New Orleans or bust. Here we come, Irish!
By Brendan O'Hallarn
The Old Dominion Monarchs make their return to the NCAA basketball tournament against Notre Dame this Thursday in New Orleans. We're playing a team called the Fighting Irish, the day after St. Patrick's Day, in one of North America's most festive cities. Sounds like a party Monarch fans aren't going to want to miss.
An enthusiastic crowd of a few hundred, including the players and coaches of the Monarchs, gathered in Webb Center to watch the broadcast of the field of 65 for the NCAA Tournament. And though we knew we were going Dancing, there was plenty of suspense. Old Dominion was the last team to be assigned a slot in the bracket.
By 4:30, a full hour before the party officially began, a good crowd had started to gather in the food court, many wearing white ODU Conference Champions t-shirts. There was a real hum in the air. Excited conversations about prospective opponents and possible travel plans were exchanged at every table. The general consensus was that any opponent would be tough, but fans wanted our team to have a chance to make its mark against one of the so-called power conferences, rather than playing a team from a conference like ours.
The players started to trickle in, wearing their dark blue ODU basketball track suits. Fans gave them impromptu ovations, and asked them for autographs and to pose for pictures. As everyone settled into their spot to watch the NCAA Tournament selection show, there was an almost surreal quality to the event. We were getting ready to find who our Dance partner was.
The instantly recognizable NCAA Tournament on CBS music started the show, and the players, seated up front, leaned forward slightly in their chairs in anticipation. CBS's Greg Gumbel and Sports Illustrated's Seth Davis introduced the four number one seeds - Kansas, Kentucky, Duke and Syracuse. Then after what seemed like forever, they started announcing the bracket matchups, one by one.
Pundits had speculated that ODU's seed would be somewhere between an eight and an 11 (out of 16 in its region), so each time an 8-9 game, or 7-10 pairing was announced, there was a hush from the crowd.
Seventh-seeded Oklahoma State, a rumored opponent, was slotted to play Georgia Tech in Milwaukee. Monarchs forward Keyon Carter pumped his fist. I asked Keyon if there was a particular team he was looking to play. "Nah, I just want to go to Jacksonville," the Floridian said. But Milwaukee's a neat town, I argued. Frank Hassell, sitting next to Keyon, piped up:
"I don't want to go to Wisconsin. I don't care if we play the Lakers, I want to go to Jacksonville or New Orleans. Warm and close, baby."
The brackets rolled by, and no ODU had yet been called. Gonzaga got an eight seed. They're another rumored opponent. When their opponent is announced as Florida State, the crowd cheers. No one here seemed to want the Bulldogs as our first-round foe. The announcement of Montana as New Mexico's first-round opponent brings a cheer from the crowd, many remembering that Coach Blaine Taylor used to direct the Grizzlies.
Another titter goes through the crowd when Clemson is announced as a seven seed. Former ODU coach Oliver Purnell now directs the Tigers. We're a possible 10, and that would be a juicy matchup. But no, it's Missouri chosen take on Clemson in an all-Tiger takedown.
With one bracket left to announce, and our names STILL not called, we did some quick deductive reasoning about who was left. Top seeded Duke, obviously. But also Baylor, Villanova and Richmond. I had an inkling. "I'm calling it now," I said. "We're playing (West Coast Conference champions) St. Mary's. That's my prediction." Trian Iliadis was within earshot. He said St. Mary's has five Australians on its roster. "Oh, they'll be an easy mark, then," teased Associate Head Coach Jim Corrigan.
They started to announce the teams. Duke drew the play-in game winner. Eight seeded Cal drew ... Lousiville! I thought for sure we were going there. A couple more teams then the seven seed was announced ... and it was the Richmond Spiders. We couldn't play them again, could we? In fact it's St. Mary's that draws Richmond. That leaves four more games, and one site - New Orleans. Unless there's been a terrible oversight, we're off to the Big Easy. Baylor's picked as the three seed, playing Sam Houston State. That leaves one pairing, and we have a feeling we might be in it.
"Our final game, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish will play ... the Monarchs of Old Dominion University." Bedlam in the food court. The crowd roared in appreciation of the big matchup to come. The players hugged and high-fived. Coach Taylor gave a thumb's up to the crowd.
Frank Hassell had his wish. Warm weather and close. "I love it. Notre Dame is a really good team. I've been watching them play a lot. I'm actually a fan of (Notre Dame forward Luke) Harangody, but we match up well. We're a tough team, and we're going to bring everything we've got," Hassell said. "It'll be fun. We ain't scared of nobody. We're all going to go out there and do our thing."
Die-hard fan John Costulis said he's planning to make the trip to New Orleans. The opportunity to take on a Big East school in the NCAA Tournament doesn't come along that often. Besides, Costulis said, this year's team is a pretty special group of kids. "This team just really feels like it connected with the community and the kids. I really love their togetherness. It's just a wonderful opportunity for them and I'm happy for them."
This is the ninth time Taylor has been through a Selection Sunday, his third at ODU after three times at Montana and three times at Stanford. Still, the veteran coach couldn't help but get wrapped up in the day.
"It's exciting. When you have 32 matchups and you're the 32nd one announced, it kind of teases you along pretty good," Taylor said. "You're talking about one of the storied cities around, one of the storied schools around, so it's a pretty scintillating matchup. Great interest. When you're talking about a non-BCS school versus a BCS school, it's one of those matchups you hope to get."
Brendan O'Hallarn works in public relations for Old Dominion University
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