I'm not at all of a Basketball fan. I will sometimes pay some halfhearted attention to the Knicks, but since they've been so bad for such an extended period of time, it's just not worth it. I pay even less attention to College Basketball. Every year, I will join an ESPN NCAA Tournament Bracket pool with some friends just for the hell of it. I fill out a bracket without any knowledge of any team and generally do very poorly. But this year, the Tournament and the preceding Conference Tournaments caught my attention.
When I was in College at Binghamton (what was once SUNY Binghamton, and now Binghamton University), school athletics were, more or less, non-existent. The Colonials were a ramshackle Division III team with nothing that drew anyone's attention. There was a Baseball team and a Basketball team, not that anyone noticed. I paid more attention to the AA Binghamton Mets, or the Semipro Hockey team, the BC Icemen, whose games were more an opportunity to see some poor-quality Hockey, get really drunk and yell stuff.
The year I graduated, however, the school decided that they were going to go Division I with their athletic program. Whatever. Nobody took it seriously, especially when they changed the team name from Colonials to Bearcats. What the hell is a Bearcat? That's something you name a Little League team. To make matters worse, there were a number of construction sites on campus, which were all marked with a cartoon Bearcat, that seemed to resemble a constipated bear moreso than an actual mascot. I used to punch them as I walked past.
So, I graduated, and Binghamton's athletic program progressed in its own way. The major attraction was the Men's Basketball team, which inspired little confidence in anybody. Stuck in the Mid-Major America East Conference, there was little drawing power for recruits. Several years of obscurity followed. But two years ago, a new coach, Kevin Broadus, was brought in, and he began a process of recruiting better, albeit troubled talent to the school's Basketball team. The academic ramifications of this strategy drew some heavy criticism on campus, and even in a recent article in the New York Times. As an alum, I was ambivalent. On the one hand, you'd like to think that the school you went to would want to pay more attention to its academic reputation (and Binghamton has long been called the "Ivy League of the SUNY System) as opposed to its Athletic program, like most Diploma Factory schools.
On the other hand, I couldn't help but think that it would be pretty damn cool if the Binghamton Bearcats should ever make the NCAA Tournament. Most of my friends from Binghamton agreed.
The America East Conference usually only has one team make the NCAA Tournament, and that's the conference champion. Usually a low 14-15-16 seed, the team is summarily wiped out in their first game by a much better opponent. For several years, Binghamton proved only good enough to get to the Conference Semifinal round before getting knocked off.
This season proved different. The Bearcats stormed through the regular season with a 20-8 record, by far and away the best in school history. In the tournament, they wiped out their first opponent, Hartford, without much challenge. The Semifinal brought a test from the University of New Hampshire. But though they trailed 67-62 with under 2 minutes remaining, they ran off a 10-0 run to finish the game, capped off by a key steal and dunk from Forward D.J. Rivera. By this point, I'd become interested enough to follow the game online thanks to ESPN 360. This sent them to the Conference Championship game, which was played at home, in Binghamton, against the defending Conference Champion, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, on Saturday morning. It was the first time Binghamton would play for a Conference Championship. It would be the first time ever that Binghamton would appear in a Nationally televised game, on ESPN2. The events center was packed to the gills with a raucous student body, plus many alumni watching on TV.
Though the game appeared, to me, a rather sloppy affair, with a number of airballs and shoddy offense, the game itself was, more or less, no contest. Binghamton shot out to an early lead and cruised to a 61-51 win, despite the fact that they didn't score from the floor in the final 7 minutes. Though UMBC played tough defense, Binghamton was up to the challenge, not allowing UMBC a point within the last 4 minutes of the game. And by the end, the crowd, bursting at the seams to celebrate, rushed the court in celebration. The Miracle Bearcats were on their way to the NCAAs! I never thought I would see the day.
Binghamton, of course, now faces hopeless odds in the Tournament. Seeded #15, they'll have the pleasure of facing the Duke Blue Devils, a perenially obnoxious powerhouse, in their first round game, on Thursday night at 9:40pm in Greensboro, NC. So if drawing Duke wasn't bad enough, they're basically playing what amounts to a home game for Duke. Screw it. We can hope against hope that they will somehow rise up and kick Mike Kryzywysyszyewszyswzysyezki in the nuts, even though the most likely result is a 40-point loss. I don't care. I don't care what means it took us to get there, we're there. So, for the next 4 days, we should all be proud of our team.