Yesterday I marked the 15th anniversary of the closest first-day bracket in NCAA Tournament history. Yesterday I marked the 15th anniversary of the closest first-day bracket in NCAA Tournament history, the first round in Boise in 2001. The four games were decided by a total of seven points, capped by 15th-seeded Hampton’s legendary 59-58 upset of second-seeded Iowa State. But there was so much more to it than that. Michael Wilbon, who at that time was merely a premier sports columnist for the Washington Post, could hardly believe his eyes. A Scott Slant reader sent me the column so we could relive it. “The best story of this week, here or in any other region, was Idaho’s love affair with Hampton,” wrote Wilbon. “It might be the warmest, fuzziest, feel-good relationship I’ve seen develop in 20 years of covering the NCAA tournament.” The backdrop, said Wilbon: “Hampton is a historically black university; Boise is 98 percent white.”
Summarizing Wilbon’s column: “Thursday night, a house full of people at The Pavilion fell in love with Hampton’s underdog of a basketball team, its foot-stompin’, head-boppin’ band, and its cheerleaders who say to hell with stunts, let’s dance. They were so taken with the Hampton people, they invited the band to play between periods of Friday night’s Idaho Steelheads game. Saturday afternoon, in the middle of the Maryland-Georgia State game, the damndest thing happened. This mighty roar went up as the Hampton band members, sans instruments, walked to their seats in the stands. When the Hampton team was introduced to the crowd at the Boise State Pavilion, it was as if the old Celtics had walked into Boston Garden. The Hampton cheerleaders held up signs that spelled out, ‘We Love Boise!’”
Then, the aftermath, as Wilbon continued: “Asked to talk about this instantly formed relationship between this Northwest city and Hampton University, guard Marseilles Brown said emotionally: ‘No words, man…Sorry.’ (Coach Steve) Merfeld, clearly stunned by everything that had happened here this weekend, from the upset of second-seeded Iowa State on Thursday night to the reception his team got before, during, and after the game against Georgetown, had some words. ‘The recognition people gave us has been very, very special,’ he said. ‘It’s very obvious to us why the tournament is in Boise, Idaho. We didn’t know that when we were assigned this region, but we do now. Thank you.’”
Now, can you wait for the NCAA Tournament to return to Boise in 2018? “People in Washington and New York and Philly hear Boise, and they laugh,” wrote Wilbon in 2001. “They wonder why the NCAA would put first- and second-round games here. They don’t know how The Pavilion was filled to watch Shaq and Alonzo Mourning play their final college games here in 1992, or how the house nearly fell the afternoon UCLA’s Tyus Edney drove the length of the floor with 3.5 seconds left in 1995 to beat Missouri at the buzzer. There might not be another place where these games are likely to be so appreciated, and there probably isn’t a school more appreciative in return than Hampton, which will take back home to Virginia memories so fond they could make a national champion jealous.”
There are no teams from Idaho playing in the NCAA Tournament this week, but there are three Idahoans. The first is Kyle Dranginis, the former Skyview High star who has become a key ingredient for Gonzaga as a senior. The two-time Idaho Gatorade Player of the Year has started 22 of 33 games and is averaging 6.5 points per outing as the Bulldogs prep for Seton Hall at the Midwest Regional in Denver tomorrow. Coincidentally, the Zags’ game will be followed by more Bulldogs—and another former Treasure Valley star going against them. Former Borah High standout Isaiah Wright is averaging 13½ minutes and 2.1 points per game as a Utah sophomore. The Utes take on Mountain West champion Fresno State. Another Skyview grad, J.C. Kennedy, is a sophomore at Weber State. Kennedy has played in four games for the Wildcats, who face Xavier on Friday.
