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.

Lyons leads Furman to stunning upset of No. 8 Villanova

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VILLANOVA, Pa. (AP) — First, it was Loyola. Next came Villanova.

One by one, Furman is picking off teams from last year’s Final Four and proving to be the surprise story of the first month of the college basketball season.

Jordan Lyons scored 17 points, Matt Rafferty had 15 points and 17 rebounds, and Furman stunned the defending national champion and eighth-ranked Wildcats in overtime, 76-68 on Saturday.

“We’re just tiny old Furman,” coach Bob Richey said. “Most people ask us what state we’re in, what city we’re in. Now all of a sudden people are starting to figure out who Furman is.”

If opponents and fans aren’t paying attention to the team from Greenville, South Carolina, they’d better start now.

Clay Mounce added 15 points and Noah Gurley and Alex Hunter scored 13 apiece for the surging Paladins, who have started 5-0 for the first time in 30 years.

Lyons and Rafferty delivered huge buckets in overtime to key a 7-0 spurt that put the Paladins ahead 69-63 in the final minute, enough cushion for them to hang on for the victory in front of a shocked sellout crowd at the recently renovated Finneran Pavilion.

“It almost can bring me to tears to think about how proud I am of the resolve, the resiliency and the fight this team has,” Richey said. “They play together, they play connected. It’s the definition of a team.”

Phil Booth scored 20 points and Colin Gillespie had 19 for the Wildcats (2-2), who were coming off a 27-point loss to Michigan in a rematch of April’s national championship game. It marked the first time Villanova lost back-to-back games since March of 2013.

“It’s not that shocking, to be honest,” Booth said. “They’re a very good team. We’re still a young team trying to find our way.”

Trailing 58-53 with under four minutes to play in regulation, Joe Cremo hit a 3-pointer, Booth scored and Gillespie made a layup in transition to put Villanova in front, 60-58, in the final minute.

After Lyons hit two free throws to tie the game at 60, Booth missed on the other end and Hunter misfired on a long 3-pointer in the final seconds. Cremo was called for a foul while going for the rebound, but Rafferty couldn’t connect on the front end of a 1-and-1 with 2.6 seconds left, setting the game up for OT.

Rafferty said his teammates picked him up and told him to make up for the missed free throw in overtime — which he did.

“This was incredible,” Rafferty said. “I’ve never been a part of something like this.”

ROAR OF THE LYONS

Two days after pouring in 54 points while matching an NCAA record with 15 3-pointers in a 107-67 win over North Greenville, Lyons had more big buckets, including one that put Furman ahead 48-46 with a little over eight minutes remaining.

Richey was proud of how the junior guard dealt with ‘Nova’s defense, especially after he was held to five points in the first half.

“He was mature enough to know he had to play within our team concept,” Richey said. “He got going in the second half. I was really proud of him.”

CHEMISTRY ISSUES

Although he put his team on his back at times, scoring five straight points during one stretch to tie the game at 51, Booth shouldered a lot of the blame for the loss.

“I have to do a better job of showing the team what Villanova basketball is on both ends of the floor,” said Booth, a senior guard who was a part of the Wildcats’ national championship teams in both 2016 and 2018.

“We’re trying to work on a lot of chemistry things as a team,” he added.

BIG PICTURE

Furman: It’s only November, but the Paladins are looking like a team that will be dangerous in March. In their only other road game of the season, they upset last season’s NCAA Tournament darling, Loyola-Chicago, on a last-second dunk.

Villanova: After losing four players from last year’s national championship squad to the NBA draft, coach Jay Wright continues to search for his best rotation. On Saturday, freshman Jahvon Quinerly, a five-star recruit, didn’t get in the game after playing key minutes in Villanova’s first three games. The Wildcats’ depth also took a hit Friday when the team announced that redshirt sophomore Dylan Painter will transfer.

“You always want to get the young guys in,” Wright said. “It was close and then we got down the stretch and you try to ride it out with the older guys and hope you can get through the game.”

Saturday’s Three Things To Know: No. 8 Villanova loses again, Michigan coasts

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Saturday was a quiet day on the college hoops front, but there were still some notable results that we are going to need to talk about.

Here are the three things to know:

1. NO. 8 VILLANOVA LOST THEIR SECOND STRAIGHT GAME

For the second time in as many games, Villanova lost a game in the new Finneran Pavilion. On Saturday afternoon, the No. 8 Wildcats were taking on a Furman team that had already won at Loyola-Chicago this season. After blowing a 10-point first half lead, Villanova trailed by s many as seven points late in the second half before rallying and forcing overtime. Furman would scored 11 of the first 14 points in the extra frame, and the Wildcats would go on to lose their second straight game, 76-68.

There is a lot to discuss here, but perhaps the most relevant point is that Jay Wright has opted to shorten his bench. He did not play Jahvon Quinerly on Saturday night. Cole Swider played seven minutes. Saddiq Bey only played 10 minutes. Phil Booth, Eric Paschall and Colin Gillespie all played more than 40 minutes. This is going to be a decision that will draw some scrutiny, but it is worth pointing out that Villanova used a deep bench in their blowout home loss to Michigan on Tuesday night.

