ALBANY — It was all quite orderly.
About 20 Saint Mary’s fans checked out the gear for sale at the t-shirt table.
Then they were gone, leaving the three salespeople with nothing to do. Not exactly merch madness.
At precisely 11 a.m., the Virginia Commonwealth men’s basketball team stepped across a carefully placed grid of blue tape marking where dozens of photographers will station themselves in the end zones of the MVP Arena floor.
Then the VCU Rams were gone, practice ending precisely at 11:40, leaving the court to the Iona Gaels precisely five minutes later.
The Saint Mary’s cheerleaders walked off single-file when their practice was over, and UConn’s walked on, single-file and high-fiving their counterparts as they passed by. “Good job, you guys.”
How about a little chaos, please?
That element of March Madness finally gets its chance at MVP Arena on Friday, when the venue will host four NCAA men’s basketball tournament games starting at 2 p.m. with No. 12-seeded VCU against No. 5 Saint Mary’s.
If Thursday’s practices, which were open to the public, and interview sessions held no surprises, Friday’s games have the potential to change that.
Because that’s what happens.
You can point to moments throughout history of this tournament when unlikely underdogs knocked off heavy favorites, or you can just review Thursday’s activity around the country to be reminded that Friday at MVP could get a little nuts.
Final in Orlando, Florida: No. 13 Furman 68, No. 4 Virginia 67.
Final in Sacramento, California: No. 15. Princeton 59, No. 2 Arizona 55.
It’s not just hollow sentiment when Miami head coach Jim Larranaga, whose No. 5 Hurricanes will play No. 12 Drake at 7:25 Friday in Albany, says, “We don’t talk about seeding. We don’t care where we’re seeded. We don’t care where our opponent is seeded. What we care about is not who we play or where we play, but it’s how we play. We need to play really well. We know that.”
This is the third time March Madness has come to South Pearl Street, and the first time since 2003.
Echoes are already resonating from past tournaments, after Iona head coach Rick Pitino was asked about former President Barack Obama’s bracketology.
Obama not only has the No. 13 Gaels beating No. 4 UConn, but he has Iona going all the way to the Sweet 16.
“Well, I did tell my team that. I’ve always said that President Obama was one of the most intelligent presidents we’ve ever had, and this lends credence to that,” Pitino said, drawing laughter from the media.
“Obviously he didn’t see Connecticut play. My granddaughter said, ‘Pop Pop, could you fill out a bracket for me for school? We’re doing it.’ Prior to that, I didn’t look at the bracket at all. I kept saying, should I put Iona in here? She wants to win.
“I looked at it, and I sent it to her, and there are so many games that, when you say who’s going to win, you just can’t pick it. I then texted her back and said, ‘Honey, I’m not real good at this stuff. So don’t think you’re going to win because of me.’”
That reminded me of the 2009 March Madness, which I covered in Dayton, Ohio, and witnessed Siena’s double-overtime “Onions! Double order!” upset victory over Ohio State.
Saints senior Kenny Hasbrouck wasted no time afterward saying, “I just want to add that we all messed up President Obama’s bracket. I’m a D.C. native, so I’m kind of upset that he did pick Ohio State over us.”
Speaking of Siena, and echoes, MVP Arena was the site of Iona’s last loss, and it was ugly for the Gaels, who led the Saints at halftime but got wiped out in the second half, 70-53, on Jan. 27.
Iona answered by rolling Siena 93-60 in New Rochelle on Feb. 26.
Pitino joked that Siena fans who attend Friday’s games at MVP ought to be rooting for their fierce rival, and not against.
“I’m sure they’ll be for us because we’re part of the league,” he said. “This building doesn’t have great memories. We got our ass kicked two years in a row, so we don’t have great memories.
“We took the loss for the Siena fans to make them feel good that night, so they should be behind us.”
UConn head coach Dan Hurley, whose father Bob is long-time legendary high school coach in New Jersey and whose brother Bobby won two national championships as a player at Duke, still has the sour taste of March Madness in his mouth from last year.
Dan Hurley’s Huskies lost 70-63 in the first round to New Mexico State.
That was a No. 12 beating a No. 5.
“This is the pressure business,” Hurley said. “I’m fortunate that the way I was raised, my upbringing in the game, I’ve been around this my whole life. I’ve existed in this world. I’ve been, like, engineered to experience this since I was like a little kid.
“Yeah, you know what’s on the line. You want to honor the season we’ve had. I think probably the most pressure comes from knowing that you have a team that potentially can do some special things this month.”
MVP Arena, which seats 13,637, is sold out for all six games — four on Friday and two on Sunday — and fans who were here in 2003 will enjoy a variety of improvements and upgrades to the facility since then, some of them specifically put in place to get March Madness back.
The NCAA has a rigid set of guidelines that venues must follow, down to how many inches riser platforms need to be.
Then the teams take the floor, order goes out the towering atrium glass, and the extraordinary gets its opportunity.
Dan Hurley was reminded of last year’s crushing loss for UConn and whether that adds even more pressure this year, and when he simply answers, “Yeah,” that’s all you really need to hear.
Contact Mike MacAdam at [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.
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