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In March, Guards Wear the Slipper

Teams that win national championships are talented, well-coached, deep, resilient … and exceptionally lucky somewhere along the way.

Alas, no would-be champion navigates the madness of March without the aid of a rabbit’s foot stashed somewhere precious.

What this tournament has taught us is that it’s folly to try and predict bounces of the ball.  Once the games begin, Cinderellas will rise.  Favorites will fall.   The only sure thing is that one of the top five or so teams in the nation will be left standing.  Other than that, anything goes.

There is, however, one factor that can transcend the Dance, and that’s guard play (which is to say, shooting).

Shooting is the essence of basketball.  It’s neither an art nor a science, yet there are elements of each within it.  And as much as any statistician will fight the notion, shooters are prone to hot and cold streaks that follow no logical pattern.  Anyone who has ever toed a basketball court is aware of the phenomenon that is shooting: Sometimes, inexplicably, the cylinder seems to expand and you suddenly can’t miss.

Nine times out of ten, when you hear news of a mammoth upset or Cinderella run, there is a shooting guard who caught fire behind the story.

So if you’re looking for a lower seed capable of a deep run in the tournament, it’s wise to start your search with the shooters.

With that said, pay attention to these teams and the gunners who are capable of carrying them far.

Team:  Boston College (22-11, No. 7 in Midwest)

Gunner: Tyrese Rice (G, Sr.)

Explanation: Rice is one of the more peculiar players on one of the more peculiar teams in the land.  After a junior campaign in which he averaged 21 points per game, many thought he would be among the nation’s scoring leaders this season.  Instead, he has mainly deferred to some of the younger talent around him, putting up almost a hundred fewer shots and averaging nearly four fewer points (17.1).  He has been dominant in big spots though, as evidenced by the combined 46 points he dropped in wins over North Carolina and Duke.  Rice is one of a handful of guards in the country who can spot up from anywhere and get to the bucket at will.  If he finds the zone, all bets are off for any team in his path.

Team: Texas (22-11, No. 7 in East)

Gunner: A.J. Abrams (G, Sr.)

Explanation: The Longhorns fizzled down the stretch, losing three of their last six, mainly because Abrams went cold.  The senior averaged 16.3 points and was a 38.9 percent 3-point shooter for the season.  Yet he made just 11 of 33 attempts from long range and scored only 11.5 points per game down the stretch.  If he can regain the form that saw him torch UCLA and Villanova in consecutive games early in the season, Texas could run through Duke in the second round and possibly find itself challenging Pittsburgh for a trip to the Final Four.  Abrams is that explosive.

Team: Temple (22-11, No. 11 in South)

Gunner: Dionte Christmas (G, Sr.)

Explanation: If you haven’t heard of him by now, you probably don’t watch Sportscenter too often.  The Owls, led by a man whose name is conducive to clichés, blitzed the Atlantic-10 tournament last week to earn an automatic bid to the Dance.  Eyes started opening in the semifinal game, when “Christmas came early” for Temple against perennial conference power Xavier.  The senior guard dropped 20 on the Musketeers before following that with a 29-point encore in the championship vs. Duquesne.  He hit a combined 10 threes in those contests.  Now the Owls find themselves matched up against Arizona State.  If Christmas goes off again, Syracuse (Temple’s likely second-round opponent) may have to up the threat level from “Orange” to red.

Team: Marquette (24-9, No. 6 in West)

Gunner(s): Jerel McNeal (G, Sr.) and Wesley Matthews (G, Sr.)

Explanation: The Golden Eagles were drastically altered when point guard Dominic James broke his foot against Connecticut on Feb. 25.  Including that game, Marquette dropped five of six to end the season.  In all five of those losses they battled, but fell to nationally-ranked Big East foes.  The good news is backup point guard Maurice Acker was able to get some significant playing time against big-time opponents.  If he can take care of the ball in the tournament, that will enable McNeal (19.7 ppg, .402 3-point shooter) and Matthews (18.4 ppg, .377 3-point shooter) to do what they do best: light up the scoreboard from outside and keep the pressure on the opposition.  The two have a combined eight years of experience.  Even without James, they are capable of shooting their way to the Sweet 16.

