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When March Madness is more than just a game: Remembering a friend

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Four years ago today.

March 31st, 2010.

I woke up at 6:00 am to my phone ringing. By the time I got to it, the ringing had stopped. Three missed calls. All from my mom, the first coming at 4:15 am. She had left a voice mail saying to call her immediately, it was an emergency.

That’s never good.

So I called.

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I’ve always loved sports.

When I was little, I used to clear off the floor of my family’s living room to stage games with the football figurines I collected. I would grab a handful of quarters from my parents change bucket to design plays on our kitchen table. The walls of my old bedroom in my parents house in Connecticut are still covered with pictures that I cut out of SLAM and SI and ESPN the Magazine. Hell, I played strat-o-matic baseball. A lot.

I’m a die-hard hoops head these days, but football was my first true love. A Connecticut native, I’ve been a lifelong San Francisco 49ers fan because my mom got me a Joe Montana costume for Halloween one year when I was about five. My dad “wanted me to have my knees” when I was older so the only time I ever donned shoulder pads and a helmet was when I was Joe Montana.

I tried my hand at baseball. I wasn’t bad, either. When I was nine, I was moved up to the “minors” in the Max Sinoway Little League in my hometown. That’s the first level where they allowed the kids to pitch. I still remember my first game. Ed Prokop, who was three years older than me and would eventually sprout to 6-foot-5, was pitching. He was a hard-throwing lefty. In each of my first two trips to the plate, I got hit with a pitch. That was the end of my baseball career.

So basketball it was.

By the time I reached high school, my entire life revolved around hoops. My family scheduled vacations to avoid missing practices. I was on the varsity team in high school for three years. I played AAU ball with a pretty good team, the CT Gold. We had a handful of Division I players during my tenure, sending a couple guys to Atlantic 10 schools. Tim Abromaitis, who played at Notre Dame, came from the same program four years later.

Personally, I was slightly above average. I was never much of an athlete — I couldn’t actually dunk until my junior year in college — but I had a quick release on my jumper and range for days. One of my coaches in those days said I had a high-major jumper and Division IV athleticism. And while I shot a higher percentage from three than I did on layups, it was enough that I got a lot of interest from D-III schools in the Northeast.

I ended up going to Vassar College, a small Liberal Arts school in Poughkeepsie, NY, a city now better known as Snooki’s hometown. I made the decision to play college basketball — or at least attempt too, I only managed two and a half years on the team and a whopping two starts — because of my love for the game. I wanted to say that I had been a college basketball player. No one could ever take that away.

Growing up in Connecticut, we didn’t have a pro sports team after the Whalers bailed on us. There was always that constant struggle between the Boston fans and the New York fan, but regardless of where your allegiances lied, those teams weren’t ours.

The UConn Huskies, however, were.

Nothing brought me more happiness than watching college basketball, which is why I ended up starting a blog, called Ballin’ is a Habit, seven long years ago. I grew up idolizing Ricky Moore and Doron Sheffer. I still remember bargaining with my father about whether I could stay up to watch the end of the Big East Final between UConn and Georgetown in 1996. I was 11. He said I had to go to sleep if UConn got down by ten points. They got down by 11. I negotiated for another couple of possessions. UConn made their run. I got to see Ray Allen’s miracle floater live.

The NCAA Tournament? That was the best. The first weekend was the highlight of my year. Still is. That first Thursday and Friday is a holiday for me. I haven’t gone to school or work since junior high — more than a decade ago — just so I would able to soak in every second of the Madness.

These days, I get paid to do it. I’m not complaining.

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Building true friendships is not an easy thing to do. Finding that similarity of interest, mutual respect, and level of trustworthiness in another person is like chasing an inside straight. The smart play is to fold. The odds are stacked in the wrong direction, and risking more by chasing the longshot is a fool’s errand.

But when that longshot hits, the winnings are huge. Having a friend, a confidante, that will always be an ear to listen or a shoulder to lean on is a terrific feeling.

