Saturday, March 18, 2006

Second things second:
(Even though, frankly, this probably should be first -- random encounters with breasts always jump to the top of the priority list.)

Oh, what a day in the hoops-womb...

My first in-person NCAA tournament game, ever, well, that would be the A-MAY-ZING, BAY-BEE, opener between Iowa and Northwestern State.
Holy shit.
That was almost all I could say for the first five minutes after that game.
Holy shit.
Northwestern St. was down 18-4 to open the game (12-2 by the time I got to my seat, thanks to ridiculous traffic on the freeway and an insane lack of order getting into The Palace), then took the lead before halftime. Then trailed 54-37 with 8 minutes left. Hell, they trailed by 14 with 7 minutes left, and by 10 points with 7 minutes left.
Even good teams don't come back from those types of deficits, much less the Northwestern States of the world. Especially against an Iowa team known for its defense (complete with the Big Ten defensive player of the year, to boot.)
But come back they did, thanks to some ridiculous shooting from Clifton Lee. 13 straight points during one run, and four consecutive 3-point attempts went down in that span. Crazy. But let's also credit some atrocious shooting by Iowa. Their big man, Greg Brunner, scored all 16 points in the second half, and looked like a man among boys doing so. (He and Lee had everyone in my section saying "Damn! I've never seen that before" on opposite ends of the court.) And everyone else in Iowa yellow? 19 points in the second half. And Brunner would have had at least two more points if he could hit a free throw now and again. But he's big, thick, and bald, so we'll let that pass.

Just amazing stuff, really. If this is what my friends in Kansas and Missouri get on a regular basis, well, The Ford takes back most of the bad-mouthin' he's done on college basketball over the years.

Some thoughts from the game (plus some thoughts from the vastly inferior game that followed, West Va. 64, SIU 46)

Favorite players:
Clifton Lee: He's playing in Detroit, matching up with Iowa's freaky-big center, and he's got the giant Ben-Wallace-esque afro. So of course he hits 4 HUUUUUGE 3-pointers in the second half to pull Northwestern State into striking distance. And this wasn't getting comfortable in a certain spot, or taking advantage of a matchup. His 4 3-pointers came from three different spots on the court. Seriously, by the time 3-pointer No. 3 went down, everyone in Auburn Hills knew he'd be getting the ball the next time down the court, regardless of who was guarding him.
Greg Brunner: Big man, dominant in the paint. Played the entire second half with three fouls, but scored 16 points. Great moves, to the point that he was almost automatic from 10 feet out. And yet, Iowa refused to get him the ball, it seemed. Until the end of the game, when everyone knew he couldn't hit two consecutive free throws, and so N'Western State was just waiting to foul him. Seriously, in the final minute, they actually waited 20 seconds, until he had the ball, AND THEN FOULED him. Brilliant, even though he dominated for most of the second half.
Kerwin Forges: Dude lists at 6-4, 255 pounds. And that's a REALLY generous weight. He's easily 275. "Roast Beef" can't shoot (6.4 points per game), can't rebound (1.4 per game) and can't play defense (looked incredibly lost on the court, often guarding empty space in the key). In short, he's The Ford of Northwestern State. And yet, tremendous fun to watch, especially late in the first half when, for some reason, he kept getting tapped to bring the ball up court. Crazy. And then N'Western St.'s center fouled out late, so he got to stay on the court. Which is why he took what shoulda/coulda been the game-tieing shot with 11 seconds left, only to miss so badly that teammate Jermaine Wallace was able to rebound it, dribble around some, and set up his own game-winning 3-pointer with 0.5 seconds left.

Favorite cheer squads:
1. West Virgina
2. N'Western St.
3. Southern Illinois
4. Iowa

The Ford was seriously disappointed in the Iowa squad's talent. Girls were solidly average, uniforms sucked (spandex sports bras for the dance squad, really?), and the routines added nothing. And yet, all the frat boys in my section hit on them as they walked up the stairs at halftime. Southern Illinois was quality all around, but they didn't do many routines, and the uniforms weren't great. They do get props from being the most injured squad The Ford's seen. How much time did the Saluki squad lose to injuries this year? Two members were sporting the double wrist guards, and another member had a knee brace. Of course, she was also doing full flips. A true gamer. They also get props for having three members come out and watch the end of the Iowa/N'Western St. game. They apparently actually like basketball there. N'Western St. didn't do much, but they were the second-hottest squad there. West Virginia was dominant. Incredible hot, good routines and costumes, plus a move that was very architecturally sound.

Random observations:

The Herky Bird needs a nose job: Maybe The Ford is too used to the football incarnation of the Iowa mascot, with its giant helmet and tiny beak, but this helmetless version looked like it just ran into a wall. Not to mention having very, very bad "hair." Look at it. It's like a crappy afro. When The Ford is in charge of all mascots, he's going to make designers pay more attention to the hair. Too many mascots are ending up with weird, felt-like afros.