UConn-‘Cuse: Just Wow

I remember being at the semifinals of the 2003 Big East Championship.  Sitting about 20 rows back of where the baseline meets the sideline at Madison Square Garden, I watched Connecticut and Syracuse go at it.

Carmelo Anthony had been the story of the year but on that March night it was Ben Gordon who put the Huskies on his back to take down ‘Cuse and its freshman titan.  After the teams exchanged postgame handshakes — Anthony with Gordon and Emeka Okafor among others, pantheon coaches Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun with one another — I tracked Anthony as he exited the court and walked toward the tunnel.

I inched closer to floor level, getting to within shouting distance of him.  Intending to give him a piece of my mind (it’s a habit I have), I suddenly had no words (a rarity).  He had this steely and resolute look in his eyes, yet at the same time seemed to be fighting back a grin.  The contradiction froze me. 

The look, which could have been construed as a defiant acceptance of defeat, I interpreted differently.  It was almost as if he knew something nobody else did, and the moment of clarity just happened to come after a tournament loss in the world’s most famous arena.  To me he looked like a kid who knew the stage was about to be his, and to hell with anyone who dared stand in his way.

Can I be positive about this?  Of course not.  But I will say I left MSG that night knowing which team I’d have going the distance once the brackets were announced.  I left the Garden with the sneaking suspicion that I had witnessed some history wrapped in an otherwise ho-hum 80-67 final.

Three and a half weeks later I had won my first (and only) March Madness pool and was about to pen the first (of a few) “Respect Carmelo” columns for my school newspaper.

So why am I writing about that contest now?  Why give two hoots about some game that happened six years ago when the same teams just ran six overtimes less than 24 hours ago??  SIX!!!!!!  That’s three full halves PLUS two overtimes!!!

I’ll tell you why: Because it’s special to feel like you’re a part of history.  I witnessed one of the greatest college players lose for the final time, and am pretty sure I pegged the moment when he decided as much.  That moment still resonates.

I wasn’t even at MSG Thursday night but can say unequivocally that Connecticut-Syracuse on March 12, 2009 was a game I’ll be talking about when I’m an old-timer.  I may not have been as privileged as the 19,375 inside the Garden, but I still feel like I was a part of history.

This one was so epic you didn’t even have to be there, you just had to see it with your own eyes.

Had to see Eric Devendorf’s miracle three with 1.1 seconds left in regulation, a shot that would have Deven-dwarfed every buzzer-beater since Christian Laettner’s had there been 1.2 seconds remaining instead.

Had to see 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet — disregarding the fact that his cranium is situated somewhere in the stratosphere — dive earthward for a loose ball to secure a possession in overtime.

Had to see UConn jump out to leads in each of the first FIVE extra sessions, only to watch Syracuse claw back and tie the game — but never take the lead — every time.

Had to see Paul Harris miss not one but two layups in the closing seconds of the fourth overtime that would have won the game for the Orange.

Had to see Jonny Flynn put a tad too much english on a reverse layup just moments before Harris.

Had to see, one by one, star players foul out and give way to walk-ons and benchwarmers.

Had to see those same walk-ons and benchwarmers make HUGE plays in the biggest moments of their lives.

Had to see all the drives, jays, blocks, acrobatic saves, bodies flying, near-daggers, rugby scrums for loose balls, volleyball battles for boards, clutch free throws, diabolic bounces off the tin, jumping jacks, and-ones…

Had to see Sean McDonough, Jay Bilas and Bill Raftery lose a few marbles.

Had to see the fans — who were as exhausted as the players — yelp like dogs with muted barks once it was all over.

Had to see Boeheim — no sucker for hyperbole — proclaim he had “never been prouder of any team”.

Had to see………hell you just HAD to see it.

If you’ve been reading this column up until now and feel like the last half has been one convoluted, impossible-to-follow run-on, that’s good because that’s exactly what I intended it to be.  I essentially just cut and pasted my notes into the piece.

Truth is, I can’t do justice to what transpired in midtown Manhattan Thursday night.  You gotta see it for yourself.

So check out ESPN Classic when you have a moment. Chances are they’re heading into overtime right now…

Red Sox Spring Storylines

Spring Training is in full swing for the Red Sox down in Fort Myers, but the vibe this year is different from past seasons.

Since spring storylines have traditionally revolved around Manny Ramirez this decade, the lack of all things Manny has cast a calm over camp.

