the giant win. No one outside of Austin, anyway. Needless to say, Butler's 56-48 victory was more than OK by me.
That was the end of the first set of games, but it was hardly the end of the excitement. UCLA topped SMU in one of the most painful ways possible, a goaltend on a three-point shot that was not going to be close to going in.
It made me sick to my stomach for senior SMU center Yanick Moreira, who was called for the game-losing goaltend — and for my bracket, as I had Larry Brown's squad in the Elite Eight. Hey, at least I didn't hop on the Iowa State train.
As we exited the arena, we met up with the sixth person in our crew, bought some beers at a pizza shop and drank outside. Then we headed back in to watch Villanova absolutely annihilate Lafayette.
After two close contests, we were hardly sad to see the Wildcats, the one team we were really rooting for, cruise to victory. The only gripe I had was that Jay Wright should have let his bench players and walk-ons play a little longer, getting them in the game at five- or six-minute mark, just to give them the thrill of playing, though he did get them in at the under three mark. Other than that, there was nothing to complain about. Not only did Nova look like a 1-seed, the Cats looked like the best team in the entire tournament Thursday.
Honestly, despite it being a lot of fun to see Nova take care of business, we would have been better off watching pretty much any of the other games. Cincy topped Purdue by a point, North Carolina barely escaped Harvard, 67-65, and Utah got a scare from Stephen F. Austin. Meanwhile we were watching a 41-point blowout. Still, what a freakin start to the tournament.
Thankfully, LSU-NC State would make it three out of four really good games.
Truth be told, however, it didn't look like it'd be all that close. The LSU Tigers were rolling, led by Jarell Martin and Tim Quarterman. And defensively, the Tigers were stifling just about every NC St. player outside of the blur that is Anthony Barber.
LSU built a large lead, but then the wheels began to fall off. A 14-point lead turned into a nine-point lead, then all the way down to a four-point lead with under six minutes to go. After going up 65-60 with less than four minutes to play, LSU completely self-destructed. In the final 3:59, LSU did not score a single point. The Tigers missed six straight free throws, including four by Jordan Mickey, which is beyond terrible, however that's not even the worst of it. In the final 10:25, LSU did not hit a single shot from the field. Not one. That means the Tigers did not make a field goal in the final quarter of the game. Unreal.
In that span, the Tigers missed 12 straight shots, most of them layups. Add in the disgusting display from the line, and it was a bloodbath.
That left the door open for NC State's BeeJay Anya, a guy one our crew kept calling fat and lazy. Fat and lazy or not, Anya tipped in a missed shot to pull NC State within a point, and then of course Anya hit the rim-bouncing game-winner with four seconds left to send the Wolfpack to the round of 32.
On the way up the steps, we heard a father tell his son, "It's all about layups and free throws." At least free throws, but my friend Pete talked about how his dad also always used to say that basketball was all about layups and free throws.
From there, we stopped for drinks but were worn out. So it was off to bed to prep for Friday.
As it turned out, Friday also happened to be my 31st birthday, and it would be one to remember. Actually, scratch that — it was one I forgot.
I'd like to say I focused on the games Friday, but I'd be lying. Mostly, we went on a food tour and drank our faces off, while also keeping an eye on the game. We began at Proper, where I downed some whiskey drinks, ate delicious candied bacon and had some awesome pizza. We were gorging ourselves. And drinking ourselves stupid.
We did make it a point to watch the Buffalo-West Virginia and Maryland-Valparaiso games, since one of our crew is a Terp himself and married to a Buffalo graduate. However, during the Maryland game, already more than a few deep, I was forced to take a double or triple shot of tequila … and that's pretty much the last thing I remember on the night.
I was told we went to a restaurant where we cooked our own food on hot stones and I was so drunk that I kept pouring water into everyone's wine. I also somewhat recall attempting to enter a gentlemen's club, but not actually doing so. And I do remember being refused service and even a glass of water at a bar before either getting kicked out or taking myself out — though I recall, which was confirmed, that I was not belligerent or causing a scene, simply very drunk. Still, I found it a bit absurd that I couldn't even get a glass of water. But whatever. I apparently departed, woke up in my hotel room to the rest of the crew returning — minus one — with 15 missed calls, wads of cash and ATM receipts from more than one ATM in my pockets. I have no idea what I did or what I planned on doing, but good news is I got back safe and sound. Oh, and so did Josh, who somehow got lost despite our hotel being right across the bridge and right across from PNC Park.
That left Saturday as a struggle. A big struggle. All of us woke up feeling like a ton of bricks had hit us, and I was trying to put the pieces back together from my wild night. Most of us did manage to head down the street to Mullen's to get some food and bloody mary relief, though we were running on fumes.
For some, those fumes ran strong. At Mullen's, behind us were two Jaegermeister reps from Canada, both of whom were downing shots. We began to strike up a conversation with them, and they offered us all shots. Only two accepted — with myself and Josh declining. They were very cordial guys, and we got into lots of talks about how messed up a lot of things are in the U.S. Fun times.