Wait, they're the Demons?: Of course, the Herky Bird wasn't facing a lot of competition on the mascot front from the entire pod. It took the better part of two halves for anyone not in the know to figure out Northwestern State's mascot was a demon. I, mean, it sorta had horns, but they looked more like the antennae from My Favorite Martian. Taken with gigantic, dog-like jowls and a potbelly, and most folks sitting around me were thinking it was some sort of bizarre hybrid of a dog and Mickey Rooney. Meanwhile, the Salukis' mascot just looked like a dog that'd been to one too many Dead shows, with its long, stringy hair and two-tone fur. West Virginia's Mountaineer was OK, but that's mostly because I'm reluctant to criticize a mascot that's packing heat at every game.

The sound and the fury: The Palace's crowd was moderately into the action Friday. Notable moments? Definitely the audible "Whaaaa?" when Forges took what looked like Northwestern St.'s last shot, followed by the entire non-Iowa fan base going ballistic when Wallace made the game-winner. Another great sound? That would be when the NCAA got the Oral Roberts/Memphis score mixed up, and had ORU up by 12 at halftime, after showing them trailing by 10-20 for the whole first half. The entire crowd -- and I mean the entire crowd -- gave another "Whaaaa?" that smoothly transitioned into a "Yeah!" even as most folks were pulling out the phones to check with friends that weren't at the mercy of brain-dead scoreboard operators. (Speaking of brain-dead scoreboard operators, y'all had to show me that Stanford was playing Missouri St. at 7 p.m. in the NIT three times as often as you could show me the Davidson-Ohio State score? Seriously, at a game that started at noon, I could give a fuck who's playing at 7 or 9 p.m. Just show me the games going on right then, and I'll get the later scores/game times when I leave the frickin' arena.)

Thanks be to the boss man: These were easily the best seats I've ever had. I got them from my sports editor (a Kansas alum and Pistons season-ticket holder), who bought them 18 months ago on a hunch that KU would make the tourney. They did, but they were playing at night, so I got the early session tickets. On the floor, behind the basket, four rows behind the Iowa pep band for the first game. Basically, I was close enough to look most of the players in the eye, but far enough back not to worry about loose balls or players coming into the stands. Just awesome. Of course, thanks to the late notice, I ended up with four seats, all to myself. (I thought I was getting one ticket. Late Thursday, I ended up with all four, and the instructions to "sell the rest if you can." Folks, at noon on a Friday afternoon, The Palace at Auburn Hills is a buyer's market for tickets. I passed so many desperate scalpers that I just ate the tickets myself, and luxuriated across four seats As did almost everyone else sitting in my section. 18,290 attendance, my ass.)

Band on the run: Overall, pretty good performances by the pep bands. Special shoutouts go to Iowa for a solid selection of 70s/80s hits that had the place rocking, regardless of where you were sitting, and to Southern Illinois, which was pretty quiet when their deficit reached double digits, but started out with a brilliant cover of Franz Ferdinand, and wasn't afraid to pull out the slow but lyrical "Georgia On My Mind" at halftime.

You've been Pittsnogled: It's not that his 18 points weren't solid, it's that he wasn't that impressive. A dominant inside player who completely took away Southern Illinois' drive to the basket (on one possession, they drove INTO him four times before kicking it out, and then turning it over), he also appeared to never have met a 3-point attempt he didn't like (2-7). Facial hair was only a 'stache/goatee combo, and The Ford got real tired of the 300 "You've been Pittsnogled" signs in the stands, and their owners' shameless attempts to get on TV. Watch the damn game, people. (The Ford's pretty down on the WVA/SIU game overall. A.) It just couldn't compare to the day's amazing first game, and (B) it was incredibly ugly, with something like 20 "traveling" or "carrying the ball" calls between the two teams.)

Drive time: And finally, becuase you can't have a TSTF without full-on Fury, what the hell is up with The Palace's parking lot? 5 entrances at noon, when no one is there, but ONE EFFING EXIT at 5 p.m. when everyone is leaving, plus folks are showing up for the night games? I sat in my parking spot for 30 G-D minutes because the only route that led to the exit cut off my ability to back out of my spot. I'd probably still be there if I hadn't just started backing up on the assumption that someone would let me in, or get plowed in the process. Oh, and a special spot in hell is reserved for the high school punks in front of me that not only sped up to prevent me from merging in front of them at Parking Lot Merge Point No. 2, but wouldn't allow anyone else to enter the lane in front of them. For 15 minutes. The nice thing? They probably didn't have to wait long for their spot in hell, since if there's any justice in the world (even if the trees are running things), their car flipped over on the way home.


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