PHOENIX – For two days at least, the Phoenix Suns are just like you and me, laying back on their couches and enjoying the best March Madness has to offer.
Of course many of them have actually played in the Big Dance and the closest we’ve gotten is that single elimination Intramurals version of March Madness, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy 32 games in two days as much as the pros do.
“To me it’s the most exciting time there is in all of sports,” said Suns head coach Alvin Gentry. “I really do believe that.”
And isn’t it nice that the Suns conveniently have both days off. Better yet, after having Thursday off from practice they still managed to make up ground on the Mavs, who lost to the Hawks.
Phoenix could pull within three games of Dallas with an Indiana win over the Mavs tonight in the second game of a back-to-back in a building in which the Pacers are 19-13.
I hope you’re being as productive at your job while you waste away the hours watching March Madness on Demand.
As Suns players hurriedly put the finishing touches on their brackets in the hours leading up to Wednesday’s game against the Sixers, Gentry, Robin Lopez and Jared Dudley all volunteered that they’ve got North Carolina winning it all – along with three-fifths of the rest of the nation, according to ESPN.com’s national bracket – but Jason Richardson went straight homer with a Michigan State pick.
“It’s a sin to go with anybody else,” he said.
Richardson should know a good Spartan team when he sees one having led them to a national championship in 2000 and a Final Four return appearance in 2001.
“Just great memories there,” he said. “Every game is amazing, the whole atmosphere, winning and doing it with your friends. It’s a great experience.”
Dudley, a Boston College alum, likes ACC counterpart UNC “easily” if Ty Lawson is healthy down the road and otherwise likes Pitt to go all the way.
As for his Eagles, he thinks drawing red-hot USC is “a tough draw” in the first round, but he likes BC’s chances in the second round against Michigan State because he doesn’t think they’re “that good to be a No. 2 seed.”
That would be news of course to J-Rich, Dudley’s friend and fellow former Bobcat teammate who lockers just a few short feet away from Dudley. Expect a bit of a friendly wager if that matchup comes to be.
As for his time as a tourney participant, Dudley said it was really nice to go dancing all four years because “not too many people get to do that.”
Dudley recounted his war stories from his junior year run to the Sweet 16. BC trailed by double digits early in the first round but came back to beat Pacific in double overtime before cruising in round two.
The Eagles then fell just short to top-seeded Villanova by one point in the Sweet 16, a year Dudley said he and his teammates felt they were Final Four-worthy.
Dudley has plenty of experience playing as a favorite and even was upset by Wisconsin-Milwaukee one year. Although the first day of this year’s tournament didn’t yield any major upsets, Dudley knows firsthand how tough it is for a favorite to play late in a tight game.
“It’s crazy if a team is an underdog and it’s close in that second half, last five minutes, every shot is a lot of pressure,” he said.
Robin Lopez’s Stanford Cardinal were a No. 3 seed at this time last year, when he starred in one of the most exciting games of the second round.
In a crazy back-and-forth overtime battle against Marquette that included Stanford head coach Trent Johnson being ejected, Robin’s brother Brook won it with a crazy fadeaway jumper in which he was practically behind the basket. The Cardinal then bowed out in the Sweet 16 to Texas.
“It was a huge high followed by as low as you can possible get, but that Marquette game, that was one of the greatest experiences of my life, winning that game with all my friends around,” Lopez said. “When we were running into the locker room it was an amazing feeling.
“From the angle I was at I didn’t know that he was so far behind the backboard, but I constantly see him hit that shot over the left shoulder, so I almost expected it to go in.”
Lopez said he would be rooting on his former mates in the Pac-10 this week, and he surprised me with his surprise pick to make a Sweet 16 run: my alma mater Arizona. And no, I didn’t do or say anything to lead him to such a response.
“I think Zona can go,” Lopez said. “I think out of all the Pac-10 teams Arizona has got it. I think they just have a good matchup, they have Utah in the first round. They have three good players, and I think they can take Wake Forest.”
To Gentry, winning an NCAA Tournament isn’t necessarily about having the best team – which many of the Suns and most of America would agree is North Carolina.
And Gentry would know having won the national championship as a Kansas assistant in 1988 with a team that he didn’t even think was in the top 20 to begin the tournament.
But KU got a bounce here and a call there and all of a sudden the Jayhawks were cutting down the nets.
Two years earlier, Gentry said Kansas’ 1986 team was 35-2 entering the Final Four with a roster Gentry felt was the nation’s best “by far.” Forty minutes later Duke won a four-point game, and everybody remembers the 1988 “Danny and the Miracles” team but nobody remembers 1986.
“I think North Carolina’s the best team, I think they have the best all-around team, but I can’t tell you the last time the best team won it in the NCAAs really,” Gentry said. “You’ve got to have a lot of luck, too, and you’ve just got to be playing your best basketball. And it’s easy to lose a game.
“It’s hard in this league, which is why there very seldom are ever any upsets where eight beats one. It happened with Golden State, but it’s happened three out of 90 times or something, whereas in the NCAA there’s always upsets because you’ve just got to win one game.”
Nobody understands that better than Steve Nash, who was an unknown freshman on a No. 15-seeded Santa Clara team that shocked mighty No. 2 seed Arizona and its star point guard Damon Stoudamire.
Although the Nash-propelled upset is still one of the tourney’s best moments, perhaps no Sun knows NCAA glory better than Grant Hill, who won back-to-back national titles in 1991 and 1992 at Duke and will forever be immortalized by throwing “the pass” to Christian Laettner 75 feet down the floor to set up the regional-winning shot.
But as a former Dukie national champ, Hill isn’t sweating the first weekend of the tourney.
“I don’t pay attention to Duke until April,” he quipped.