The snubbed San Diego State Aztecs started the NIT with a 79-55 rout of IPFW last night. Nevada opens play in the CBI against Montana tonight at the Lawlor Event Center, while Idaho begins the tournament on the road at Seattle University. Hard to fathom why Seattle is in the field, except for the fact that the CBI needed to fill its bracket. The Redhawks are 14-16 and lost to Cal State Bakersfield in the WAC Tournament by 25 points. The Vandals are worthy, but the alphabet soup tournaments have to reach sometimes. When they were first created, power conference schools participated (Boise State played Stanford and Oregon in the CBI in 2009 and 2011, respectively). Now there’s nary a power conference team in sight below the NIT.
Boise State is watching the postseason from the comfort (or discomfort) of home. Where did it go south for the Broncos this season? From beyond the arc. Even more than defense, that was the biggest difference between the Boise State of last season and this one. The Broncos’ team percentage from three-point land dropped from a solid 39 to a tepid 33. James Webb III saw his accuracy on treys plunge from 41 percent to 25. Anthony Drmic connected on 37 percent from deep before his injury last season—this season it was 34. And Nick Duncan went from 38 percent to 35. The only player on an upward trajectory was Mikey Thompson, going from 31 to 36 percent. Then there was the Derrick Marks factor. The 2015 Mountain West Player of the Year shot almost 44 percent on three-pointers last season. This season he was in Italy.
Woe is the defensive line. Woe is the secondary. The Boise State coaching staff certainly doesn’t view it that way, but that’s what “on paper” says. Linebacker, on the other hand, looks rock-solid as spring football rolls on. With Tanner Vallejo limited this spring after ankle surgery, the guys behind Ben Weaver and Joe Martarano can make an impression. Darren Lee, the special teams dynamo, would relish some regular snaps. Leighton Vander Esch from Riggins is ready to bust out as a fan favorite. And then there’s a guy coach Bryan Harsin singled out just before spring ball began. Marquis Hendrix, a 6-0, 228-pounder from Ocala, FL, is one of those relatively anonymous redshirt freshmen who was rated the 10th-best middle ‘backer coming out of Florida in the 2015 recruiting class.
Chris Petersen always had unique team-building activities during his eight seasons as head coach at Boise State. And so it is at Washington. Adam Jude of the Seattle Times wrote about this one: the Huskies racing to the top of the Space Needle last Friday morning.” This after a locker room sign was posted that said, “There are no elevators to success. You must take the stairs.” They took the stairs alright, 52 stories’ worth. Writes Jude, “Petersen, who, ahem, took the elevator up, waited at the top of the stairs and greeted each (exhausted) player as he arrived. One 300-pound lineman vomited in a garbage can on the viewing deck.” Then they all took the elevator back down.
Treveon Graham has been en fuego since the Idaho Stampede’s roster was turned on its ear. Graham poured in 31 points last night as the Stampede took down Oklahoma City 103-96 after trailing by 18 points in the second quarter last night in CenturyLink Arena. The former VCU standout has averaged 26.2 points over the past six games. Phil Pressey returned from his two 10-day contracts with the Phoenix Suns to add 17 points for the Stamps, who’ll be home for St. Patrick’s Day to host the L.A. D-Fenders.
The NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships begin today in Atlanta, and Boise State swimmers head right for the pool. The Broncos’ 800-meter freestyle relay team will compete in the first event of the day. Three other Boise state relays are entered this week—in the 200 and 400 free and the 200 medley. Sam Wicks, Emma Chard and Brittany Aoyama qualified for individual events. In women’s golf, senior Samantha Martin grabbed medalist honors for the fourth time in her career yesterday when she won the individual championship at the BYU Entrada Classic in St. George, UT.
This Day In Sports…March 16, 1987:
At Hec Edmundson Pavilion in Seattle, Boise State falls to Washington, 73-68, in the second round of the NIT. The Broncos led by three at the half but ended up being called for a staggering 31 personal fouls in the game. Arnell Jones, Jeff Kelley and Greg Dodd all fouled out, hurting BSU down the stretch. Chris Childs led the Broncos with 21 points as the season finished at 23-7—the best yet to that point.
(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment Sunday nights at 10:30PM on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra and anchors five sports segments each weekday on 93.1 The Ticket. He also served as color commentator on KTVB’s telecasts of Boise State football for 14 seasons.)