If you recall, Spring Training 2008 was brief and full of headlines.  The Red Sox were defending champions and preparing for the Japan trip.  This spring it’s pretty much the opposite.  A year after kicking off the regular season historically early (March 25), Opening Day ’09 will not come until April 6 because of the World Baseball Classic.

Additionally, with five key players (Dice-K, David Ortiz, Jason Bay, Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia) participating in the WBC for four different countries, Fort Myers is missing many familiar faces.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t issues warranting close monitoring.  Be sure to keep an eye on the following storylines, in Florida and around the world, as the new season approaches.

The health of J.D. Drew and Mike Lowell It’s not worth mincing words: the Red Sox offense cannot survive another pair of injury-plagued and thus underperformed seasons from Drew and Lowell.  Last year the two missed a combined 102 games, but their losses were mitigated by Manny’s production and career years from Pedroia and Youkilis.  With Manny gone and it being unrealistic to project Pedroia and Youk to match their production from a year ago, the team is staking the middle of the lineup on two guys with health concerns.  How Drew responds to a cortisonal shot in his lower back and how Lowell recovers from offseason hip surgery are issues of great concern.  Let’s put it this way: if come June, Terry Francona’s lineup card has a six-through-nine of Rocco Baldelli/Brad Wilkerson, Mark Kotsay, Jason Varitek and Julio Lugo/Jed Lowrie, the Red Sox will be in serious trouble.

The Papelbon setup crew The only thing resembling a closer controversy Francona has dealt with in recent past is when and how often to summon his stopper.  Ever since a shoulder injury forced the team to shut Papelbon down at the end of the 2006 season, the goal was to reduce the amount and length of his appearances.  The problem last year was Tito didn’t have a go-to guy in the eighth inning until Justin Masterson emerged late in the season.  Manny Delcarmen was constantly battling himself and Hideki Okajima finally started getting figured out by the opposition.  With Ramon Ramirez (2.64 ERA, .222 BAA in 2008) and Takashi Saito (career 1.95 ERA and .182 BAA) on board to bolster an already strong bullpen, Francona should be able to shave about 10 appearances off the 67 Papelbon logged in ’08.

Josh Beckett’s body language Beckett has far too much pride to ever let on about an injury, which is why he took so much heat down the stretch last year amid a sustained stretch of mediocrity.  The guy simply won’t admit to being hurt (which he was).  The best indicator of how he’s feeling is to watch him on the mound and in the clubhouse.  When he’s wearing that understated scowl and breaking off biting curves to complement his gas, then colorfully and curtly addressing reporters after outings, that’s when you know Beckett is right.  All signs point to him being healthy and ready to replicate his dominant 2007 season.  That’s what the Sox need.

David Ortiz’s WBC performance If Drew and Lowell are vital to the success of the offense, Ortiz is paramount.  Something in the neighborhood of a .300/35/115 season is necessary from Big Papi in order for the top-heavy Boston lineup to push across enough runs to consistently win ballgames.  He reported to Spring Training in great shape and was talking the talk.  He’ll be playing first base in the WBC for the Dominican Republic, which will give him an opportunity to showcase what he claims to be a healthy knee.  Yet obviously the focus will be on his left wrist and how — if at all — it will impact his swing at the plate.  After the least productive and most injury-riddled year of his career with the Red Sox, Ortiz wants to make a statement.  Over the next four weeks, as he dons the colors of his country, Big Papi should provide a clear picture of what he’ll be toting into the batters box in ’09.

Keeping Smoltz in perspective Patience, everyone.  Yes, John Smoltz as a Red Sox is a tantalizing prospect.  His presence early in the season is by no means integral to the identity of the team, however.  The Sox have six viable starters (Beckett, Dice-K, Lester, Wakefield, Penny, Masterson) entering the campaign, and as much as everyone wants to see Smoltz firing away from the Fenway rubber, there’s no reason to rush things.  If the last five years have taught us anything, it’s that the Red Sox are perennial contenders and must accordingly have the big picture in mind.  Smoltz’s 15 postseason wins and 2.65 career postseason ERA are all one needs when taking into account the end game of winning a title.  For the time being it’s best to view Smoltz as a guaranteed midseason acquistion.