Diary of March Mad Man: 10 Hours and a Rocky Shock
I'm not sick at all, just so tense from a tight basketball game that I don't think I can watch any longer. The first time in my life as a fan that I've ever contemplated covering my eyes in the crowd. Being in a tie ballgame 11 seconds away from the Final Four has done this to me, turned me from an otherwise sane person into a raving lunatic. The latest victim of a common plague that cliche has stripped of its verbal power, in the grip of March Madness. Consider the two words, March and madness, their alliterative power is just a testament to the universality of their symptoms. Right now, at this exact moment, I know exactly what millions of fans before me have felt.
An unexpected jewel hangs tantalizingly close, the Final Four.
And I'm in such a state of frenzy, so incapable of anything other than laser-like focus on the court, that I feel sick to my stomach.
On the court, both teams gather in respective huddles, the players mopping their brows with towels and nervously shifting their weight from one sneaker-clad foot to the other. Then, the buzzer sounds and the players retake the court. We're tied at 69 and Tennessee basketball's own sweet prince, Scotty Hopson, stands at the free-throw line taking deep breaths, the ball resting near his waist. Hopson, the Vols' own Hamlet, a mercurial wunderkid capable of equal parts glamor and gore, twirls the basketball in his hands.
One free throw to give Tennessee the lead and send a basketball program into another week's action.
The ball sails through the air. I've traveled for over five hours for this exact moment.
How did I find myself here? One of over 25,00 fans waiting on Scotty Hopson to make someone's band play?
I'll tell you.
1. I meet three other Vol fans in a Nashville parking lot at 7:30 in the morning.
It's dark and overcast, a light rain falls in the parking lot. Chad Withrow, a fellow talking head on our Nashville sports radio station, is driving us to St. Louis. Jacob Underwood, a station intern, and Withrow have already made the drive to and from St. Louis on Friday for Tennessee's win over Ohio State.
Now Withrow's nursing a cold that, for some reason, requires him to consistently spit as if he's Doc Holliday in the final stages of tuberculosis.
"I'm feeling better today," Withrow says, spitting into a napkin.
2. Three of us have on Tennessee coaches polos, football attire for a basketball game. Withrow, considering he is covering the game, is in neutral colors.
All of us are incredibly nervous that we've committed to 10 hours in the car for a 2 1/2-hour basketball game in St. Louis. Lose, and the drive back will be miserable, like fingernails raked on the chalk board for five hours.
Or having to supply John Calipari with hair gel.
During the drive we each confess our most embarrassing moment as a Vol fan. Withrow's is the best.
At 14, upset with the Vols losing to Memphis, he walked outside and punted a basketball far in his yard.
Then he walked to the basketball, sat down on top of it it, and cried.
"I've had prouder moments," Withrow concedes.
3. All of us love Bruce Pearl more than any other man we are not related to.
I spent part of Friday night, after Tennessee's win over Ohio State, trying to quantify how much Bruce Pearl means to Tennessee' basketball fans. And I don't think there is an easy analogy in college sports, but the best I can come up with is that Bruce Pearl is to Tennessee basketball what the first five years of Steve Spurrier were to Florida football; both were men who unleashed an otherwise sleeping giant.
Just like with Florida football, there were always a ton of Tennessee basketball fans -- even in the last year of the Buzz Peterson era, the Vols finished in the top 20 in college basketball attendance -- but there was never a great deal of success on the field or the court.
In his first five seasons at Florida, Spurrier won the SEC East three times, won three SEC titles, went to the Sugar Bowl three times, winning one, and dominated the rest of the conference. In his first five seasons at Tennessee, Bruce Pearl has won the SEC East three times, won an outright league title, and won eight NCAA tournament games including two Sweet 16s and, presently, an Elite Eight.
Both men also arrived at their respective schools as unproven coaching commodities. Pearl had won in four seasons at Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Spurrier had won in three seasons at Duke, but neither had been a bona fide stud as a head coach. This wasn't North Carolina snagging Roy Williams or Alabama hiring Nick Saban, a hire that everyone knew would be successful. This was two struggling programs hoping that their new head coach would be more successful than anyone that had preceded them.
And in their first five years, they were immediately successful beyond the fan bases' wildest dreams. For a Tennessee fan, such as me, who once sat in the rafters of Rupp Arena and watched the Vols lose 100-40, well, Pearl is a godsend.
So I know it's almost impossible to explain to other fans how much Bruce Pearl means to Tennessee, but this is my attempt to put his success and standing at the program in context. Put simply, many of us, myself included, would consider jumping in front of Pearl if a crazed assassin, doubtless a Kentucky fan, threw a bottle of Maker's Mark at him.
4. Our arrival in St. Louis coincides with a 15 mile-an-hour wind and frigid temperatures.
Nestled into our courtside seats, bought from a scalper for $100 each, we watch the teams warm up and assess our surroundings.
