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BLOG: The Madness of March

La Salle v Kansas State
Campbell_Bill-FEATURE-img Bill Campbell
Bill Campbell, known to all Philadelphiasports fans as “The Dean,”...
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By Bill Campbell

The La Salle Story

By now, you know how it all turned out. But on Thursday morning, when the LaSalle Explorers awakened after winning 3 games in 5 days, they became just the second “play in” team to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. It hadn’t been easy. Only Virginia Commonwealth, back in 2011, had played in and gone all the way to the Final Four. LaSalle had played Boise State, Kansas State and Mississippi at a very high level and the Explorers hoped to advance one more round as they climbed within reach of the Final Four. It wasn’t to be but it was a great ride. Aside from La Salle, the bottom half of the bracket was represented by: the Shockers of Wichita State; Oregon, figured in many quarters to be the tournament darling; and Florida Gulf Coast University. On Thursday, 12 other teams all were seeded among the top 25 in the tournament, including 10 of the top 13. All of this really is a salute to the Selections Committee.

The third round restored some order to the tournament though results of the second round were a bit surprising with 10 lower seeds winning in those 32 games. You might recall that Harvard lost a game to Penn not all that long ago and became an upset winner in the NCAA affair when it beat New Mexico. When asked if anything could or should be said or written into the surprise entries, La Salle coach John Giannini replied, “Forget it. You can say or write that all these lower seeds won but college basketball is completely different now than it used to be. Schools are investing more than even in their teams. They are building more facilities. Budgets are increasing. Salaries are rising. The Wichita State’s and LaSalle’s are bearing down and taking this stuff for real. People in and out of the tournaments want to be a part of this ‘March Madness” and are working very hard to play at an improved level.” He’s so right. The quality of play throughout this NCAA tourney underscored Giannini’s observations. And even though the Explorers couldn’t handle the Wichita State, we’ve got to salute Giannini and his team’s excellent performance throughout the NCAA post-season show. It was their first NCAA selection since 1992 and the Explorers’ overall performance was commendable. So it’s good to step back and think about the enormity of what these kids from North Philadelphia accomplished. Win, lose or break even, they deserve nothing but praise.

La Salle’s Number 13 seed and record of 24-10 it didn’t get them anywhere against the tough Wichita State crew. Coach Giannini was quick to praise the winning Shockers, calling them “as good as any team we’ve played all season.” They sure were. They killed LaSalle in the early going, scoring am almost immediate lay-up and pounding the Explorers in the paint. La Salle did seem to be, as the Inquirer headline proclaimed, “Shocked from the start.” That was surprising because the team had looked good in previous games. In fact, their biggest defeat in any game had been by only 5 points against Mississippi. But the roles were reversed last Thursday night and the Explorers never got it going, leading to the end of a season to remember.

With only 7 minutes into the game, the Explorers were down 14. By the half the margin was 16. By intermission, there wasn’t much doubt as to who the winner would be. Wichita had a lock on it. Malcolm Armstead proved to be the Shocker bell-cow, leading his team with 18 points. Forward Carl Hall was strong in the paint, finishing with 18 points and 8 rebounds. In his first 2 NCAA games, the 6’8”, 238 pound Hall had been less than dominating in a 76-70 win over top-seeded Gonzaga, the team I’d predicted to with the tourney. He scored just 10 points and 1 rebound in 29 minutes. But he took control against the Explorers, scoring 10 of the Shockers first 14 points for a 14-2 lead. LaSalle hit for 7 from the field while Wichita was 7 for 8. In the last game of his LaSalle career, guard Ramon Galloway scored 11 points, while Jerrell Wright and Tyrone Garland paced the team with 16 points each. And so ninth-seeded Wichita State, a very good team indeed, will now go on to meet Number 2, Ohio State, in the Western Regional final on Saturday.

