BRACKET BLOCKBUSTER WITH SOME OF NATION'S TOP TEAMS APPEARING IN BUFFALO, THERE'S PLENTY OF POTENTIAL FOR SHINING MOMENTS - The Buffalo News
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BRACKET BLOCKBUSTER
WITH SOME OF NATION'S TOP TEAMS APPEARING IN BUFFALO, THERE'S PLENTY OF POTENTIAL FOR SHINING MOMENTS

Not many NCAA Tournament subregionals look this good on paper.

But the folks at HSBC Arena might have stumbled onto a blockbuster when pairings were announced Sunday night.

When the NCAA made its first trip to Buffalo in 2000, fans were fired up by the appearance of three coaching legends in Indiana's Bob Knight, Temple's John Chaney and Oklahoma State's Eddie Sutton. Knight is back this year, leading Texas Tech, but the focus this time is going to be on the teams.

Of the eight subregional sites, Buffalo and Seattle are the only ones with a No. 1 and a No. 2 seed. Saint Joseph's (27-1), which completed the first perfect regular season since 1991 but got drubbed by Xavier in the Atlantic 10 Tournament, is the top seed in the East Rutherford regional. Connecticut (27-6), everyone's preseason No. 1 team, won the Big East Tournament and earned the No. 2 seed in the Phoenix regional.

East Rutherford and Phoenix? Bear with us for a second. Unlike four years ago, when all eight teams were East regional teams that fed into the regional final in Syracuse, the NCAA's 3-year-old pod system has two four-team brackets in Buffalo. Two survivors go to East Rutherford, two others to Phoenix.

Six of the teams are in the top 40 of the Ratings Percentage Index, and everyone but Liberty received votes in this week's final Associated Press poll.

Saint Joseph's meets No. 16 Liberty of the Big South, and No. 8 Texas Tech plays No. 9 Charlotte in the pod that feeds to the East Rutherford regional (what would have been called the "East" in past years). In the Phoenix regional (the old "West"), Connecticut plays No. 15 Vermont, the America East champion, and No. 7 DePaul plays No. 10 Dayton in a matchup of longtime former rivals from the days of independents and the Great Midwest Conference.

Charlotte and DePaul were two of the five teams tied atop Conference USA, and the entire quintet made the tournament. Dayton was the West Division champion of the Atlantic 10 and lost to Xavier in the tourney final. Texas Tech was fifth in the Big 12 but has 22 wins.

"I'm absolutely overwhelmed," said Kevin Clarke, one of the co-chairs of Buffalo's local organizing committee. "Not only do we get a No. 1 seed, but we get the return of Bobby Knight, which is absolutely spectacular for us, and we get UConn. The Buffalo subregional is going to be as competitive as anything in the country."

In addition to having the nation's top two players in Saint Joseph's guard Jameer Nelson and Connecticut center Emeka Okafor, we'll have two of the top winningest active coaches in Knight (No. 1 with 831 victories) and Connecticut's Jim Calhoun (No. 7 with 674).

"Plug the kiddies' ears, Buffalo, the General's coming to town," Gregg Doyle of CBS Sportsline wrote of Knight. "Texas Tech coach Bob Knight is good theater, although the theater should be rated R."

Knight kept most everything on a PG or PG-13 scale the last time he visited, when he was in the midst of the Neil Reed scandal that marked his final days at Indiana. He was clean even after he endured a 20-point drubbing from Pepperdine.

Some other things to watch this week:

The stars: This subregional is about more than just Nelson and Okafor. Each has an All-America caliber teammate in Saint Joseph's guard Delonte West and UConn guard Ben Gordon, the MVP of the Big East Tournament. Vermont forward Taylor Coppenrath came back from a broken wrist with Willis Reed-like impact in the America East final, scoring 28 of his 43 points in the first half of the Catamounts' win over Maine. Texas Tech's Andre Emmett is the Big 12's career scoring leader. Charlotte forward Curtis Withers is a first-team Conference USA pick. Dayton's Keith Waleskowski joined Nelson and West as first-teamers in the A-10.

The unknowns: Liberty is the Lynchburg, Va., university founded and run by evangelist Jerry Falwell. The Flames will have a short stay in town as no No. 16 seed has ever won a game. Meanwhile, the entire state of Vermont is behind its team, and coach Tom Brennan has the popularity of an evangelist.

In addition to coaching, Brennan is the host of a wildly popular drive-time morning radio show in Burlington dubbed "Corm and the Coach." One of its staples is 6 a.m. calls to opposing America East coaches.

Brennan, along with Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli, is one of the game's most loquacious coaches. His pretournament news conference figures to be a riotous affair. Keep in mind Brennan got gypped last year when it took his team 42 hours -- 42 hours! -- to get from Burlington to the Salt Lake City regional because of a snowstorm, and he had to speak to the media via speakerphone.

Brennan was nearly hired as coach at Canisius in 1992, but the school hired John Beilein instead. A widely repeated joke over the years got big play on ESPN during Vermont's win over Maine in the America East title game.

It seems Brennan was so sure he was getting the chance to replace Marty Marbach at Canisius that he told his wife, Lynn, "Tomorrow night, you'll be sleeping with the new head coach at Canisius." But when Canisius, which had a widely divided selection committee, chose Beilein instead, Lynn Brennan said to her husband, "So is Beilein coming over here or am I going to his house?"

Martelli-isms: The national media is going to be pushing Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli for more Billy Packer bashing after the Hawks' No. 1 seed was hotly criticized by the CBS analyst during Sunday's selection show. Martelli, whose television show "Hawk Talk" has been a huge success in Philadelphia for years, has opened his mouth much this year.

Folks at St. Bonaventure were put off when he called Olean librarian Mary Palmer a "nitwit" and a "moron" after she questioned from the stands the Hawks' pressing tactics during a 114-63 win Jan. 24. And Martelli further drew their ire when he said "David had a better chance of beating Goliath" than the Bonnies did of winning in the regular-season finale at Saint Joseph's.

The scene: Keep an eye on The Hawk, the Saint Joseph's mascot. If you've never seen it at St. Bonaventure or elsewhere, you're in for a treat. The Hawk, a student on scholarship, flaps its wings the entire game. And we mean the whole thing. Pregame. While play is going on. Timeouts.

He'll even run figure eights on the court, arms flapping the whole time.

The Dayton band has a reputation for being one of the more irreverent in college hoops. Two years ago, it greeted Temple coach John Chaney with straw hats and overalls after Chaney complained that the Atlantic 10 was moving its conference tournament into the "sticks" when it opted to go from Philadelphia to Dayton, Ohio.

Familiar faces: Calhoun, then at Northeastern, and Brennan played two games a year in Buffalo in the 1980s when Canisius and Niagara were rivals of their schools in the North Atlantic Conference.

Calhoun's operations manager is Andre LaFleur, the point guard on his Northeastern teams of the mid-'80s. Led by Reggie Lewis, those Huskies went to four straight NCAA Tournaments (the first three under Calhoun) and tormented the Ray Hall-era Canisius teams.

The lone local player who will be on the floor is Saint Joseph's forward Dave Mallon, the sophomore from East Aurora who has been battling foot and Achilles injury most of the season.
e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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