2. NO. 18 MICHIGAN CONTINUES TO ROLL

There really is not all that much to say here. The Wolverines, fresh off of a dominating win over No. 8 Villanova on the road, smacked around a bad George Washington team in the opener of the Air Force Reserve Tip-Off tournament. I am not quite sure just how good Michigan is going to be this season, but it is pretty clear that right now, they deserve a spot someone in or around the top ten.

3. NO. 24 MARQUETTE HOLDS OFF PRESBYTERIAN

It was almost a disastrous night for the Golden Eagles, as they trailed Presbyterian by one heading into the break. Marquette was able to pull away from the Blue Hose down the stretch, but it was not the easiest nor the prettiest win for a Marquette team that was beating by Indiana in Bloomington during the week. Markus Howard finished with as many turnovers as field goals attempted — seven — while Joseph Chartouny and Sam Hauser combined for 35 points.

No. 18 Michigan, Providence win in Tip-Off tournament semis

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UNCASVILLE, Conn. (AP) — Michigan coach John Beilein was concerned his Wolverines might suffer a letdown against George Washington after a blowout victory over No. 8 Villanova on the road.

There was still a tinge of worry during the first half of Saturday’s semifinal of the Air Force Reserve Tip-Off tournament when GW (0-4) cut an 18-point Wolverine lead to six.

But No. 18 Michigan (4-0), which led by nine points at halftime, went on a 13-2 run to open the second half and finished with an easy 84-61 victory over the Colonials.

“A lot of the message after the Villanova game was handling success,” Beilein said. “Some kids struggle with that. It’s very natural. Michigan is not going to fall into that trap.”

Charles Matthews led the Wolverines with 25 points and Jordan Poole made five of his eight 3-point shots to add a career-high 22. Zavier Simpson finished two assists shy of a triple-double with 14 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists.

Poole had made just one 3-pointer on 10 attempts coming into the game and was shooting just over 23 percent from the field. He hit his first three shots and finished 7 of 12 from the floor. The sophomore guard insisted that nothing had changed with his shot, but Simpson said he noticed a difference.

“Me and Jordan were having a little contest before the game,” Simpson said. “We were basically bragging with each other how our shot was feeling good today. So I’m not sure what he was talking about feeling normal. Then he knocked the first one down. That was kind of like, ‘I told you so.'”

Michigan, which gave up just 46 points in its 27-point victory at Villanova on Wednesday, held the Colonials to 39 percent shooting and outscored GW 17-2 on the fast break.

D.J. Williams had 16 points to lead George Washington, which lost its second straight game to a ranked opponent after falling by 19 points at No. 4 Virginia last Sunday.

“We’re a work in progress,” GW coach Maurice Joseph said. “The last two games, playing quality opponents, is something we can look back to in conference play and I think we’ll be more battled tested. It’s never fun taking these losses. But I believe our guys will grow from these opportunities.”

The Wolverines play Providence in Sunday’s championship game.

PROVIDENCE-SOUTH CAROLINA

David Duke scored 20 points to rally Providence to a 76-65 win over South Carolina.

Alpha Diallo added 17 points, nine rebounds and seven assists for the Friars (3-1), who trailed by eight points at halftime and nine early in the second half.

A.J. Reeves scored eight of his 10 points during a 10-0 Friars’ run that put Providence on top 44-43.

The teams went back and forth before Jimmy Nichols followed a missed shot with the first of the three straight Providence dunks. That gave the Friars a 54-49 lead, led coach Ed Cooley to toss aside his suit jacket and brought the pro-Providence crowd to its feet.

The game was played 60 miles from the Friars’ campus across the state line.

“We get a lot of fan support when we come down here, so it’s definitely worth it to come,” Cooley said. “My jacket comes off and sometimes I don’t even feel it. I don’t. It’s just a matter of getting into the game and getting excited.”

Consecutive 3-pointers from Duke and Isaiah Jackson made it 65-54 and put the game out of reach.

“I struggled a little bit before shooting the ball, but I came in today with a stay-positive attitude,” Duke said. “I know what I’m capable of and Coach put his trust in me. Once I got one, I started feeling it.”

Hassani Gravett scored 14 points to lead four players in double figures for South Carolina (2-2).

The Gamecocks committed 38 fouls and made just six of 25 shots from 3-point range.

Martin said he’ll be looking for one thing on Sunday when the Gamecocks face George Washington in the consolation game.

“Growth,” he said. “At the end of the day, that’s why you play these events. You line up and play Providence in Providence, even though we’re just across the state line. You’ve got to challenge your team to force them to grow. We’re privileged we get to play in the SEC, just like Providence in the Big East. Those are elite basketball conferences. It’s our job as coaches, out duties, to prepare our teams to play in conference play.”

