Of course, although we don't like to talk about it much in places like this, luck is a big part of March basketball: a bounce here, a fingertip there.
When Princeton and Harvard finished tied in the Ivy (now the last of the Mohicans in not having a league tournament), they wanted to keep the game at a league facility, and the most neutral (distance-wise) was Yale's Lee Amphitheater, which is not only one of my favorite places to watch a basketball game, but also right down the street from my house.
(Full disclosure as you read on: I'm partial to the Ivy League, having grown up with it.)
On the morning of the game, I got a call from my former employers at the New Haven Register saying that whomever was supposed to cover the game from the Trentonian couldn't make it, and I had a front-row seat.
It was the finest atmosphere I'd seen for a sporting event in a long time, even before the amazing finish.
A few minutes after the game, I sat only five feet away from Sydney Johnson as he tearfully recounted how much it meant to him to bring his alma mater back to the NCAA Tournament. Johnson helped lead the Tigers to that famous upset of UCLA in the 1996 first round, and was the Ivy League Player of the Year the next season as Princeton went undefeated in conference play (losing to Cal in the NCAA first round).
The Tigers enjoyed success under Bill Carmody and John Thompson III, both of whom have obviously jumped above the Red Line, but the program wasn't in great shape when he became one of the youngest head coaches in Division I in 2007. But that afternoon last March in New Haven, Princeton was back. The final paragraph of my game report that day:
"It's hard to put into words how much this means," Johnson said. "These guys have seen me cry, so we're not going to go there, but I met my wife at Princeton, all my mentors I met at Princeton. Harvard has had a long drought, and I understand that. But hopefully, we can celebrate these guys, they've won 26 games, and it's such a thrill to be back in the NCAA Tournament."
You could see how much he cared, how much it meant to him.
Fairfield? I felt like I was duped. Say it ain't so, Sydney. Say it ain't so.
Eventually, reasons leaked out. Johnson reportedly almost doubled his salary by making the switch, Ed Cooley (who jumped the Red Line to go to Providence) had left a very good nucleus of players in place, and with Tommy Amaker and Harvard around (as we've seen), life was going to be very tough in the Ivy League for the foreseeable future.
And so, for the first mid-majority contest of the New Year, I tried to give Johnson the benefit of the doubt as I headed to Webster Bank Arena for Fairfield and Canisius.
It didn't take long for that good will to be tested. Fairfield used to play their home games at Alumni Hall, an old-school gym that was what you think of when you think of small-school hoops. But it only seats 2,500, so in 2002, Fairfield made the move (except for a couple of games per year) to Webster Bank Arena.
Now the Arena is beautiful, don't get me wrong. It seats nearly 10,000, is ridiculously clean, has sky boxes, VIP areas, all that stuff. It hosted the MAAC Tournament last year, and in my humble opinion, is perfect for events like that (and for minor league hockey, WWE, and concerts).
But as a Fairfield University home venue, it has many flaws. First and foremost, it's nowhere near the (beautiful) campus, not even in the same city, which is no fun for the students (obviously there wouldn't be any on New Year's Day, but still). It cost me $10 to park, the first time I've been charged this season (in Fairfield's defense, it was more than the game ticket).
As I got to my seat, I saw a giant curtain blocking off entire sections of seats, a sure sign that I'm not going to like your facility. The crowd was announced at 2,005, but there was probably half that, and in a big arena, the game just had no atmosphere.
I looked over at Sydney Johnson and couldn't help but think of the last time I saw him and how crazy it was that day in New Haven just nine months prior. There would be no madness on this day.
What was clear, though, from my seat, is that Johnson is a very good basketball coach. The Stags pressured hapless Canisius into several early turnovers, and scored the first 11 points of the contest. Fairfield never led by less than nine again, had a 19-point advantage at halftime, and cruised to a 72-54 win that wasn't really that close.
