Paulie’s Great March Madness Adventure

My friend’s suitemate at William and Mary picked Butler to beat Wofford 30-12 in the NCAA Tournament finals and Richmond to make the Final Four. He currently leads his ten-person March Madness pool.

Let that sink in for a minute, knowing that no one outside Butler University picked the Bulldogs to make the Final Four aside from this kid, that Wofford and Richmond didn’t even win a game, and that the student in question is originally from Scotland and knows nothing of college basketball.

While it sickens me that this kid’s one bracket was better than all 10 of mine (more on this later), it is nonetheless symbolic of the wonderful, chaotic beauty that is March Madness.

I decided to throw myself head-first into this tradition this year, attending six first and second round games in Buffalo and the East Regional semifinals and finals in Syracuse. In between, I snuck in two NCAA Tournament hockey first-rounders in Albany for a grand total of 11 NCAA Tournament games. Below you will find this outlined in a two-part, 13-chapter epic. But first, let’s jump in the hot tub time machine and travel back to the year 2000.

Chapter 1: Where’s My Money Man?

My father signed me up for a March Madness pool in the sixth grade. Being a die-hard Knicks fan since the team was still good in 2000, I knew only two things about the then state of amateur hoops: Mateen Cleaves and Michigan State were really good, and my college squad Seton Hall was vastly underrated.

This knowledge became quite profitable, for MSU won the title and Seton Hall upset two teams to reach the Sweet Sixteen, helping me pocket $114. Given the time period, I either immediately blew all that money on Nintendo 64 games, or my six-year old sister jacked that cash behind my back.

Regardless, this started a serious love for the game of college basketball. I suffered as a Seton Hall fan time and time again, but every March came the possibility of winning $10,000 through ESPN’s immensely popular Tournament Challenge. Every time I have failed, but this doesn’t stop me from watching college basketball religiously from November to April. I will say that I was a Derrick Rose free throw away from winning $500 two years ago, but as Mark McGwire said, I’m not here to talk

about the past.

What I am here to talk about is a sports fan’s dream, and how I lived to tell the tale.

Chapter 2: Don’t Go Into the Long Grass! No. 2 West Virginia 77, No. 15

Morgan State 50.

Fast forward to Friday, March 19. Bill Stoklosa, his father and I head out to HSBC Arena in Buffalo for four first round games. As we near the arena, there is a dispute as to where we should park. Eventually it’s decided to stop adjacent to an abandoned park by a General Mills plant, easily the sketchiest parking spot in Buffalo. I look out at the long and vast expanse of weeds, trash and long grass and decide that there are anywhere from 5-10 dead bodies buried in this park. Bill thinks a vampire is going to kill us when we walk back at night. I kick myself for not packing a 9-mm before I went to Buffalo.

We enter the arena and sit directly right behind the basket in the ninth row. Incredible seats. Only problem is that the basket support completely blocks our view of both free throw lanes, meaning we have to use our imagination when someone is trying to score. If you know basketball, you know that shots are taken somewhat frequently. Regardless, the atmosphere in the lower section is awesome, and the entire state of West Virginia has come to support Head Coach Bob “Huggy Bear” Huggins and his Mountaineers. Huggins wears this 1980s windbreaker get-up and slicked-back hair to go along with a pot belly and an aversion for the men in black-and-white stripes. Huggins gives me the impression that in 10 years, he will be selling used Chevrolets in a West Virginia lot somewhere after he fails to graduate any of his players again or stabs a ref on the court after

a bad call.

Regardless, his Mountaineers immediately fall to a 10-0 deficit to No. 15 Morgan State, and the crowd immediately supports the Bears as well as their world-class band and dance team. Anyone who can play Montel Williams’s “This is How We Do It” is a winner simply because a college band playing that song is absurd. Easily the best band and dance team

of the week.

It’s great that Morgan State can fall back on that, because West Virginia casually ends the game on a 77-40 run. So much for the 15-2 upset.

Chapter 3: Hey, Band Camp! No. 10 Missouri 86, No. 7 Clemson 78

Missouri, coached by Mike Anderson and his 40 Minutes of Hell mantra, is too fast for a plodding Clemson team and pulls away down the stretch. The story of this game is not about either team though, for the Mizzou cheerleaders catch the eyes of every patron in the building. They walk down my aisle with the band right before the game. One middle-aged gentleman in my section believes he can take one of these girls home.

“Hey, Band Camp!” he screams at the cheerleaders. “Why don’t you turn around and look over here?”

In the history of the world, no woman has ever been picked up by a guy after being called “Band Camp.” It is then safe to deduce that this man is either single and living with his mother, or dating an online girlfriend he has never met.

