March 13, 2005

Moraga Madness

David joins the Gaels of St. Mary's as they wait to learn their NCAA fate.

David Goldenberg

“How’s the stomach holding up, coach?” asks Ryan Reggiano, an assistant director in the St. Mary’s athletic office, as he slaps men's basketball coach Randy Bennett on the back. The Big 12 championship game has just finished, and it’s less than 30 minutes before Greg Gumbel and company at CBS start revealing the brackets for the 2005 NCAA tournament.

Bennett sighs and continues to hold court with some local media who have gathered for the selection show. St. Mary’s had a good year, but the team lost in the West Coast Conference finals to Gonzaga, meaning that the Gaels aren't assured an invite to March Madness. Everyone at the Soda Center on St. Mary’s campus is worried that the tournament committee might pass up the team in favor of bubble teams from big conferences with more history; The players, the coaches, a few fans, the players’ girlfriends huddled in the corner, and even members of the media are speaking in hushed tones about small schools that have gotten raw deals in the past. Comparisons to 2004’s Utah State team, which had a great record but lost in its conference tournament and was subsequently snubbed for a tourney bid, are whispered by team members as they congregate in the back of the room over chicken wings and Gatorade.

St. Mary's
David Goldenberg

The Gaels are a tournament-worthy team—three of their eight losses came when their leading scorer Paul Marigney had lost eligibility. Moreover, it is a nice team; There is a real sense of community. Some players horse around with Bennett’s young kids. The players are from eclectic backgrounds: All-WCC forward Daniel Kickert is from Australia, starting forward Frederic Adjiwanou is French, and backup center Reda Rhalimi is originally from Morocco. Even the security guard, a burly man who stands with his arms crossed by the door, has an SMC sticker affixed to the back of his shaved head.

As a reporter, I try desperately to maintain my objectivity, but I can't. I’m hoping that the tournament committee punishes St. Mary’s for the loss and sends them to dance with its bastard step-brother, the National Invitation Tournament. For all the respect I have for the players on this team, I could care less about their feelings right now. If St. Mary’s takes one of the precious at-large bids left for the tournament, it means that the Alabama-Birmingham Blazers—my hometown team—will face even steeper odds of getting in. Joy for the Gaels of St. Mary’s could mean devastation for the Blazers, and for me.

With fewer than 15 minutes to go before the pairings are announced, CBS begins replaying highlights from previous tournaments. The players stop eating and gather together in the seats in front of the big-screen TV. No one says a word as Valpo guard Bryce Drew drains a three-pointer to upset Mississippi in 1998, and as Jimmy Valvano sprints down the court after N.C. State’s improbable title in 1984. Todd Golden, a Gaels guard, grips his hands together into a prayer position and starts blowing on them, muttering, “Come on, come on.” With two minutes to go, another player walks over to the set and turns up the volume to full blast.

The moment has almost arrived. I’m thinking about going back to the car; I feel like I might be sick. Gumbel starts to name the top seeds for the tournament. When the University of Washington receives an improbable top seed, the players start cheering loudly. At first, I think it’s because they are excited that the selection committee is not showing its usual bias against West Coast schools. Thinking about this makes my stomach turn; UCLA is also competing with UAB for one of the last spots. Then I realize that the players are laughing at a small Asian student from UW who is jumping up and down excitedly in front of the cameras, throwing what looks like a combination of gang signs and No. 1s.

The laughter helps relieve the stress for everyone, and I start to hope that this process does not become a zero-sum game; maybe both the players and I can leave here happy. Gumbel starts to announce the Chicago bracket. The players try to concentrate on the screen, though many of them are clearly uncomfortable with the many photographers trying to capture their solemn looks. Only Adjiwanou seems confident—he lounges horizontally on the front row, taking up all six seats.

Alabama gets the five seed in the Chicago region, and the crowd hushes. St. Mary’s has been pegged as an 11 or 12 seed, so their first chance to get in is here. UAB is also up for this spot. As UAB and Alabama refuse to play each other ever during the regular season because of an age-old recruiting rivalry, the committee, which sometimes has a sense of humor, might think it would be fun to match the teams up. But the 12 seed goes to Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Gumbel continues to make his way down the bracket.

Daniel Kickert
David Goldenberg

Daniel Kickert celebrates.

After Southern Illinois is announced as the seven seed in Chicago, Gumbel says, “The Gaels of St. Mary’s are the ten seed.” Everyone shouts. I high-five somebody—the caterer, maybe?—and run into the scrum of screaming players to try to get photographs. I grab Golden, who Ray Ratto of the SF Chronicle labeled the team’s “resident bracket fetishist.”

Golden has been meticulously following hoops pundits’ predictions on CBS Sportsline,, and “Almost everybody had us an 11-seed,” Golden says. “But I was a little worried we might be left out when Utah and Pacific both lost last night.” Though Golden is fluent in tournament stats—for example, he knew that a team with an RPI as high as St. Mary’s has never been excluded from the dance—he had been worried that other teams on the bubble from bigger conferences might gain the favor of the selection committee. (See Carl’s article on why picking bubble teams from big conferences is a bad idea.)

“If a small school from Moraga gets pushed out, no one’s gonna care,” said Golden. “But you know you’re gonna get beef from teams from high major conferences like Notre Dame and Maryland.”

I let Golden go—he has to call his Dad to celebrate. I realize that the cheering has stopped and that every other player is on his cellphone, as well. The quiet is eerie, given that just seconds ago, the room was awash in yells and champagne. Then I realize my own phone is ringing. It’s my brother, Matthew.

“Congratulations,” he says. I say thanks, and start talking about how excited the St. Mary’s team is and trying to describe the scene inside. Matthew sounds confused. “No. It’s UAB,” he says. I look back at the screen. Sure enough, UAB is the 11 seed in the same bracket. I do a little dance that, in retrospect, probably looked like the UW student's televised jig. Luckily, the St. Mary's players don’t notice. They’re still on their cellphones, spreading the good word. I do the same.

Related on the Web

The Contra Costa Times's history of mid-major NCAA snubs

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