It’s not an easy thing to cultivate, however, especially when the distance that needs to be covered is 4,500 miles.

I come from a big family, particularly on my mother’s side. My mom is one of five kids and her mom is one of five kids. Ever since I was little, we would gather the family together for massive reunions every year. It was great. I have a relationship with relatives that live far enough away — places like London and Texas — that I probably never would have known them if it weren’t for the insistence that we put family first. I’ll forever be thankful for that.

My mother’s older brother moved to Alaska. He happened to have a son, Lew Allen IV, that was just a year older than me. Naturally, every time the family got together, we were locked at the hip. As we got older, we only got closer. He was starting a career as an MMA fighter at the same time that I was playing college basketball, so the summer rendezvous’s became week long training sessions. Hill sprints in the Rockies, four mile runs on the Delaware beaches, endless push-ups and sit-ups and pull-ups.

Lew became my confidante. When I had girl problems, I’d call him. When I had issues with a coach or with my workload, I’d call him. Hell, if I couldn’t figure out which pair of shoes to wear, I’d call him. Sometimes we’d talk every day. Other times there would be a month in between.

Didn’t matter.

It doesn’t when you have a friend like that.

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It didn’t take me long to figure out that I was never going to be able to play professional basketball.

In high school, I didn’t get a single letter from a D-I school. If that didn’t tip me off, the fact that my handle bordered on terrible and that I was 6-foot-3 was a pretty clear sign. Getting kicked off during my junior season — I was an idiot in college — certainly didn’t help matters, either.

But I loved the game. Everything about it. And I always knew that I wanted to be a part of it. Coaching high school ball didn’t strike my fancy. I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher. College coaching didn’t appeal to me, either. I would have been a terrible recruiter.

My first job out of college was with a lobbying firm that represented the interest of foreignly owned companies operating in the United States. I sat at a desk. I answered the phone. It was miserable. I would actually get excited when they would task me with stuffing 1,000 envelopes to send out to our members. In my down time I started a blog, and the more I wrote, the more I realized I loved it.

So I quit that job, started waiting tables and bartending to earn some cash, and set out to make it as a writer covering college hoops.

That was in 2007. I haven’t had a single regret since.

Sure, I questioned the decision when it was 4:00 am in the middle of January and I still had 1,500 words to write before heading to work at 10:00 am for the lunch shift, but I can honestly say that trading sleep-deprivation in the pursuit of something I love to do is 10,000 times more rewarding than being miserable and cashing a steady paycheck.

Call me crazy, but that’s the truth.

It’s also true that the Madness of March isn’t just the action on the court. I learned pretty quickly that covering conference tournaments and the NCAA Tournament is a grind. The basketball is played for more than twelve hours a day. There are people that not only want constant updates on the action, but that want to read reactions to the outcomes. Quotes need to be taken. Stories need to be written. And all this happens while the next game is tipping off.

And that’s just in your location.

Sleep is a luxury. Praise and gratitude? Those are non-existent. You’re more likely to be ripped by a fan base that is unhappy with the way you worded a sentence referring to a sophomore that plays eight minutes a game than you are to receive a “thank you” from a reader for giving them a brief respite from whatever menial task their boss has them doing that day.

Sportswriting is not a glamorous profession. It requires a lot of hard work and sleepless nights and time spent away from loved ones. It doesn’t pay all that well, especially when you’re an independent blogger.

And I loved every second of it. Still do.

It’s what got me through that first March after my mom’s call.

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“Your cousin Lew killed himself last night.”

No.

That was the unfortunate message my mom had to pass along to me.

He was 26 years old. He was married, the father of two kids and the step-dad to two more. He never ended up going to college. It wasn’t because he lacked the intelligence. An education is secondary to a paycheck when you have mouths to feed, and Lew stepped up. He worked two and three jobs at a time just to pay the bills.