My stomach is twisting.
More Tennessee fans, well in excess of 10,000, have made the trip to the game than have ever attended a Tennessee tournament game before.
Partly this is because Tennessee has never played in the Elite Eight before, but also partly this is because Tennessee basketball fans are true believers in everything Bruce Pearl does, a cult of orange pride. The national opinion of Pearl has always been that he has more in common with P.T. Barnum than he does with John Wooden, that he's a showman more than he's a coach. Vol fans have known that Pearl is more than a showman, that there's a massive steak behind the sizzle, but others have not.
In fact, other fans and commentators have overlooked the fact that Pearl is one of only six coaches in America to advance to four Sweet 16's or better in the past six years. (The others are Mike Krzyzewski, Tom Izzo, Roy Williams, John Calipari, and Jay Wright.)
Aside from the fact that Pearl has done it at non-traditional powers while the other men all inherited programs with track records, what else has Pearl managed that none of these other five men have?
Pearl has done it without a single player being drafted.
5. Early in the game Tennessee can't miss.
The first six shots drop as do the first six threes. But, alarmingly, Michigan State is going toe-to-toe with the Vols, answering bucket with bucket.
In fact, Michigan State has done more than that -- the Spartans rush out to a five-point lead at 21-16 with 12:49 remaining in the first half.
"Chism needs to take his headband off," former Vol center Brad Lampley says. "Once the headband comes off. you know he's serious."
6. A thesis: watching NCAA tournament basketball games is more stressful than watching college football. And college football is otherwise the most stressful major sport to watch. So by definition, college basketball is the most stressful sport to watch in America.
Why do I feel this way?
First, college football and college basketball are two of three major sports in America -- the NFL being the other -- where one game decides whether a team can be a champion. So that's why college sports are more stressful than the MLB, NBA, or the NHL, which all have multi-game series to crown their champions.
Second, only two teams actually play for the championship in college football and there is no forward thinking element to the game. In other words, if you're fortunate enough to be in that game, you know the season is over when the game ends regardless of whether you win or lose.
In college basketball, the finality is jarring. Not only will your team not win a championship, but you have to sit and watch someone else get that opportunity.
Third, college football has abundant time breaks between possessions and series. On a crucial third-down play, for instance, you have nearly a minute to process what's going to take place. In basketball the action is free-flowing, constant, and frenetic. At any moment anything can happen.
7. Just before the half, Tennessee scores to take a 41-37 lead.
I'm giddy because the Vols are 19-1 all season with halftime leads.
After a blocked shot the Spartans have 1.6 seconds left before the half.
They score on a layup to slice the lead to 41-39.
In the stands the basket leaves an ominous feeling hanging over Vol fans. "F---," says a Tennessee fan sitting near me.
I echo his expletive. A two-possession lead would have been huge.
Already there's a feeling that this game will come down to the final possession.
8. A quick interlude that has been the object of much debate: Does Tennessee advance to the Elite Eight if Tyler Smith is still a part of the team?
It's a good question and one without an easy answer. Prior to Tyler Smith's dismissal the Vols were a running, gunning, pressing team.
The best example of this? In November the Vols scored 124 points in a 75-point win over UNC-Asheville. In running up a 10-2 record with Smith, the Vols scored over 80 points five times. After Tyler Smith's dismissal, the Vols scored more than 80 three times in the remaining 25 games.
Granted conference play offered tougher opponents than the early season, but the Vols were also a noticeably weaker offensive team.
Without Smith, his senior captain, Pearl was forced to redesign his team on the fly. It's one reason why this is, perhaps, the most impressive coaching job of his career. (Pearl's first year at Tennessee offers the only competition.)
What Pearl created from an offensive juggernaut that runned-and-gunned up and down the court was the exact opposite, a half-court defensive team that had to lock down opponents because they couldn't score enough points to beat teams otherwise. Which, for anyone who watched Tennessee play the season before when the same team couldn't defend anyone, is an unbelievable accomplishment.
In fact, if anything, that's the true story of this season. Not that Smith was booted from the team for, as Verne Lundquist termed it, an "incident," but that the Vols managed to completely alter their philosophy in his absence. And become more successful in the process.
According to Ken Pomeroy's stats, this Volunteer team finished No. 11 in the nation in overall defense.
Now, and this is the critical question, could Pearl have gotten a team featuring Tyler Smith to completely buy in on the defensive side of the ball if they still were capable of offensive explosions?
We'll never know.
If he could have, this team would have been a juggernaut all season. If he couldn't, then it's likely that a Tyler Smith led Vol team doesn't make it past Ohio State.