But before long, Josh tapped out to nap and regain his composure, and shortly after I had to do the same. We were focused on Nova-NC State and being in the right state by then.
After a nap, we headed back to Mullen's to meet up with the brave souls who drank and drank hard yet again, and then we were on our way.
Maybe we should have just stayed at the bar, because as good as the Wildcats looked Thursday, they looked equally awful Saturday night.
Nova put forth the worst shooting performance I can remember in forever, shooting a paltry 29 percent in the first half and just 31 percent for the game. Daniel Ochefu played the worst game he's played in two years, looking like he had never picked up a basketball before in his entire life. Ryan Arcidiacono, the co-Big East Player of the Year, was atrocious, and Dylan Ennis looked like he had never shot a jumper ever. The three combined to go 5-27 from the field. 5-27. Throw in Kris Jenkins' 0-3, JayVaughn Pinkson's 2-5 and Josh Hart's 1-4, and you have yourself the most pathetic shooting you could imagine.
Only Darrun Hillard, arguably Nova's true best player this season, and Phil Booth did anything, with Hillard especially going off in the second half.
The crazy thing is, despite all of that, Nova still had a chance. That's because the Wolfpack wasn't exactly playing a great game either, and when Hillard began to singlehandedly put the ball in the hoop for the Wildcats and hit a three to make the score 67-65 NC State with 41 seconds left to play, the mostly pro-Nova crowd was going nuts. When the Wolfpack threw away the ensuing inbound possession, it seemed like the 1-seed Cats might somehow dodge the horrific shooting bullet and win the game. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be, and once again a top-seeded Villanova squad failed to reach the Sweet 16 under Jay Wright. Outside of the Scottie Reynolds-led squad that went to the Final Four, the Wildcats have made it a habit of choking come March.
I'm normally pretty hard on Wright myself, but really, in this game, it's hard to blame the head coach. He wasn't the one throwing up brick after brick out there or playing weak inside, allowing Abdul-Malik Abu to eat the Cats alive inside, and he wasn't the one being caught flat-footed, allowing Barber and the Wolfpack guards to penetrate at will. The only miscues from Wright himself in the game, in my mind, were not playing Booth enough, the one guy outside of Hillard who was making things happen, and for not being able to actually draw up a play to get Hillard free late when everyone in the building knew he was getting the ball. Instead he just let him take it up top and try to create himself, which did not work.
Nevertheless, it was a deflating loss, one that drove one now infamous piccolo player to tears.
After all the drinking and basketball over the past three days, we were drained. Shortly into the battle of Indiana between Notre Dame and Butler, we lost two of our crew to the TGI Friday's below the Consol Energy Center. Then we lost two more.
And at halftime, we had to join our brethren.
When we got down there, who do we see but the piccolo player herself, talking to our friends sitting at the bar, with her father next to her. She was very gracious and taking it well … and then she popped up on TV, crying her eyes out. She was embarrassed and alarmed at first, but then she took it in stride, explained she was a senior and it was her last game, and then let us know she had an interview with NBC Sports the next day. Her name is Roxanne, as we all know now, and she was pretty damn cool in the brief time I saw her. And of course, she has had quite the week since.
That was about all the capper we needed to the trip. We did stop back at Mullen's to catch the end of the ND-Butler game we had left, and of course it was a great contest that saw Butler have a chance to win in regulation before Pat Connaughton pulled off one of the greatest blocked shots in NCAA Tournament history. After the final overtime buzzer sounded and Notre Dame escaped an upset, we had nothing left.
We went home and went to sleep, then woke up, watched Temple dominate George Washington in the NIT, a 1 seed from Philadelphia that did not choke.
Then we were on way back east, hurting, especially our driver, trying to recover on the long road back to Philadelphia.
I had managed to go the whole trip without getting sick and returned feeling relatively good. Then I ordered Chinese food, safe and sound in my own home, but a few hours later found myself puking for the next five hours due to food poisoning. Wonderful. But hey, better that than the NCAA Tournament almost killing me.
Best band: NC State. All the bands were pretty good, especially LSU and NC State, but the Wolfpack brought the best when it came to the Game of Thrones theme, which just about every band played. Props to the Butler band for having two old dudes among its ranks.
Best cheerleaders: LSU, hands down, with Texas as runners-up. NC St.'s cheerleaders had a large male contingency and they circled the court twice during warmups, right through the LSU warmup. That was ballsy. Lafayette had a total of four cheerleaders, the smallest contingent, and one was in a brace or cast of some sort. That was something.
Just like the tournament. All in all, it was a fun time in Pittsburgh. At least the parts I remember. Enjoy the games tonight, and I hope all your brackets get as screwed as mine.
Reverend Paul Revere, aka Joe Boland, is a sports blogger out of Philadelphia whose life revolves around sports 365 and a quarter days per year. Keep up with Rev at his own personal blog, The House That Glanville Built and on Twitter.