Thanks, Doug Gottlieb. Thanks, Seth Davis. Thanks, Jay Bilas. And of course, thanks, President Obama.
That’s what a proud University at Buffalo men’s basketball fan might have thought after so many so-called college basketball experts picked the 12-seeded Bulls to upset the fifth-seeded West Virginia Mountaineers Friday in the NCAA tournament.
But at least one former Western New Yorker with Mountaineer ties believes all the Buffalove could backfire and that talk of an upset will inspire the favorites to prove the experts wrong.
Tony Caridi, a native of Lockport whose father owned a grocery store for more than 50 years there, Joe’s Locust Market, has been the radio voice of the Mountaineers for almost two decades.
It was only natural to ask if the Mountaineers were angry -- I actually used a stronger word -- at all the upset talk.
“You are exactly right on it,” said Caridi in a telephone interview Wednesday night. “In the old days, the 5-12 seeds, the 5 would never respect the 12. There has been so much attention. ESPN did that big package this weekend about the history of the 5-12. If anything, it has given West Virginia more focus. I think they really do respect Buffalo. On the way over to Columbus on the bus, we watched Buffalo against Wisconsin. Here’s a No. 1 seed that Buffalo is leading at halftime and they were right in the game. They know they played extremely well against Kentucky. I don’t think there is any looking past Buffalo as a result of those things.”
A former Buffalo Braves and Buffalo Sabres fan, Caridi is living his dream.
“I literally grew up going to bed at night listening to Van Miller do the Braves games and Ted Darling do the Sabres games,” said Caridi. “As weird as it sounds, I literally grew up saying, ‘that’s what I wanted to do’ because of those guys and eventually ended up doing exactly that.”
After graduating from Lockport High in 1980, the 52-year-old Caridi headed to Syracuse University and was in the same 1984 Newhouse School class as Sean McDonough and Greg Papa.
He came to West Virginia after graduation to work as a news reporter in radio and expected to stay six months. He’s been there for 31 years. Besides calling Mountaineer basketball and football games, Caridi has a one-hour nightly talk show on a state-wide sports network that is carried on more than 30 stations.
He isn’t the only former WNYer with Niagara County ties. John Beilein, the Michigan coach, was the Mountaineer coach before Bob Huggins.
“Obviously we had a great run when Coach Beilein was here,” said Caridi. “His wife Kathleen grew up less than a mile from my dad’s store. I’m extremely happy to see him do so well. Obviously Michigan had a down season but the things he has accomplished there have been amazing.”
Having seen every Mountaineer game, Caridi is able to provide a terrific scouting report on the team.
"It’s been a surprisingly successful season,” he said.
While West Virginia went to the Final Four in 2010 by winning games in Buffalo and Syracuse, the Mountaineers had a difficult couple of seasons before this one. It didn’t get a tournament bid in 2013 and was in the NIT last year. Caridi said not much was expected after two players who averaged double figures last season transferred and a third player who was a three-point shooter left as well.
“A lot of people came into this season with a lot of question marks and doubts,” explained Caridi. “With those transfers gone, a lot of people didn’t think this was going to be a successful season. Actually, it was the contrary. They went out and got seven new players. We got a couple of freshmen and he rounded it with a couple of junior college kids. The biggest thing that Huggins did was he changed his philosophy. He went back to what he used to do in his glory days at Cincinnati – that’s full-court pressure. These kids took to it instantly. They literally have been pressing 40 full minutes for the entire game. It has kind of re-energized the team.”
He confirmed what the national experts predicting an upset have said – that the Mountaineers don’t shoot well, but boy can they rebound and force turnovers.
“This is a team that is a statistical aberration that has been successful,” he said. “It does not shoot the ball well for percentage but it absolutely dominates on the offensive glass. Despite the fact that they didn’t shoot it well, they just take so many more shots - 15-18 per game – and get second-chance points off of turnovers.”
They’ve been successful enough to beat Kansas ( a No. 2 seed in the tournament) lose to the Jayhawks in overtime at Kansas, beat Oklahoma (a No. 3 seed in the tournament) and sweep Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and TCU in the very competitive Big 12.
Caridi views senior point guard and leading scorer Juwan Staten – the preseason player of the year in the Big 12 -- as the team’s best player and said he will be back to “full health” after missing four games with injury.
“He didn’t have the numbers that he had a year ago, but he’s the guy who anchors it,” said Caridi.
He added that 6-9, 255-pound Devin Williams is a dominant player inside.
“He’s had 16 double doubles in his two years at West Virginia,” said Caridi.
He said that Jamestown product Jaysean Paige “has had a solid first year in the program” after coming from junior college.
“The team is fun to watch, and obviously, for opposing teams, not a whole lot of fun to play against,” said Caridi.
“We were predicted to finish sixth in the Big 12 so this team has exceeded expectations,” added Caridi.
He has had some fun watching the success of Buffalo basketball – to a degree. His immediate thought was “wow” after seeing the draw that had West Virginia play UB.
“The thing that struck me was where they’ve come from,” said Caridi. “They weren’t literally on the big boy basketball map at all growing up. To see where they’ve come, the evolution of the leagues they’ve been in and now seeing them in the MAC – and I’ve always respected the MAC – and to see them win the MAC and obviously with such an iconic figure as Bobby Hurley coaching them, I thought that’s fantastic. I’ve always been a basketball lover and was so bummed out when the Braves left. Just to see there is some basketball bounce in Buffalo to me, I just think it is a good thing. It is a really good thing.”
As happy as he is for UB, he isn’t about to root for the Bulls.
“I’m a Western New Yorker by birth, but I’ve been in West Virginia for 31 seasons,” said Caridi. “People ask me the same thing when we used to play Syracuse. While I am thrilled and proud to be an alumnus of the Newhouse School of Communications, when it comes to athletics, obviously my heart is with WVU.”