9. Back on the court, Michigan State runs out to an eight-point lead midway through the second half.
It's part of a 14-1 run that erases a five-point Vol lead. Each basket, including a drained three off a loose ball by Korie Lucious, lands like a body blow.
Pearl takes a timeout to help stem the onslaught, but with 11:42 remaining Michigan State leads, 59-51.
10. Now the game rests in the hands of the Volunteer defense.
Can they get stops to get back into the game?
And, with Lundquist calling the game, can they get enough stops that will lead Lundquist to mention that Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince are roommates more than twice? As regular readers will note, Lundquist's roommate obsession -- think Riley Cooper and Tim Tebow -- transcends football.
If we can get to four mentions, I feel confident the Vols will be bound for the Final Four.
Now, with the help of the roommates, the Vols lock down defensively.
For nearly four minutes, Michigan State goes scoreless. During that time the Vols cut the Spartan lead to two at 59-57 with under eight minutes remaining.
11. With 6:11 to go, the Vols take the lead on a Brian Williams layup.
The entire crowd is standing, screaming, directing as much noise as is humanly possible in the direction of the court.
From here, Tom Izzo and Bruce Pearl become basketball wizards.
Pearl gesticulates frantically, his left hand behind his back, as he extends his right hand in the direction of his team. As if he is, somehow, willing energy and execution into his team, a professor of basketball instructing his students.
Meanwhile, Tom Izzo does the same, a whirlwind of emotion on the Michigan State sideline, cajoling, cursing, attempting to wring every ounce of possibility out of his team.
This is what you don't see on television, what the frame of the game on a box can't reveal, how involved both coaches are in every possession down the stretch of the game.
12. From 7:33 remaining until the end of the game, no more than a single possession will separate the teams.
This is as even as a high-stakes basketball game can be.
Any single action can determine the outcome, every movement is magnified, there is literally no margin for error.
13. Coming out of the under four-minute timeout in a tie game, Pearl designs the perfect offensive play.
Wayne Chism has a wide-open layup after an entry pass from J.P. Prince. It's a shot he hits 95 percent of the time, one he could probably make blindfolded.
With 3:12 reaming the ball rims out.
We're still tied.
14. At the other end of the court, Michigan State's Durrell Summers drains a 3-point shot to give Michigan State a 69-66 lead with 2:52 remaining.
Brian Williams responds with a rebound dunk 42 seconds later.
Now, Michigan State leads 69-68.
15. Neither team scores again until Scotty Hopson is fouled.
Which is where we began a couple of thousand words ago.
With Hopson standing at the free-throw line after sinking the first to tie the game at 69.
The second shot leaves his fingers and looks good from my seat. But it catches the rim, bounds hard to the left where a mad scramble for the rebound ensues. Michigan State point guard, Korie Lucious, starting for the injured Kalin Lucas, grabs the ball and races up the court.
I remember looking at the clock and willing it to run out, for overtime to arrive.
Instead, Raymar Morgan catches a pass near the basket.
I taste bile in my throat.
J.P. Prince leaps into the air and fouls him. Inside the dome it takes several seconds to realize what has happened, it's so loud no one can hear anything.
Morgan drains the first free throw, misses the second one on-purpose, and J.P. Prince misses a running shot from halfcourt. Suddenly, inexplicably, that's how a season dies, from full yell to silence in an instant.
70-69 Michigan State
16. Now comes the five-hour car ride home.
An hour out of town, my phone buzzes, a cell phone message from a friend, Justin Ishbia, who happens to be a Michigan State grad.
"This is Justin talking s--. Wear it," he writes.
"I hate you," I text back.
"You want me on your talk show to discuss MSU dominance," he asks.
In the car, we each pinpoint moments of victory or defeat until Chad Withrow, taking a break from the worst cold in recorded human history, points out that when you win or lose by one-point, every single play was the difference. Change anything and the college basketball world could spin on a different axis, send the Vols to Indianapolis on Saturday or home to Knoxville to stay until November.
Almost 15 hours after an early morning departure from Nashville, we return to Nashville with a loss. Ten of those hours have been spent in the car. We've stopped only three times, for Burger King, Arby's and a basketball game. The car stinks, we're crushed, tired and so deflated we're almost incapable of speech.
The only thing that makes me feel worse than the idea of losing out on a trip to the Final Four, and a shot at the national championship, by a single point?
The idea of Bruce Pearl coaching anywhere else. Because if he doesn't leave, at some point Pearl is taking the Vols to the Final Four.
But for tonight, I'm just tired.
Back home my wife, who hasn't paid any attention to the game, rolls over in bed. "From now on you should sit out big games," she says. "Your team always loses them."
"Not with Bruce Pearl," I say.
But my wife is already sleeping. Something that won't come to me for another couple of hours, after I've replayed the final three minutes a thousand times in my head.
Now my madness has subsided.
But I can't wait for it to come back.