SYRACUSE. N.Y. —
They call it March Madness and it’s a wonderful time ... if you are on the winning end.
If you are on the losing end, it becomes March madness.
“Last year, when we lost [in a stunning first-round upset to Dayton], it was a horrible feeling,” junior forward Cam Thoroughman recalled. “Your mood is just terrible. I mean, everything sucks. Then all through the off-season the strength coach is bringing it up every day, pushing you not to let it happen again.”
It becomes March madness, all right. Anger, hurt, disappointment.
Basketball in March and basketball in February are as different as is the weather.
It’s like a pickup game at the YMCA in February.
In March every game is like being the defendant in a capital murder trial.
“Everyone’s back is against the wall,” WVU guard Joe Mazzulla said. “It’s one and done.”
One loss and done … that’s what makes it such a thrilling event.
“In February, you go in with the mentality that if you don’t win one, well, it’s OK. That doesn’t happen in March,” Da’Sean Butler said. “You lose and it’s over”
“In March, you can’t say ‘We’ll get ‘em the next time,” Coach Bob Huggins said. “If we don’t have a good weekend, I’m out recruiting on Monday.”
And right now, Huggins wants no part of recruiting.
In Butler’s case, the finality is overbearing. He is a senior who has given his all to West Virginia basketball.
He came in under John Beilein, stayed when Beilein left.
When Bob Huggins came in Butler reinvented himself and with it his game. He became bigger, stronger, more of a scorer.
He became the anointed one when Joe Alexander left early for the NBA. Alexander, it will be recalled, was languishing away on the bench under Beilein, yet he became Huggins’ featured player. Huggins took his skills and molded them to the point that he reached his full potential, just as Butler has now done.
Yes, everyone knew he’d be a good player in his freshman year under Beilein, but no one knew he’d be a great player, a man who would score 43 points in a single game and more than 2,000 in his career.
And now it is March of his senior season and he is responding as you would have expected he would, for he knows it’s all different now. Every time he walks on a court wearing a West Virginia uniform it could be the last time he does it.
He doesn’t want to experience that and is only four victories away from going out a
winner, but of the 16 teams remaining, 15 will go out with a defeat and that’s why this is so different.
“If you lose in a conference tournament, it hurts, but you still have a chance to win it all,” Butler said.
That’s what makes the NCAA Tournament what it is, at test of heart and a test of soul.
“You try to keep some prospective. You don’t want to look at the games any differently, but one you walk on the floor it feels different,” Mazzulla said.
In a conference tournament, too, you know your opponent almost as well as you know yourself. You have played against him during the regular season once, maybe twice. If you are a junior or a senior you have multiple experiences against the opponent.
But in the NCAA it is almost always an opponent who is a. successful and, b. unfamiliar.
Washington, WVU’s opponent on Thursday night at 7:27 p.m, falls into that category. The Huskies are a Pac-10 team but they might as well be playing in Peking, as much as WVU knew about them when they learned they would face them.
They play anything but a Big East style of basketball, trying to run and gun, defense being a secondary thought.
Whichever team can impose itself on the other will win and move on.
The loser will again learn the reality of March basketball, a time of year when only one team survives.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at email@example.com,