And despite that, despite the issues that he was going through and the pressure that he was dealing with, he never stopped being a loving and attentive father. He never stopped answering my phone calls. He managed all that even when his job as an electrician required him to spend weeks at a time on “The Slope”, a petroleum-rich wilderness the size of Utah in the northernmost portion of Alaska where the nights never ended and he spent his “days” battling frostbite and mean little arctic foxes.

That’s what hurt the most.

His kids would never know what kind of man their father was. They wouldn’t know how hard he worked or how caring he was or how much he loved them. They wouldn’t know that he could perfectly replicate Jim Carrey’s smile in The Mask, or that he was able to do Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean dance in its entirety, moonwalk included.

When I got the call, it was the Wednesday of Final Four week. I was boarding a plane for Indianapolis in 50 hours. I made the decision to get on that flight. I knew Lew would have been pissed at me had I not gone on his account.

It was the best decision I could have made. Preparing for that Final Four, experiencing that Final Four, writing about that Final Four. A healing process, it was not. A pleasant distraction to keep my mind off of losing my best friend?

Absolutely.

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The following season, for the first time ever, I did not look forward to the month of March. I dreaded it. I knew what was waiting at the end of the month.

It didn’t help matters that my birthday is now one day after the anniversary of Lew’s death.

But like the Final Four in Indianapolis, what got me through the month — hell, the year — was college basketball. It was March Madness. It kept me busy. It kept me entertained. It kept me distracted.

Most of all, it kept me happy.

And therein lies the beauty of sports.

In the long run, they don’t matter. Sports are a game. We play them for fun. We watch them for our enjoyment, and if the stars are aligned right, for some excitement. We watch sports because the young men and women that are competing are incredible at their craft. Because they have the kind of athleticism most of us only dream of. We pay absurd amounts of money to go to games because there is nothing more beautiful than a well run fast break, or a perfectly turned double play, or a well timed fade route. We cheer for our favorite teams because, for one reason or another, we have a special bond with that team. When they win, it makes us happy.

But sports won’t solve the conflict in Ukraine. They won’t fix the issues in our educational system. The Super Bowl isn’t going to change anyone’s position on same-sex marriage. The World Series won’t bring the two sides together in South Sudan.

March Madness isn’t going to solve the world’s problems.

And it certainly didn’t solve mine.

But it sure made them easier to deal with this past month.

PHOTO: Nevada wearing pink jerseys to honor Coaches vs. Cancer this week

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Nevada announced that they’ll be wearing special pink uniforms for the next two games to promote cancer awareness.

The Wolf Pack will wear the jerseys on Wednesday (Jan. 25) on the road against Boise State and at home on Saturday (Jan. 28) against New Mexico.

“We are extremely excited and honored to release our new Pink “Cancer-Awareness” Jerseys. It was apparent very early in our time here, that many members of our Nevada Wolf Pack Basketball Program and in our Pack community have been affected or are currently being affected by cancer,” Nevada head coach Eric Musselman said in the release. “We could not be more proud to help support the cause and unite to fight this horrible and devastating disease.”

 

UCLA is no longer a Final Four contender if their defense doesn’t improve

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 03: Lonzo Ball #2 of the UCLA Bruins reacts after making a three-point basket against the Kentucky Wildcats in the second half of the game at Rupp Arena on December 3, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky. UCLA defeated Kentucky 97-92. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Saturday’s win over No. 8 UCLA was massive for No. 7 Arizona for a number of reasons.

They got Allonzo Trier back into the fold. They remained undefeated atop the Pac-12 standings, keeping pace with an Oregon team that’s dealing with another Dillon Brooks foot injury and getting ready to make the nightmarish trip to the Mountain schools, Utah and Colorado, this weekend. They took a two game lead over the Bruins in the Pac-12 standings.

Perhaps more importantly, the Wildcats certified themselves as a legitimate threat to get to the Final Four. Their 17-2 record entering Saturday was pretty. A win at Pauley finally gave that résumé some substance.

So good for Arizona.

But that wasn’t the biggest story line coming out of Pauley Pavilion on Saturday afternoon.