UConn coach Dan Hurley tossed for first time since HS days

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NEW YORK — Just 24 hours removed from an upset win over No. 15 Syracuse in Madison Square Garden, UConn head coach Danny Hurley was ejected from Friday night’s loss to Iowa in the finals of the 2K Classic.

It was the first time that he was ejected as a college coach.

UConn fans in the Garden gave Hurley a standing ovation and chanted his name as he walked off the court.

Hurley appeared to be caught off guard on the second technical. He was talking to Jalen Adams, who was unhappy with the officiating as well, and Hurley told his player, “I’ll handle it in the press conference.”

Bo Boroski, a Big Ten referee, overheard the statement and hit Hurley with his second technical foul.

“I don’t want to put myself inside the mind of that crew, but it was what it was,” Hurley said. “Bo obviously overheard a conversation I was having with a player on my team and thought that was the appropriate decision. I have a hard job. Players have a hard job. Referees all have a hard job. We all have to be accountable for our performances.”

Hurley went on to lament the job that he did coaching his team on Friday, that he wasn’t as prepared as Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery was. There are going to be frustrations for the young Huskies, and he knows that.

“This isn’t some Disney movie,” Hurley said. “It’s not the Mighty Ducks or whatever. It’s going to take some time.”

What Hurley wasn’t mad about, however, was a last-second dunk by an Iowa player after UConn had stopped trying to play defense. Iowa apologized for it to the remaining UConn staff on the floor. They apologized again in the press conference. Hurley, when asked about it, was clueless.

“I didn’t see it,” Hurley said, a smile breaking. “I was long gone by then, man.”

Friday’s Three Things To Know: Iowa wins, Cuse struggles

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Friday featured a full day of college hoops action, as tip-off in Charleston happened before noon ET while the final games didn’t end until well after midnight. 

The most important results, however, happened in New York City:

1. IOWA WINS THE 2K CLASSIC

The Hawkeyes look like they are going to be legit this season. A day after they put together an impressive win over No. 13 Oregon, Fran McCaffery’s club easily handled a UConn team that themselves had impressed with a win over a ranked team on Thursday night.

Part of this clearly had to do with matchup. Iowa is big. UConn is not. Luka Garza absolutely torched the Huskies in the first half, scoring 18 of his 22 points before halftime, while Tyler Cook took over down the stretch; he finished with 26 points and eight boards. UConn always plays three, and often four, guards, and the size was very clearly a problem for the smaller Huskies.

But that size is going to be an issue for a lot of teams. Garza is not overly skilled but he plays harder than just about anyone in the sport. Cook is skilled — far more skilled that I realized — and he matches Garza’s intensity. Throw in a good crop of guards, headlined by McCaffery’s, and this looks like an Iowa team that will make some noise in a very, very good Big Ten.

2. SYRACUSE HAS SOME SERIOUS PROBLEMS OFFENSIVELY

All the talk from the most high-profile matchup from the 2K Classic on Friday night will be about Bol Bol, Oregon’s dominant 7-foot-2 center who looked as good as I have ever seen him against the Orange.

The real story, however, is that Syracuse is a total mess offensively. The Orange are currently 204th nationally is points-per-possession, according to KenPom, and 342nd in the country in three-point shooting. They’re making just 20.5 percent of their threes, a problem when more than a third of their field goal attempts are from beyond the arc.

“After looking at [the stat sheet],” Boeheim said, of Oshae Brissett, his star forward that has looked anything-but a star this year, “if I could go back in time I’d say ‘Don’t take any 3s tonight.’ But I can’t do that. He’s been shooting it good in practice. He is a good shooter. He shot 32 percent last year, but he’s noticeably better in drills and practice this year than he was last year.”

“He’s just not there,” Boeheim said. “He’s not playing at the level we need him to be playing. We need him and Tyus [Battle] to play at a very high level and they’re not.”

The question is whether or not these struggles are the result of Syracuse being bad offensively — remember, they were 135th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric last season — or if the answer is that there isn’t a point guard on the floor. Battle is not a point guard. Elijah Hughes isn’t, either. Jalen Carey can score but, again, he’s not a point guard.

Franklin Howard is, and he could be back as soon as the next game.

We’ll see if that makes a difference.

3. WEST VIRGINIA, GEORGETOWN TAKE UPSETS

The Mountaineers just don’t appear to be all that good this season, and while that is a stark contrast to what the program has been in recent years, it shouldn’t be all that unexpected. Remember, this group lost Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles, the two senior guards that set the tone for the entirety of the Press Virginia era to date.

So hearing that WVU lost to Western Kentucky after losing to Buffalo — both of who could end up being NCAA tournament teams — shouldn’t be that surprising.

Georgetown’s loss, however, is more worrisome.

The Hoyas, fresh off of a win at Illinois that got quite a few people excited about the program, loss their opener in head coach Patrick Ewing’s return to his native Jamaica. They lost by 13. To Loyola Marymount.

Not good for the Hoyas, and certainly not good for the Big East, which has struggled mightily through the first two weeks of the season.