Around seven o'clock on Sunday evening (although to be fair, I was flying across the country on zero hours of sleep and would have believed it was 3 AM had someone presented the assertion with enough confidence), I watched the beginning of the end of the 2011 Connecticut Huskies' season.
Kemba laughed and looked off-camera, hoping that one of his teammates would provide him with the answer, then quizzically said, "Bucknell...?" as if the school was such an afterthought in the National Player of the Year candidate's mind that the Bison didn't deserve a nickname.
I don't blame him for being caught unaware. Heck, If I were the guy who single-handedly carried Connecticut to the 2011 Big East Tournament championship, I would hardly be able to remember a school like Rutgers' nickname (that would be the Scarlet Knights for those of you scoring at home), let alone a university in Central Pennsylvania with a student body hovering around 4,000.
In any case, for the sake of intriguing parallels, and because the potent scent of March Madness infiltrates even the lungs of those who think basketball involves home runs and touchdowns, let's travel all the way back to 2006.
Gerry McNamara, then a senior at Syracuse University, had just completed the greatest four-day stretch in the history of the Big East Tournament.
Syracuse won the conference title due to McNamara's three game-winning plays (each of which caused yours truly plenty of heartache in the process), thereby changing the postseason fortunes of the 2006 Syracuse Orange from a probable No. 2 seed in the NIT to a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Not only did McNamara change his team's destiny and the narrative of his college career in what seemed like a nanosecond, but his heroics caused many analysts on ESPN and CBS to predict a Final Four run for Syracuse based off of the momentum gained by those wins at Madison Square Garden.
Does this narrative sound vaguely familiar yet?
Once Kemba Walker and the Huskies finished the job on Saturday night by winning five games in five days to capture the Big East Tournament, I became convinced that Connecticut would fall in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
Meanwhile, talking heads at those aforementioned networks gushed over UConn with words like "momentum" and phrases such as "team on a mission," confidently predicting a prolonged run in the NCAA's for the Huskies.
For the record, I will start taking these analysts' views more seriously once they stop spending each season informing viewers ad nauseam that the NCAA Tournament will be "wide open," only to then predict four No. 1 seeds to reach the Final Four. But I digress.
I consider myself a student of (recent) history, and the parallels to Gerry McNamara's Syracuse team, upset by Texas A&M 66-58 in the opening round of the 2006 NCAA Tournament, seem too perfect to ignore.
Connecticut in 2011 is a team without depth that relies on a single scorer to make everything happen for its offense. When that one playmaker runs out of gas (after a week-long tournament, for example), the team is in loads of trouble.
Connecticut won the Maui Invitational Tournament way back in November, defeating Kentucky and Michigan State in the process, because Kemba Walker put on a show eerily similar to the masterpiece he orchestrated at Madison Square Garden this past week.
The first game after the tournament in Hawai'i though, UConn survived a rather terrible New Hampshire team 62-55 at home. If you don't believe that UConn sleepwalked through this game, I invite you to read the recap.
Now we arrive at the part of the show when I divulge my allegiances; I am a graduate of Bucknell University who attended the school during the four-year window in which the basketball team did not make the NCAA Tournament (Kansas and Arkansas fans may remember 2005 and 2006, respectively). To say I was bitter about the lack of success between 2006 and 2010 would be putting it mildly.
Nonetheless, Mike Muscala, Bryson Johnson and the rest of the Bucknell Bison convinced me early this season that it was the type of mid-major team (a generous title given the atrocious state of the Patriot League) that could pull off an upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Bucknell is an experienced group with both the inside and outside presence to give a team that would prefer to coast through its opening game—i.e. a major program coming off of a conference tournament championship—headaches.
Unfortunately for the Bison and its faithful, that is as far as a homer can go as far as putting forth an analytic argument assessing Bucknell's chances of advancing.
But the NCAA Tournament has never been decided by analytic arguments. Upsets happen when talented yet limited teams like Connecticut fold under the pressure of expectations, fatigue built over weeks and months of stellar competition, and a dwindling clock that acts as a catalyst for the underdog's confidence when the game remains close.
If Bucknell upsets the Connecticut Huskies on Thursday night in Washington, D.C., I expect my alma mater to throw me a bone for providing them with the opening moments of the inspirational video chronicling the team's journey to the Round of 32 and beyond (I know I'm pushing it, but what's a team without dreams?).
Can't you just hear the crescendo of the music in the background as Kemba Walker looks around in slow motion, unaware even of Bucknell's nickname?
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