Johnson threw a multitude of defenses at the Golden Griffins, sometimes switching up defenses in mid-possession, leading to a lot of puzzled looks and bad shots from the visitors. Through the always interesting MAAC schedule, this was Fairfield's second win over Canisius already this season.
The Stags' overall record of 8-6 is a little misleading, they've played a difficult non-conference campaign that included losses to Providence, Minnesota, Dayton, Indiana St., Drexel, and UConn (an eight-point game), nine of them slouches. They are 3-0 in the MAAC, and - along with Iona possibly - are considered the class of the conference.
Maybe Johnson can use Fairfield as a springboard to a high-profile job, maybe he can turn the Stags into a mid-major power and fill the 10,000 seats at Webster Bank Arena in a few years. And who am I to give opinions on how someone - with a family to raise - who I don't even know should live his life?
But as I tried to snap the usual picture of the final score on my camera seconds after the final horn and all the scoreboards went out, it didn't make me feel any better.
Finally, I walked up to my car in the fenced-in $10 lot, and saw the left front tire was completely flat.
How's that for an omen?
· Canisius senior Mcabin Dahl is the tallest player in the MAAC at 7-foot-3, and although he didn't play much, it was coincidental to see the Ugandan in Bridgeport. Manute Bol, at 7-foot-7 and from the Sudan, played his college ball literally two blocks away from the current Webster Bank Arena at the University of Bridgeport. Dahl seems like a nice guy. He even jumped off the bench to help the refs when the net got stuck late in the game.
· You may have noticed in the boxscore that Canisius' Chris Manhertz had 17 rebounds, 11 offensive. Four of them were on this sequence midway through the first half (Dennis Rodman would be proud):
REBOUND (OFF) by Manhertz, Chris
06:48 MISSED LAYUP by Manhertz, Chris
06:48 REBOUND (OFF) by Manhertz, Chris
BLOCK by Olander, Ryan
06:46 MISSED LAYUP by Manhertz, Chris
06:44 REBOUND (OFF) by Manhertz, Chris
06:41 MISSED LAYUP by Manhertz, Chris
06:41 REBOUND (OFF) by Manhertz, Chris
06:38 30-15 H 15 GOOD! LAYUP by Manhertz, Chris [PNT]
· At least Fairfield is Title R compliant.
at FAIRFIELD 72, CANISIUS 54 01/01/2012
CANISIUS 3-10 (0-3) -- H. Washington 4-17 7-8 17; A. Hymes 2-9 3-3 7; C. Manhertz 5-13 3-5 13; G. Belardo 4-12 2-3 11; R. Groves 1-4 0-0 2; K. Bleeker 1-4 0-0 2; J. Heath 1-2 0-0 2; M. Dhal 0-0 0-0 0; F. Milian 0-0 0-0 0; T. Funk 0-0 0-0 0; S. Ezeamama 0-0 0-0 0; D. Santiago 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 18-61 15-19 54. FAIRFIELD 8-6 (3-0) -- D. Needham 5-12 1-3 15; R. Sanders 8-11 0-0 21; R. Olander 2-5 1-2 5; D. Wade 1-4 1-2 3; S. Crawford 2-7 2-2 7; J. Fields 2-4 0-0 4; M. Barrow 6-9 2-2 14; A. Jones 0-1 0-0 0; K. Matthews 0-2 1-2 1; G. Martin 0-0 0-0 0; C. Nickerson 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 27-57 8-13 72.
Three-point goals: CANI 3-12 (H. Washington 2-4; G. Belardo 1-4; A. Hymes 0-2; R. Groves 0-1; K. Bleeker 0-1), FAIR 10-24 (R. Sanders 5-8; D. Wade 0-1; S. Crawford 1-6; D. Needham 4-8; J. Fields 0-1); Rebounds: CANI 35 (C. Manhertz 17), FAIR 40 (R. Olander 11); Assists: CANI 3 (G. Belardo 1), FAIR 21 (D. Needham 6); Total Fouls -- CANI 11, FAIR 19; Fouled Out: CANI-None; FAIR-None.