It’s tournament time 2015: hoops, Zen and old friends

Over a lot of years as a working sportswriter, I’ve occasionally been asked, “What’s your favorite sport to cover?

 It’s basketball, baby. And this is my favorite month to be a sports journalist — I’m usually at one or more NCAA Division II conference tournament games, but it hasn’t been that way the last couple of years. I sat out the 2013 postseason while recovering from a broken hip and last year no teams that I cover advanced past the first round.

So it was fun to make a quick trip to Greenville, S.C., this past weekend to cover the South Atlantic Conference semifinals. Some random observations:

It matters what list you’re on: Every now and then things slip through the cracks, and I’m left at the entrance to a sports event having to explain who I am and what I’m doing here because there’s no media pass waiting for me. I had that experience Saturday as I arrived for the SAC tournament men’s semifinal game between Lincoln Memorial and Queens at Furman University’s Timmons Arena.

I wasn’t on their pass list, so I must have presented a convincing argument as I explained — again, who I am and what I’m doing there, without the benefit of a full-time press ID. The nice young man wrote down “Charlotte Observer” under another name and said I could come on in.

The other name was that of Nield Gordon, who has connections both to Furman and the SAC. Gordon, a star player for the Paladins back in the early Fifties, coached some great teams at conference member Newberry in the Seventies, when the school was an NAIA District 6 powerhouse. Gordon was the first men’s basketball coach at Winthrop when that school started a program in the early Eighties.

So I’ve joined a South Carolina college basketball legend on a list of people who can walk into the South Atlantic Conference on their own recognizance? I’ll take it.

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The press vantage point was as close as I’ve been to the on-court action this year, which has its advantages but also requires extra vigilance to protect the laptop, the major tool of the trade.

Potent quotes: In the game I covered, No. 4-seeded Queens gave top-seed Lincoln Memorial a battle before falling 67-64 to the Railsplitters — for my money one of the best nicknames in college sports and a great one for headline writers, with all those thin letters.

A tournament game gives me an opportunity that I don’t often get during the regular season — an opportunity to talk to the opposing coach and one of his/her players. And in the case of Lincoln Memorial, it’s a great thing.

The Railsplitters are coached by Josh Schertz, a former Queens assistant who is building a perennial powerhouse in Harrogate, Tenn., just north of Knoxville and south of the Kentucky state line.

I try not to make generalizations about coaches or athletes, but I find that a lot of the people in sports I enjoy talking to the most are in basketball. Not everyone in the sport is an intellectual — not everyone in journalism is an intellectual — but you find a lot of evidence that players and coaches have thought about the game.

Schertz is quite quotable. He was ask about the old “it’s tough to beat a team three times” cliche — it’s a standby question in conference tournaments where teams often meet after playing each other twice in the regular season.

“It’s all a mosaic,” he said. “Each game is its own event.” Then he launched a brief meditation on how the past doesn’t predict the future. Zen-like stuff from Division II’s answer to Phil Jackson.

If you think that sounds too complicated for basketball, the results say otherwise. Lincoln Memorial’s seniors improved their four-year record to 108-16 with Saturday’s win. They improved to 29-1 with the win, their ninth straight.

“There aren’t many situations we haven’t been in,” said guard Gerel Simmons, who hit a three-pointer with nine seconds left to seal the win against Queens. “We’ve got a lot of confidence.”

Wait till next year: The Royals, who lose only two seniors, want to be where the Railsplitters are right now. 

“We ended the season one step shy of where we wanted to be,” Queens coach Bart Lundy said. “But we’re hungry and we know what we need to do to improve.”

Queens finished its season 17-13 after a 2-5 start and had come into the Lincoln Memorial game on a three-game winning streak. They got to the semifinals with a convincing 84-66 quarterfinal win over Wingate. The Bulldogs had won both regular season meetings —- giving credence to Schertz’ point above.

“At the end of the day, it’s just doing what we like to do, playing basketball,” said Queens junior guard Marquis Rankin, a former Vance standout and Virginia Tech transfer. He scored 15 points to lead the Royals. “We came together.”

The rest of the story: Lincoln Memorial’s narrow escape Saturday was followed by a 63-48 loss to Carson-Newman in Sunday’s championship game. But the Railsplitters still earned the right to host a regional tournament this weekend.  I wasn’t around to see the final as there were no teams remaining from the Observer’s coverage area — the women’s final between Newberry and Anderson didn’t make the cut either.  

(I have little success convincing newspapers that at the Division II level, there’s nearly as much interest in women’s basketball as there is in the men’s game. But that’s another post for another time.)

I enjoyed an opportunity to catch up over the weekend with a long-time friend and former college roommate, Robin Smith. He’s recently retired from Met Life after a long career for them in IT — I joke with him that he’s so old that when he started his job had a different name, data processing. OK, not so hilarious.

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Here we are at lunch. Nice finish to a great weekend.

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About theoldperfessor

I'm a college professor, teaching journalism and public relations classes at a small private university, and a freelance writer.
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