A Word for the Ladies

There was another basketball game that merited attention and that one was among the women. Last Saturday in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the ladies of Kentucky (29-5) played Delaware and its great star, the 6’5” Elena Delle Donne, in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Regional Semifinal. The Blue Hens were 32-3 going in, having won 27 straight. Their coach, Tina Martin, said she had the best squad around and it stacked up as one of the great games on the schedule, gender notwithstanding. It wasn’t the first time this season the Kentucky Wildcats faced one of the game’s truly great players. Their coach, Matt Mitchell, learned some things against another of game’s most imposing stars, Baylor’s Brittany Griner, in a tense 85-81 loss. But the team recently beat Dayton, 84-70 and felt strong. Mitchell had to plan for Delle Donne who can rebound, pass, average 28.5 points and dominate from the perimeter. Delaware also had a very good supporting cast, making the task of playing them even more difficult. And as Delle Donne goes, so goes 6th seed Delaware. Kentucky believed that it could defeat any team in the nation with its best effort. And it did, holding off Delaware 69-62 for a second straight advance to the regional final and bringing an end to the college career of the Delaware star.

I’ve been following and writing about Elena Delle Donne for several seasons. She transferred to Delaware to be closer to her family and friends and Delaware has been ever grateful. Someday, somehow, I hope to travel to watch Elena Delle Donne play. If I ever do, I’ll tell you about it.

Baseball

It’s baseball time and the Phillies think they are better equipped now than they were at the start of last season. At least they have the right side of the infield together in Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. They were conspicuous by their absence this time a year ago. The team may have some better pitching both in the starting rotation and in the bullpen but depth is not on their side. It would be easier to digest if Roy Halladay’s ERA was a bit lower than 6.00, as it has been this spring in Florida. But we should know more about him after he pitches next Wednesday in the second game of the regular season. Halladay has been a spear-carrier for the Phillies since he’s been here. He has set a standard, not only in wins and losses but more so in training, keeping in competitive condition and always being ready, eager to compete. I’m hoping that the other members of the Phillies cast have taken a lesson from his book and have reciprocated. They do appear ready to roll now and Domonic Brown seems poised to add his talents to the cause. It’s about time for Brown, who had a terrific spring. So, let’s play ball.

At Large

In this interesting sports week a few things happened besides LaSalle’s story. For instance, Andy Reid signed Brad Childress to help him coach in Kansas City. Childress, who was the offensive coordinator in Cleveland last season, will work on special projects for Reid. He spent 5 years as head coach in Minnesota where he earned 2 division titles. In 2009, his team went 12-4. Additionally, Green Bay s close to signing quarterback Aaron Rodgers to a long-term contract that could average around $25 million a year, making him the highest paid player in NFL history. New England signed free agent wide receiver Michael Jenkins, a 9 year veteran who caught 40 passes for 447 yards and 2 touchdowns with the Vikings last year. He was a first round draft pick who played for Atlanta over his first 7 season. Things with the Eagles were pretty quiet last week.

Elena Delle Donne

One last note about Elena Delle Donne. Originally the top high school prospect out of Ursinus Academy, Delle Donne had been in the limelight since 7th grade when the North Carolina coach, Sylvia Mitchell, told her father that she intended to offer her a scholarship in the future. The coach kept her word but the player turned the offer down and committed to UConn. Then she checked in and checked out of the New England campus after 48 hours, claiming burnout. But that wasn’t the real reason for her departure. Delle Donne later admitted she needed to be near her home and her family particularly her older sister, Lizzie, who is blind and deaf due to cerebral palsy. Her sister depended on her and Delle Donne could not let her down. She went on to smash most records in women’s college basketball over the last four years.

The impact of Delle Donne, Baylor’s Brittany Griner and Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins, has been felt at the pro level now. Last Thursday ESPN announced it was extending its relationship with the WNBA for 6 years through 2022. The WNBA draft will be announced next month, televised on ESPN from its Bristol, Connecticut, studios. These 3 women’s names should lead the pack. And ladies’ ball is gaining in fans and popularity.

The Flyers

If only to coincide with the direction in which they are going, the Flyers keep adding to their injury list, particularly on defense. Nick Grossman, Andre Mezzaros and Braydon Coburn all joined the list this past week. Coburn was crushed into the boards on Thursday. Mezzaros underwent surgery on Tuesday and Danny Briere remains out indefinitely with concussion symptoms. No doubt about the Flyers’ direction these days.