SACRAMENTO – I checked another one off the bucket list Friday.
Sacramento’s shiny new Golden 1 Center, the official laugh factory of the Kings, was host to the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Four games over a 12-hour span and, as a basketball junkie, the farthest thing from a day of “work.”
March Madness has been a major presence in my sports calendar for as long as I can remember. I’ve been filling out brackets since I was in middle school when you actually had to print one out and write out your picks – which, I know, is laughable to most people. My nostalgia comes in the form of my three-pronged binders with laminate slip covers where I put my bracket front and center for the length of the tournament.
In college is where it really took off. It became a tradition to fill up the keg, skip class, get two or three screens going, and drink from tip-off of the first game until we couldn’t remember anything too specific about the last one. We’d even take solo cups to the neighborhood courts and play pick-up basketball if there was a lull in the action.
But I’ve come a long way from that. I went from watching it on screens to watching it a few yards away from the action. I love when things come full circle like that.
I entered the arena around 10 a.m. and made sure I got familiar with the scene – something I’ve learned is crucial when covering major events like this because you don’t want to get trapped in the maze when deadline approaches. I stepped into the empty arena and had my humbling moment of marvel as I took in the details of it from the top of the lower bowl.
After a pre-game meal that consisted of a grilled cheese, a bowl of extra salty tomato soup, a chicken caesar wrap and an apple, I ventured into the annals to find my seat.
It turned out my station for the day was arguably the best in the house – right behind the TV broadcasters, which included Steve Smith and Len Elmore, literally on the halfcourt line. “Bruh,” was all I could muster.
There’s something to be said for watching basketball from the floor, and it doesn’t matter if it’s prep or pro. The intricacy of its details and the beauty of its chaos are intoxicating when you’re this close to the action.
Each game had its own distinct personality, too.
No. 3 Oregon’s 93-77 win over No. 14 Iona was an offensive clinic. The Ducks (30-5) shot 56 percent from the field and were able to weather a strong second half from the Gaels (outscored 40-38) thanks to a 55-point effort in the first. That’s a unicorn type of output in college basketball.
Watching Iona’s Jordan Washington play, one of the best players in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, was a treat. He’s a 6-foot-8, 235-pound forward that averaged 17.9 points per game and 7.4 rebounds and is an absolute menace on the court. The senior scored 14 of his team-high 22 points in the first nine minutes of the game, too. After Washington’s first trip to the bench, though, his rhythm was thrown off and he got into foul trouble and Oregon maintained the lead from end to end.
The Ducks won the final 8:11 of the first half 26-9 and, despite five 3-pointers by Deyshonee Much after halftime, the Gaels (22-13) never got closer than 13 points. Oregon got out in transition (18 fast break points), and absolutely dominated the paint (48-24) and the glass (41-27).
Rhode Island-Creighton was the polar opposite on the scoreboard and took a while to get going. The first game featured 92 combined points in the first half; the second game had 59. But both sides came alive after halftime, though, and the 11th-seeded Rams (25-9) upset No. 6 Creighton (25-10) in a game they never trailed, 84-72.
It didn’t really feel like an underdog on the come-up, either. Both sides lost nine games coming into the tournament, but the Rams were the Atlantic 10 Conference champions and, even though they hadn’t been to the Big Dance since 1999, they played like a team that had been here every year since. The Blue Jays, on the other hand, were 6-6 over their last 12 games on their way to a third place finish in the Big East. If there was a team ripe for an upset, it was Creighton.
The Rams were exceptional with ball security (eight turnovers) and were attacking the basket constantly. They went 28 of 31 (90 percent) at the free-throw line and were relentless on defense, holding a Creighton offense that shot 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3-point range in the regular season to 40 and 30, respectively.
That one crawled to an uneventful and foul-riddled finish, so I checked out early for the media room, which is based inside the Kings’ on-site practice facility. Post-game press conferences were being held in a makeshift room that occupies a quarter of the building.
Media rooms are always a fascinating look inside the life-force behind sports content. With limited elbow room, journalists, bloggers and TV personalities are herded in a stress-filled space for hours and hours. Everything varies, from age to race to ego. Conversations and interactions rarely leave the surface level, especially at national events like March Madness. Everyone is glued to their screens, punching on keyboards, tapping on smart phones and occasionally blurting out four-letter expletives if and when something goes awry. Oh, and EVERYONE is utilizing social media in some way, and everybody is flexing on their personal network of followers – myself included.
Anyways, as many of you know, the Register’s printing press went kaput after the 2014 earthquake and we’ve been outsourcing our production ever since. As a result, our deadlines have been getting earlier and earlier, and – much to the dismay of the sports staff – they work counter to the schedule of most events. For example, my deadline for this piece was 6:30 p.m., and UCLA-Kent State wasn’t going to be played for probably an hour after that.
So, with all that in mind, I chose to skip most of the Cincinnati-Kansas State game. Turns out I didn’t miss much since the Bearcats cruised, 75-61, and ended up being the only No. 6 seed to survive.
I figured I would write what I could for print and take advantage of another free meal before the buffet closed at 5:30 p.m. Thankfully, there were flat screens propped up so I was able to watch bits and pieces of Kansas obliterating UC Davis and Wichita State upsetting Dayton.
As deadline neared I tried to come up with some major takeaway as I do with most columns.
Unfortunately, there isn’t one. I swapped a day in the Napa Valley for a day in the Central Valley and binged on college hoops until I couldn’t anymore (because my shift had ended).
At this point, after covering the Super Bowl, the NBA Playoffs, PGA Tour golf, and just about everything in-between, I have nothing but gratitude.
Gratitude for a job that takes you places, and gratitude to live in a region saturated with such incredible sports.
Covering these games helps me maintain my edge when the doldrums of local sports becomes too much.
And in a poetic way, I get to split these two rounds with St. Helena Little League’s Opening Day.
So, here’s to doing it all over again on Sunday.