Shooting Stars

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This is my favorite time of the year.  It’s not even close.  The basketball Gods give us a 3 week tournament of mayhem that’s unequivocally the most entertaining in sports.  Please don’t give me any of that basketball “purist” shit and tell me the college game sucks.  You suck.  Nothing is better than a 6 foot nothing kid from Northern Iowa splashing 3’s and crushing souls against a big, bad Goliath (Kansas).  Or a semi-grown man with a wispy mustache breaking down in tears because he realizes his dream has died right in front of his young, hopeful eyes.

Sometimes these kids have a magical journey that Aesop himself couldn’t have written.  I love a Steph Curry-like run where an incredible talent showcases his brilliance for all the world to see and against all odds becomes a star and NBA MVP.  What I love even more are the role players on that Davidson team who knew THIS would be their moment.  Whatever they do after this fairy-tale run, nothing will ever come close to this experience.  That’s what makes it so special, you can see the desire, passion, and dedication on every single play that boils down to life and death.  These kids may catch fire for just a moment only to never be heard from again.  But that’s what’s beautiful about the month of March.  Legends never die.

You can go back to a moment from a game 5 years ago, 10 years ago, and remember exactly how wild and exhilarating it was.  It’s as if you traveled back in time and everything in that moment is exactly the same.  The edge of your seat pressure, the unparalleled euphoria from prevailing in the narrowest of victories.  Over the last 15 years we’ve just about seen it all.

Since the year 2000 we’ve witnessed comets that have flown so fast and bright that they captured the nation by storm only to be gone in an instant.  For whatever reason (injury or otherwise) their NBA careers never came close to matching the incredible potential they showcased on March’s biggest stage.

TJ FORD – Texas 2002 & 2003

Ford was a whirling dervish who took college basketball by storm as the littlest guy on the floor.  He flew up and down the court like a running back with elite vision who always knew where to find the hole.  He’d break an ankle and then throw a pass behind his head before anyone could comprehend what had just taken place.  He had the freakishly rare ability to incorporate all of the playground mixtape highlights that made the crowd oooooh and ahhhh while maintaining absolute control over the entire game from the point guard position.

He was 6’0, 165 pounds soaking wet.  But the fearlessness was unrivaled in every step he took, every motion he made.  He filled up the stat sheet in every conceivable way.  During his freshman year Sweet 16 run he’d put up 20 points and 7 assists one night and 8 points, 5 assists, and 7 steals!! the next.  In his masterpiece Final 4 run the following year he’d average 14.6 ppg, 10.4 assists, 4.6 reb, and 2 steals per game.  It was the first time the Longhorns had reached the Final 4 in 56 years.  While he put up some solid NBA numbers he never quite reached the level he attained during his 2 whirlwind, uber successful years at Texas.  Just like he was on the court, he was gone in a flash.

JAY WILLIAMS – Duke 2000, 2001, & 2002

While T.J. Ford was the creator, Jay Williams was the unstoppable scorer.  From the second he arrived in Durham the dude was getting buckets.  He was the quickest player you’d ever seen cementing himself as a generational talent.  He went global when he led the Blue Devils as a freshman averaging 12.3 ppg, 6.7 assists, 5.7 reb, and 3 steals per game.  But that was just a taste of what was to come.  In his sophomore campaign he put up video game stats leading Duke to its first national title since the days of Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley.  The kid averaged 25.7 ppg, blowing through the state of California in the process dropping 34 on UCLA and 28, 6, and 7 on USC in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8.  At one point he rattled off 17 straight points against the shell-shocked UCLA Bruins:

If that’s not the work of a legend I don’t know what is.  His motorcycle accident after his NBA rookie year leaves him as the ultimate “what if” tragic tale.

TYLER HANSBROUGH “Psycho T” — North Carolina 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009

Thank the Lord Tyler Hansbrough donned the baby blue, because if he ended up a Blue Devil there’s no doubt in my mind he’d be the most hated player in college basketball history.  Instead, he became the leading scorer in the history of Tarheel Nation.  Psycho T was the perfect nickname, every play of every game he looked like he had just chugged 10 Red Bulls and was after blood.

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And blood he received.  The relentless power forward carried the Tarheels to back to back final 4s his Junior and Senior years culminating in a National Title his senior season.

Every year Hansbrough would progress further and would come back to school stronger.  His teams exited the 2nd round his freshman year, the Sweet 16 his sophomore year, and the Final 4 his junior year until he was finally crowned champion in his last hurrah.  He averaged 18.9 ppg and 8.9 rebounds during his March Madness career.  His ferocious style of play took no prisoners and led him to one of the most decorated careers in NCAA history.  He possessed the heart of a champion and the mind of a…PSYCHO.


KEVIN PITTSNOGLE – West Virginia 2005 & 2006

The 6’11 three point shooting star was both electric and clutch in his two stints in March.  The ability to knock down the 3 at his size was unheard of 10 years ago, he was the perfect stretch 5 for John Beilein’s revolutionary offense.  And boy was it fun to watch.  The West Virginia native had the fun name and roughneck tattoos to match making him an instant March classic.

In 2005 he averaged 23.5 ppg in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 for the underdog #7 seed Mountaineers.  His 25 point effort brought them within inches of the Final Four before falling to Louisville in OT.  Pittsnogle came back with a vengeance as a senior in 2006  knocking down an incredible fadeaway “Big Nuts” 3 pointer with 5 seconds left to tie the game in the Sweet 16.  Sadly, that shot merely became a footnote as so many great shots do when Texas hit a buzzer beater to break hearts all across West Virginia.

It’s safe to say there were quite a few sad fans listening to “Country Roads” in silence on the way home.

SHELVIN MACK – Butler 2009, 2010, 2011

George Mason prompted the Mid-major surge of the last 10 years when they improbably reached the Final 4 as an 11 seed in 2006.  While that was quite the feat, no mid-major squad captured the hearts of America like the Butler Bulldogs in 2010 and 2011.  After reaching the National Championship as a #5 seed and losing in a nail-biter, everyone assumed the magical Butler journey was over.  But one man taught the pundits, analysts, fans, and his opponents a valuable lesson.  NEVER sleep on Shelvin Mack.

As the Robin to Gordon Hayward’s Batman on the 2010 runner-ups, Mack was never in the forefront even though he played spectacularly averaging 15.3 pts, 4.8 reb and almost 2 steals per game.  As great as 2010 was, 2011 was the true fairy-tale.  After losing their star Hayward somehow, some way, Mack led the Bulldogs back to the National Title game.  It was only the 2nd time since 1999 that a team returned to the National Title game in back to back years…and this was the #8 seeded mid-major Butler Bulldogs.  Shelvin Mack was the unquestioned star, carrying the offense averaging over 20 ppg and hitting every big-time shot.

These are only a few of the comets that flashed so brightly before extinguishing in their post-college careers.  Some did make it as NBA role players, some just knew that college was the end of the line, and one had a tragic motorcycle accident that ended his career.  While their abrupt exits may make some sad, we should be grateful for the grandiose stage March gave them to dazzle us with their brilliant talent.  Well, I’m ecstatic to say that stage is back.  And there will be plenty of laughs, a handful of tears, some chills, and ultimately some “shining moments” because that’s what this month is all about.

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