It seems in my travels that The Simpsons are either loved or hated, there's not much in between. But at the risk of offending our loyal readers, the best analogy I could make to how I felt Sunday afternoon heading to watch Fairfield play Manhattan in the CIT has to do with one Bart Simpson.
When the Simpsons move to an affluent town, Bart's education - or lack thereof - is exposed and he gets sent to the remedial class, where he takes place in a game of musical chairs. The game is not terribly challenging because the number of chairs actually outnumbers the participants, and every time the music stops, the teacher delivers the punchline that is one of my favorites:
"Hurray! Everyone's a winner!"
Being involved in both youth and high school sports, I have seen that mentality grow over the years. Not that it doesn't have a place at younger ages where fun is the primary objective, but we had a high school football league last fall with only eight schools participating that ended up with a postseason first team, second team, third team, AND honorable mention. Another reporter joked that there were six kids left and they were threatening a lawsuit.
And so you could see I'm more than a little torn about the legitimacy of the Collegeinsider.com Postseason Tournament, also known as the CIT. I can live with the NIT, it's got tradition, and gives a chance to some teams that may have just missed out in the NCAA Tournament (although I really don't pay that much attention to it).
The CIT, another rung below, is geared toward mid-majors, which is nice, and I have no problem with coaches trying to get their teams better by playing an extra glorified scrimmage or two at the end, but is this game I'm going to real? Should it count toward the 800? Well, I guess that's why our society has rules, and according the laws of Mid-majority, it's a real game, and so - on a 65-degree Sunday afternoon full of NCAA Tournament action - I was off to Fairfield.
Part of my problem was not only the fact that both these teams had already "died", but I had seen them given last rites and the gruesome corpses after their respective defeats at the MAAC Tournament just two weeks prior. I accepted that and was moving on, and now here they were back to life. Kind of. Sort of. It just didn't seem right, especially two teams from the same conference playing each other because that's how it worked out geographically.
However, some of my qualms about the CIT were removed the night before when I was at a wedding on Long Island, full of Manhattan grads. They talked about how great the turnaround of the team this year was and how any postseason success would be huge.
(Of course - after a few cocktails - they told me how underreported the MAAC was and that I could make a good salary writing a weekly MAAC column and selling it to papers in Bridgeport, Albany, and Buffalo.)
One of the redeeming qualities of the trip is that it was to Fairfield, and not Bridgeport. Good old Alumni Hall, opened in 1959 (according to Wikipedia, it broke a record for pre-cast arch ribs used in construction when it was built, so take that), is obviously ancient and probably outdated. Okay, it is outdated. But it's a gym, an on-campus one that seats 2,500, not an arena 10 miles away that needs a black curtain (yes, an evil one) to block off sections.
Of course, like many of life's endeavors, my whining about the legitimacy of what I was about to do was quickly quieted once it actually begun. The band played, a surprisingly large crowd (announced at 1,492) piled in to the warm gym, a few making the hour journey from the Bronx to watch the Jaspers.
Just before tipoff, I noticed a familiar face. Hey, that's Jim freaking Burr, legendary referee and the butt of many jokes above the Red Line, mostly just because he's been around so long. He's done 16 Final Fours and seven national title games, and - as best as I can tell - he hasn't been anywhere near the MAAC in a long, long time.
Sure enough, the game was entertaining. Manhattan looked to pressure Fairfield, who was without Derek Needham and Sean Crawford, two veteran guards (Needham is arguably their best player). And after spotting the Stags an 8-0 advantage, the Jaspers controlled much of the first half, only to have Fairfield score four late points to take a 38-37 lead at the break.
Again, young first-year coach Steve Masiello (both Masiello and Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson are in their first years with their respective teams) urged his Jaspers to pressure, and again it looked like Fairfield was struggling to hold on to the ball, but when you extend a zone, you leave holes, and - despite not looking completely comfortable all the time - the Stags eventually found them.
As the game headed down the stretch, Fairfield's lead began to slowly grow, and eventually an inexperienced Manhattan team self-destructed. The lead was 10 with 4:35 to go, Masiello used his last time out, and continued a verbal assault on Burr, whom he surely knew from his time as an assistant at Louisville (and likely as a walk-on at Kentucky years earlier).
To put this confrontation in perspective, Burr started officiating Division I games in 1976. Masiello was born in 1977. It did seem like Masiello was asking for it, and he got it, a technical foul from the legendary Jim Burr. I'm sure he called Pitino (Louisville is still alive in the NCAA Tournament) after the game and they shared a laugh.
Alas, the capitulation continued after the time out, and Masiello could do nothing but watch helplessly as the game quickly got out of hand. Fairfield ended up with 14 steals and 22 points off of turnovers as they rolled to a 68-56 win over their conference rivals and a berth in the CIT quarterfinals. As the clock wound down, the appreciative crowd gave the team a standing ovation, and after the final buzzer, the Stags - soccer style - stayed at midcourt to salute them (although they will play again at Alumni Hall Wednesday night against Robert Morris).
It was still light and still warm as I left Alumni Hall and sped back to New Haven as fast as I could to watch the rest of the NCAA Tournament.
I wished I was there, watching a big upset, but we can't have all our wishes come true, can we? Sometimes we just have to do the best we can with what we have, and be glad we have something at all.
at FAIRFIELD 69, MANHATTAN 57 03/18/2012
MANHATTAN 21-13 (12-6) -- G. Beamon 7-18 2-3 16; E. Andujar 5-10 1-1 11; M. Koita 2-7 2-2 6; R. Brown 3-6 2-7 8; M. Alvarado 3-5 1-1 8; D. Kates 0-1 0-0 0; L. McCabe-Moran 0-3 0-0 0; R. Colonette 4-4 0-0 8; R. McCoy 0-0 0-0 0; D. Coulibaly 0-0 0-0 0; D. Anderson 0-0 0-0 0; T. Sommerfeldt 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-54 8-14 57. FAIRFIELD 21-14 (12-6) -- R. Sanders 4-8 1-5 9; M. Barrow 8-15 2-2 18; C. Nickerson 3-8 0-2 6; J. Fields 4-5 0-0 8; K. Matthews 7-13 1-1 15; R. Olander 4-7 0-0 9; D. Wade 0-3 1-3 1; G. Martin 1-2 0-0 3. Totals 31-61 5-13 69.
Three-point goals: MAN 1-11 (L. McCabe-Moran 0-2; G. Beamon 0-2; M. Koita 0-3; M. Alvarado 1-2; E. Andujar 0-2), FAIR 2-8 (R. Sanders 0-2; R. Olander 1-2; C. Nickerson 0-1; G. Martin 1-2; J. Fields 0-1); Rebounds: MAN 34 (E. Andujar 12), FAIR 28 (M. Barrow 6); Assists: MAN 6 (E. Andujar 2), FAIR 22 (R. Sanders 7); Total Fouls -- MAN 14, FAIR 17; Fouled Out: MAN-M. Alvarado; FAIR-None.