NCAA Tournament 2022: A unique look at mid-major March Madness in Greenville amid the ‘K’haos

Setting the scene for college hoops final game of a thrilling 2021-22 season

Following Saturday night’s epic 81-77 win by North Carolina over Duke in what was the first-ever meeting between the two rivals in the NCAA Tournament, the Tar Heels move on to Monday night’s national title game against Kansas, which defeated Villanova, 81-65, in the other national semifinal.

Tip-off between Kansas and North Carolina is set for 9:20 EST.

The win by North Carolina in college basketball’s biggest rivalry clash, and perhaps the biggest rivalry in domestic sport, also closed the chapter on a stellar career for a college basketball coach, in Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, which transcended all levels and genders of the game, whether it be collegiately, professionally or internationally.

Coacn K who won a college basketball record 1,202 career games in 42 years and won five national titles.

The national title game between the Tar Heels and Jayhawks will pit two of the top three winningest basketball programs of all time, with Kansas having overtaken Kentucky as NCAA Division I college basketball’s all-time winningest program, as the Jayhawks have now won 2,356 games in 1n 123 seasons.

National title and a couple of local notes:

–From a local perspective, Furman, Clemson, College of Charleston,

Greenville’s time to shine in the national spotlight

For the second time in five years, I got the experience of a lifetime—to experience college basketball’s Big Dance in person in my hometown of Greenville, S.C.

There’s a special kind of pride when the tournament comes to the town you were born and raised in. 

It’s easy to get caught up in the big-time. Stories abounded of the ‘big’ variety. The obvious lazy storyline was the legendary coaches on-hand in Greenville looking to survive and advance in the west and south regions, respectively.

One of the treats of it being Coach K’s last tournament was it is more than enough to draw the big time broadcast crew from CBS, who of course are Jim Nantz, Duke legend Grant Hill, and the man who made phrases ‘onions’, ‘man-to-man’ and ‘send it in Jerome’ legendary phrases, Bill Raftery, as well as maybe the best sideline reporter at any level of hoops—Tracy Wolfson, the weekend was setting up to be a pretty epic one for my one last shining moment covering a game live for the 2021-22 campaign.

If I might add one thing about that broadcast crew, their delivery is great on-camera. You see that and you know how good that quartet is on-camera, but I have to say, Nantz, Hill and Rafferty are amazing people. They truly exhibit the kind of humility that makes heart happy.

They signed every autograph with kindness and smiles and were never put off by any request to do so. I don’t mean to leave Mrs. Wolfson out either, because I am sure she is the same, however, I didn’t get to see her interact with fans due to me being on the other side of the court,

While Coach K understandably saturated the headlines, Tom Izzo, Jim Larrananga, and Bruce Pearl were all in town too—and had a lot of talent to boot and were worthy of stories written about them, too.

While Coach K and Izzo and Larranaga and Pearl are all great and first-class coaches, I gladly big-timed them to write about three mid-majors on hand in my city, which included a pair of 15 seeds, in Jacksonville State (midwest) and Cal-State Fullerton (west), as well as No. 10 seed (west) Davidson

Football Schools from the same state due battle in the Palmetto State

If you know anything state of Alabama, you know it’s about as important to the state is the sport of soccer is to Brazil.

When Ray Harper’s Jacksonville State Gamecocks arrived in Greenville for the NCAA Tournament, most who follow the program probably could tell you about how JSU’s first NCAA Division I-AA playoff appearance (2004) went in the same city than it could tell you about any single game of the 2021-22 basketball season, or that the Gamecocks didn’t;’t even win their conference tourney.

That football trip 18 years ago was memorable for all the wrong reasons, as the Gamecocks were trounced by Furman and Florida transfer QB Ingle Martin, 49-7

Things wouldn’t be much different unfortunately for Harper and the Gamecocks come 18 years later on the basketball hardwood.

The Gamecocks had lost all 13 previous meetings to the big, bad Tigers. For the better part of the opening eight minutes, the Gamecocks didn’t back down playing fearless basketball. But as it so often does, the it happened. What’s the ‘it’ you might ask. It’s thing that happens to Cinderella more often than not in March in matchups with such seed disparity. The Tigers literally left the Gamecocks breathless.

The Gamecocks held a 21-18 lead with 7:33 remaining in the opening half, however, a 21-6 run by the Tigers to close the half gave the No. 2 seed a 39-27 lead at the break. They would never threaten Pearl’s Tigers again, losing a 15-point contest, 78-63.

The season ended with an impressive 21-10 mark in the Gamecocks’ layover in the Atlantic Sun before moving on to Conference USA. That move will also see the football program transition to the FBS level.

Fullerton’s Fight

Mark Wiliams (Duke) dunks home the first points vs Cal State Fullerton

The first game of the night session saw a rarity in March. When Coach K and the Blue Devils arrived, the crowd might as well have been in the Roman Coliseum ready for the slaughter.

Yet in most venues, the underdogs get a lot of love, and sometimes, even more than the higher seed. That was never the case on the 18th of March in the first evening contest at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena.

In a strange peculiarity, the crowd was a late-arriving one, with the internet causing the scanning systems issues, leaving most of the Blue Devil fans mad as hell by the time they settled in their seats with over half the first half already having been played. That coupled with the price of some of the seats was enough to make a fan nauseous at the mere thought.

