Buckley: Not much March Madness to get all crazy about in these parts, outside of Harvard
March Madness is here, except that it’s not really here.
Selection Sunday? For most college programs in the Bay State, it’s more like Selection Someday.
Thousands of sports fans throughout the commonwealth soon will be dutifully filling out their NCAA men’s basketball brackets, applying a goofy mix of common sense and dart-throwing randomness to the task, but, alas, it’ll be another year without a local hook.
Yes, we do have Harvard. Tommy Amaker’s crew has made the tourney four of the past five years, and not just for a photo op. In 2013, the Crimson toppled New Mexico before bowing out against Arizona. In 2014, they defeated Cincinnati before being eliminated by Michigan State, which made it all the way to the Elite Eight before losing to UConn, which went on to win the whole thing.
And in 2015? Harvard was one-and-done but was very nearly won-and-oh-my-God! The Crimson suffered a 67-65 loss to North Carolina, but not before roaring back from a 16-point second-half deficit and actually taking the lead with 1:15 remaining. Harvard guard Wesley Saunders let loose with a 3-point attempt in the last seconds, but it clanged off the back of the rim, and, well, that was that.
Harvard didn’t make it onto anybody’s bracket last year, but the Crimson have a chance this time around if they survive this weekend’s newly minted Ivy League tournament. Harvard plays Yale on Saturday at 4 p.m. at the Palestra in Philly, with the winner taking on the survivor of the Princeton-Penn game in Sunday’s title tilt.
And that, people, is our best shot at seeing a Bay State team dance the Dance. Boston University, Northeastern and Holy Cross have already bowed out, and nobody — nobody — believes UMass and Boston College are going to stun the field in their respective conference tourneys. (Not to be provincial, even though I am, but I’m not including Providence, Vermont and, heavens no, UConn in this discussion.)
When you get right down to it, the gripe here isn’t with Holy Cross, BU and Northeastern. The gripe is with UMass and Boston College. Especially Boston College. There was a time — look it up, kids — when the Eagles were regular participants in March Madness, making the tourney seven times over nine seasons between 2001-09. But I don’t think I’ll hurt the feelings of too many anxious BC alums by stating that the Eagles are playing glorified club basketball these days. It’ll be up to whomever replaces outgoing athletic director Brad Bates to do something about the school’s once-respectful basketball program. (And the no-longer-relevant football program as well.)
And UMass? The Minutemen’s Great Basketball Renaissance of 2013-14 came to an embarrassing crash-and-burn at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. Taking on No. 11 Tennessee in their first tourney appearance in 16 years, the Minutemen, an impressive No. 6 seed in their bracket, were blown off the court in the first half, trailing by as much as 38-18 before it ended with a 86-67 victory for the Vols.
When UMass coach Derek Kellogg was asked about the awful first half, he replied, “Odd is a nice way to put it.”
But what’s really odd is that the Minutemen haven’t made the tourney since. Look, everyone loves Kellogg, a Springfield native and UMass basketball star from the John Calipari days. Yes, the Amherst campus is charming, yet modern and electric. And while the Mullins Center lacks the intimacy of the old Curry Hicks Cage, we can all agree it’s a big-league college basketball facility. (Disclaimer: I am a UMass grad. And if I had my way, UMass would play an annual game at Curry Hicks.)
Bottom line: UMass and Boston College should not be bottom-feeders. They should be in the tournament every year. That they have a combined one appearance since 2009 is unacceptable.
What we’re left with, then, are those feel-good stories from when Holy Cross, BU and Northeastern make the tourney. And in no way am I downgrading the accomplishments of these schools; I was in the ballroom at the Hogan Campus Center at Holy Cross on that thrilling Sunday afternoon last March when the Crusaders learned whom they’d be playing in the tourney, and it was pure awesomeness. Just 10-19 during the regular season, Holy Cross roared through the Patriot League tournament, closing it out with a thrilling 59-56 victory over Lehigh.
I was also at T’s Pub back in 2011 when BU’s basketball team celebrated its tournament announcement. My biggest takeaway from that day was when former BU hockey star and Lake Placid legend Mike Eruzione showed up to grab a burger, not knowing at first what was going on.
“Good for them,” Eruzione said. “They deserve this. They’ve worked very hard to be here.”
They did . . . and they did. But it’s not like everyone within 100 miles of the Harry Agganis statue suddenly came down with a case of Terrier Fever. And it’s the same with those fine Harvard teams of recent vintage: We haven’t exactly gone nuts.
That’s not Harvard’s fault. It’s our fault to the degree that — and stop me if you’ve heard this before — we just don’t embrace college sports around here.
Maybe that would change, a little, if we had one program that consistently swaggered into March — as in deep into March.
UMass and Boston College are the two schools best equipped to make that happen.
Until then, go Crimson.
You are our everything.