UCLA’s defense, or lack thereof, was.

Ever since the Bruins went into Rupp Arena and knocked off then-No. 1 Kentucky, UCLA has been considered one of the very best teams in the country. Villanova’s up there, too. So is Kansas, and Gonzaga, and those Kentucky Wildcats. North Carolina probably should be in that conversation as well. Maybe Baylor, maaaybe Florida State.

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You get my point. The Bruins, for better or worse, were one of the handful of teams that everyone thought would enter the NCAA tournament as a favorite to win the national title, but it’s time for us to question whether or not that is actually the case. That’s how bad the UCLA defense has been this season, particularly of late.

Against Arizona, the Bruins were a train-wreck. They gave up 96 points on 1.315 points-per-possession, which, for those of you who aren’t into advanced stats, is atrocious. That game was the culmination of a four-game stretch where UCLA’s defense had gone from concerning-but-good-enough to a major red flag. In those four games – road trips to Colorado and Utah and home games against Arizona and Arizona State – the Bruins allowed an abysmal 1.153 PPP. For comparison’s sake, the 2015 Kentucky team that went 38-1, the best defense we’ve seen in the KenPom era, gave up 0.847 PPP. UCLA averages 75 possessions a game, which is a difference of 23 points over 40 minutes.

That’s a big deal.

And on the season, UCLA has fallen the way to 125th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric.

That’s a bigger deal.

For those that don’t know, KenPom.com is a website that ranks teams based on how many points they score and allow per possession, adjusted for schedule strength. It’s widely considered the best way to determine who the best offensive, the best defensive and the best overall teams are.

It’s been around since 2002.

And since 2002, given where UCLA’s defense is today, they would be the second-worst defensive team to ever get to a Final Four.

In 2011, VCU ranked 138th in defensive efficiency as of Selection Sunday*, and they are the only team to ever rank outside the top 80 in defensive efficiency and make it all the way to the Final Four. Only three other teams have ranked outside the top 50 and made it to the final weekend of the season: Marquette in 2003 (76th), Butler in 2011 (72nd) and Michigan in 2013 (66th). Two others ranked outside the top 40 and won at least four games in the Big Dance: Texas in 2003 (46th) and Wisconsin in 2014 (50th):

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*(All of this info is via KenPom.com and as of Selection Sunday in those given seasons. That’s important to note, because winning games against good teams in the tournament changes those stats.)

The precedent is there.

UCLA, unquestionably, has to get better defensively if they want to win a national title.

But all hope is not lost.

The two teams with the lowest defensive efficiency entering the NCAA tournament to win the national title – North Carolina in 2009 and Duke in 2015 – both had top three offenses nationally.

UCLA leads the nation in offensive efficiency.

AP Poll: Villanova, Kansas neck-and-neck for No. 1

VILLANOVA, PA - DECEMBER 13: Head coach Jay Wright and Jalen Brunson #1 of the Villanova Wildcats congratulate Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats in the second half against the Temple Owls at The Pavilion on December 13, 2016 in Villanova, Pennsylvania. The Villanova Wildcats defeated the Temple Owls 78-57. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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Villanova maintained a slim lead over Kansas for the No. 1 spot in this week’s AP poll, with Gonzaga being the only other program to receive any first place votes.

RANKINGS: AP Poll | Coaches Poll | NBCSports Top 25

After losing to Arizona at home, UCLA dropped to eighth as the Wildcats vaulted them into No. 7 in the poll.

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1. Villanova (35 first-place votes)
2. Kansas (28)
3. Gonzaga (2)
4. Kentucky
5. Baylor
6. Florida State
7. Arizona
8. UCLA
9. North Carolina
10. Oregon
11. Butler
12. Virginia
13. Louisville
14. Notre Dame
15. Wisconsin
16. Creighton
17. Duke
18. West Virginia
19. Cincinnati
20. Purdue
21. Saint Mary’s
22. Maryland
23. South Carolina
24. Xavier
25. Florida

Coaches Poll: Kansas remains No. 1, Villanova No. 2

LAWRENCE, KS - JANUARY 21: Frank Mason III #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks drives to the goal against Andrew Jones #1 of the Texas Longhorns in the first half at Allen Field House on January 21, 2017 in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
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Kansas remained No. 1 in the Coaches Poll this week, getting 18 of the 32 first-place votes.