The cheerleaders ignore him, but admittedly it’s kind of hard to ignore the cheerleaders.

Chapter 4: Are We at a Strip Club? No. 8 Gonzaga 67, No. 9 Florida State 60

This game does not excite anyone in the building, unless one likes a matchup that features two seven-foot centers who will be riding NBA pine in a few years. Regardless, Gonzaga jumps out to a huge lead, holds on late and gets a date to get their butts kicked by Syracuse.

But the cheerleaders are once again the story. It is revealed early on that the Florida State cheerleaders went to a local Tallahassee gentlemen’s club before the game to pick up their uniforms. Is this a joke? Hard to say, because they are wearing a tight black spandex top and bottom outfit that covers very little. In fact they put their jackets on before a halftime routine and got booed by some fans. They then perform what I will call – using politically correct jargon – a “standing lap dance” to an alert audience. The crowd is not nearly impressed with Gonzaga’s cheerleaders even though they can perform a walking pyramid. The FSU cheerleaders get the loudest cheers of the game, especially when they come out in the second half wearing sparkling maroon spandex tops with a gold tomahawk on the front. Later I find out from Bill that a few Buffalo sports-talk guys devoted a small portion of their show to them.

Chapter 5: Otto the Exorcist: No. 1 Syracuse 79, No. 16 Vermont 56

Syracuse jumps out to a 33-10 lead and takes a nap for the rest of the game. What’s most exciting is that Otto the Orange CAN SPIN HIS HEAD AROUND! Is he not the coolest mascot in college sports? He’s a fruit! Amazing.

Bill thinks of joining the Syracuse pep band and walking down to the arena floor but decides against it. We both think he could have pulled it off.

Otherwise, it was good to see fellow Bergen Catholic High School class of 2006 member Nick Vier drop eight points on the ‘Cuse.

Halftime Bracket Update: Any chance of winning $9 million in the Sobe Lifewater Bracket Challenge is over, because I’ve already gotten 10 of 32 games wrong. I need Syracuse to win and Duke not to make the Final Four to win my usual pool with my main bracket. However, bracket number 10 is looking good, as I have Syracuse beating Baylor. There’s still hope, but I’m still a tad pathetic.

Chapter 6: Jim Boeheim Hater Gets Owned: No. 1 Syracuse 87, No. 8

Gonzaga 65.

Moving onto Sunday, the ‘Cuse starts out pretty poorly, much to the chagrin of one fan sitting a row behind me. He screams at senior Andy Rautins for not playing the 2-3 zone correctly, and tells the crowd that “Jim Boeheim has been sitting on his ass for over 30 years.” Hmmmm. Let’s do some math.

Jim Boeheim: 829 wins, five Big East championships, three Final Fours, one National Championship.

Other Guy: Zero wins, zero Big East championships, zero Final Fours, zero National Championships.

Anyways, Rautins scored 12 points in the first four minutes of the second half, and Syracuse goes up by as much as 30. I never hear from the fan again. ‘Cuse looks unbeatable, and my bracket looks unstoppable in my main pool. Even the 1996 Bulls can’t beat Syracuse now! All is well!

During the boring second-half beatdown, a Syracuse fan strikes a conversation with me, which I will re-enact here.

Fan: Are you a Syracuse student?

Me: No, I go to Colgate actually.

Fan: Oh, isn’t that a toothpaste?

Me: Yes.

Awkward Silence.

Fan: I’m just kidding. I’m a Cornell grad.

Me: Well I’m at Colgate for dentistry.

Fan: Really?

Me: No.

Fan: Well you’re definitely not a Syracuse student if you make that joke!

And I’m definitely not a Cornell student either! Hey ohhhhhh!

She turns out to be quite nice actually. Good to know our rivals to the west have social skills.

Chapter 7: Who’s Winning?: No. 2 West Virginia 68, No. 10 Missouri 59.

West Virginia forward DeSean Butler is the only player that decides to show up and bring his A-game on this day, so this game is more or less a dud with both teams shooting poorly. As this game goes on, I am feverishly following Maryland-Michigan State on my cell phone, which is kicking into high gear. For those keeping score, yes, I was following a play-by-play live stats feature on my phone of one game rather than watching live basketball that I paid to see 30 yards in front of me. Of course I picked Maryland to win, meaning that Michigan State would come out on top with a buzzer-beating three pointer.

Thus ends the first half of this adventure. Tune in next week for more stories about Huggy Bear, the biggest bathroom in the world, sitting with Cornell hockey diehards, selling my soul and becoming a West Virginia fan, getting lost in Utica and Albany on the same day and mistaking a yield sign for a green light.