Fullerton was overwhelmed by Duke, In awe of that devilish athleticism which saw a major swat by Mark Williams on one end and a two-handed rim-bender on the other, offering Williams’ best effort to cause intense intimidation for the Titans.

The way those two emphatic plays unfolded must have seemed like a grand slam in the opening inning for the decorated college baseball program, which has won an impressive four national titles in that particular sport.

Fullerton collected itself and settled down and into March. They started to enjoy the game rather than fear mistakes. At that point, Duke’s advantages were sliced to size and overall talent, as the Titans showed heart and some scrappiness.

At the end of the night, Paolo Bancaro, Mark Williams and Theo John had been too much for the undersized Titans, winning a 78-63 decision.

Davidson and Michigan State battle to the wire in physical contest

Davidson guard Foster Loyer

The game I was most anticipating was the final game of the opening night of basketball in Greenville.

The main reason being is the fact that the game represented a full-circle moment for me. The Bon Secours Wellness Arena, which was known as the BI-LO Center two decades ago, hosted the 2000 and ‘01 Southern Conference Tournaments, as well as hosting the ‘01 first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament for the first time.

Davidson’s Bob McKillop was not long into his tenure as Davidson head coach the first time he coached his Wildcats in the facility came in the 2000 SoCon Tournament. He also been around long enough to hope to forget it.

Wofford’s Ian Chadwick sunk Wildcat hearts and perhaps a few yachts on Lake Norman with his 16-footer with 2.8 seconds remaining to help the Terriers bring an abrupt end to Davidson’s millennial season, with a 65-64 loss.

McKillop’s memories of the place would get no better a year later. They say the penultimate game of any tournament in any sport is usually the toughest. For McKillop in 2001, it was tough for more reasons than one.

Fran McCaffery’s UNCG Spartans, which came to Greenville as the favorites to win the tournament and would go on to do so, used a physical front court tandem of Nathan Popp, Air Force transfer David Schuck, while sharp-shooting freshman Jay Joseph and heady point guard Courtney Eldredge helped the feisty Spartans overcome a very physical Davidson team that featured the likes of Wayne Bernard and the rare Irish seven-footer, Martin Ides, 73-68, in a heated battle.

It was my first SoCon tournament as a media member, and the heated exchange afterwards between a particular coach from one team and a player from the other, I won’t soon forget and out of respect to both, I will leave that story there. That was one heck of a tournament but yet another forgettable experience for McKillop and his Wildcats.

Now McKillop and the Wildcats did give the SoCon Steph Curry and an ‘08 NCAA Tournament run to Elite Eight before eventually losing to national champion Kansas. Some five years later, McKillop and the Cats were off to an elite conference, in the Atlantic 10.

As fate would have it, the 2022 tournament saw the Wildcats to an arena where, as Tim Brando might say, the iron had been all too unkind.

Fittingly, the official hosts of the Greenville regional was the Southern Conference and Furman.

For pros like Furman Sports Information Director Hunter Reid, former Appalachian State SID Kelby Siler, who coordinated the official stats from site, and former SoCon media relations director Steve Shutt, who was the NCAA’s media liaison, it was a reunion. Shutt, Reid and Siler all were good storytellers and in expected tournament form all weekend, and at least one of those stories involved that very Davidson-UNCG semifinal game back in 2001.

That aside, McKillop’s Wildcats had a game to win, and it wouldn’t be an easy one against Izzo’s Spartans, who had improved seemingly with the progression of the season.

Izzo’s Spartans are perennially tough and built for March. It’s a rarity see them lose the first or even the second game of the opening weekend.

When Davidson was in the SoCon, they were bullies and they were physical. The Wildcats were Michigan State’s mini-me when they called the SoCon home under McKillop.

I am pretty sure McKillop also owns the computer game Carmen San Diego. If he doesn’t, he should because at least tied in world travel. McKillop was no gumshoe when it came to coaching in March, however.

There were international players I remember from Davidson’s days in the SoCon—I recall guys like Ali Ton (Turkey), Narcisse Ewodo and Ray Mineland (Yaounde, Cameroon), Detlef Musch (Germany), and even when they weren’t Internationally recruited, like domestically-born George Spain, somehow the shrewd tactician McKillop managed to sign a player with a country in his literal name.

I’ll admit I hadn’t followed Davidson all that much since the Wildcats left the SoCon, however, one glance at the roster I felt home again—Hyunjung Lee (Yongin City, South Korea), Sam Mennenga (Auckland, New Zealand), and Luka Brajkovic (Feldkirch, Austria) were just three of the five international players that Davidson brought to Greenville.

The game was the best of the day, living up to everyone’s expectations. It took a Spartan effort from Izzo’s men, and in particular Joey Hauser, who went for a career-high 27 points to help the Spartans hold off the Wildcats, 74-73, in another thriller in Greenville.

McKillop’s first appearance in downtown Greenville in a postseason tournament produced the same result as his very first some 21 years ago—a one-point loss. That’s the nature of March.

It was bittersweet weekend for me, and it was joy missed with a tinge of sadness knowing my season covering games on site had come to a close. However, it was great to see friends and that far outweighed the fact that the season was drawing to a close.

I look forward to getting back to getting busy back on the SoCon beat all summer with a variety of feature stories and creative topics on the immediate horizon. Stay tuned!

There were smorgasbord of sidebars and features and tie-ins for the five power programs in Greenville even not including the all-time winningest college basketball coach on his retirement tour. But I still maintain March is made by the mid-majors.

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