Today, the NCAA tournament kicks off with games from the "first four". For college basketball fans, this is the most exciting time of the year as everyone across the country fills out their tournament brackets and cheers for their favorite teams to win it all. I have been very fortunate in my time as a player and coach to partake in all the festivities surrounding March Madness.
As a player, you get to experience every moment of excitement leading up to the big game. I can tell you that there is nothing like it. From the time your team's name is called on Selection Sunday to the time you head back home from the tournament, everything is surreal. There is nothing like it in all of basketball.
During my Junior year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, our team finished 24-8 overall and won the Big Ten regular season championship. That season, we made it to the "Sweet 16" round of the NCAA tournament. The road to get to the Sweet 16 was one of great emotional highs and lows for me personally. During our first round match-up vs Weber State, I went down towards the end of the game with a very bad ankle sprain. There was uncertainty of if I would be able to play in the next round game. That night I literally slept in our athletic trainer's room waking up every couple of hours to get ankle treatment so that I could possibly play.
After a few days of treatment I was able to play in our match-up vs Tulsa in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Our game vs Tulsa was hard fought throughout and with about 4 minutes left to play in the game, we found ourselves down 13. After a timeout, As we all sat down in the huddle, Coach Ryan made us all look him in the eye and said "this is one they will talk about for a long time." From that point on, we managed to go on a 16-2 run and get the game to within 2 points. We called a timeout and in the huddle Coach Ryan drew up a double high ball screen play for Devin Harris (13 year NBA vet) to create and make a play.
During our time in the huddle, I had a feeling that I was going to somehow get the ball with the game on the line, so I just kept saying to myself, be ready to shoot. As we entered the ball to Devin, he calmly jogged the ball up the floor and waited for the double ball screen to take place. While the screens were being set, I started out in the right corner and when Devin dribbled off the screen, my job was to run the baseline to the opposite corner. As Devin dribbled off the screen, he drew a lot of attention and for good reason.
As he cleared the ball screen, Tulsa had done a great job at staying home on everyone while keeping Devin in front and not allowing dribble penetration, so Devin had to improvise. He saw an opening and drove the ball middle where at that point Tulsa collapsed 3 defenders, leaving me in the left corner wide open. Devin drove middle and calmly passed it to me in the corner. As the ball traveled to me, it felt like a life time before I actually caught the pass. Upon catching the pass and releasing the shot, I remember losing sight of the rim temporarily because a defender flew at me upon my release.
As I regained sight of the rim, I made sure to hold my follow through on my shot and saw the ball go through the basket all net. The excitement that ran through my body at that moment was uncontrollable. I remember running back down the court in excitement and looking to the bench to see Coach Ryan, staff and my teammates jump all over each other in excitement. After a timeout by Tulsa, they in-bounded the ball and turned it over and we won the game 61-60 to advance to the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament.
Looking back on it all today makes me truly appreciate the opportunity to experience an event of that magnitude. All the blood, sweat and tears that goes into the process of becoming a collegiate athlete made it all worth it.
As a coach, I try to look back on my experiences as a student-athlete and share with the players that I coach. I try to tell them every little detail possible about what I got to experience during my time as a player. Although most of my stories these days have an element of exaggeration, it's all about getting them to understand that through proper preparation and belief ANYTHING is possible.