RANKINGS: AP Poll | Coaches Poll | NBCSports Top 25

Villanova sits at No. 2 in the poll, with Gonzaha in third, the only other team to receive a first-place vote.

After beating UCLA in Pauley Pavilion, Arizona jumped up to No. 9 but still sits two spots behind UCLA at No. 7.

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1. Kansas (18 first-place votes)
2. Villanova (11)
3. Gonzaga (3)
4. Kentucky
5. Baylor
6. North Carolina
7. UCLA
8. Florida State
9. Arizona
10. Oregon
11. Butler
12. Notre Dame
13. Virginia
14. Louisville
15. Wisconsin
16. Creighton
17. Duke
18. West Virginia
19. Cincinnati
20. Purdue
21. Sainy Mary’s
22. Xavier
23. Maryland
24. South Carolina
25. Florida

College Basketball Talk Top 25: It gets muddy after a clear-cut top four

VILLANOVA, PA - DECEMBER 03: Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats reacts in front of Lamarr Kimble #0 of the Saint Joseph's Hawks in the first half at The Pavilion on December 3, 2016 in Villanova, Pennsylvania. The Villanova Wildcats defeated the Saint Joseph's Hawks 88-57. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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This week’s rankings were probably more difficult to put together than any week so far this season.

The top four, frankly, seem pretty obvious. I have Villanova No. 1, but I would have no qualms with ranking any of Kentucky, Kansas or Gonzaga in that No. 1 spot. I expect those to be the four teams that get votes for No. 1 in the AP and Coaches Polls this week.

After that, however, is when it gets difficult. Are you going to rank North Carolina above Florida State? UNC beat the Seminoles when they squared off this season but that was the Seminoles lone loss in a six game run against ranked teams. I went with Carolina over them because, simply, I think UNC is a better team.

Then there’s the question of what to do with the top three teams in the Pac-12. Arizona just won at UCLA and they got Allonzo Trier back. Oregon also owns a win over the Bruins, but there’s came at home on a buzzer-beater from Dillon Brooks, who is dealing with a foot injury again. And while UCLA has consistently proven to be one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the country, they are a nightmare defensively right now.

Where does West Virginia slot in after a pair of losses? What about Creighton without Mo Watson Jr.? Butler’s profile looks great but their performance on the floor has been less than stellar since their win over Villanova. Is Duke actually back?

You can find the rankings below. What did I get wrong?

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1. Villanova (19-1, Last Week No. 1)
2. Kentucky (17-2, 2)
3. Kansas (18-1, 4)
4. Gonzaga (19-0, 5)
5. North Carolina (18-3, 5)
6. Baylor (18-1, 7)
7. Florida State (18-2, 8)
8. Arizona (18-2, 16)
9. UCLA (19-2, 3)
10. Oregon (18-2, 10)
11. Louisville (16-4, 11)
12. Wisconsin (16-3, 13)
13. Purdue (16-4, 15)
14. Notre Dame (17-3, 17)
15. Cincinnati (17-2, 18)
16. Duke (15-4, 19)
17. West Virginia (15-4, 10)
18. Butler (17-3, 14)
19. Creighton (18-2, 12)
20. Saint Mary’s (17-2, 20)
21. Virginia (16-3, 22)
22. South Carolina (15-4, 24)
23. Maryland (17-2, 25)
24. Kansas State (15-4, NR)
25. Iowa State (12-6, NR)

DROPPED OUT: No. 21 Xavier, No. 23 Florida
NEW ADDITIONS: No. 24 Kansas State, No. 25 Iowa State