March 9, 2005
The NCAA Tournament is the greatest event in sports, and getting into the field of 65 is a special accomplishment. Joy and jubilation reign across many college campuses as schools secure their invitations to the Big Dance.
Niagara enjoyed a special moment on Monday night. When I think of the Purple Eagles' program, I go back to when Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy was a star. In 1970, Murphy led Niagara to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
There's plenty more history at Niagara: John J. "Taps" Gallagher coached the Purple Eagles for 31 seasons and had some great teams. Niagara's home games are played at the Gallagher Center on campus. Former NBA coach Hubie Brown also played at Niagara, and Frank Layden (one of the funniest guys in basketball) made a name for himself there. Layden coached at Niagara and also coached the Utah Jazz.
Juan Mendez has been brilliant for Niagara all season, ranking among the top scorers in Division I.
On Monday, Niagara posted a decisive win over Rider to claim the MAAC championship, earning its first NCAA berth since that Murphy-led '70 team. Niagara had lost two MAAC championship games in the past three years.
This time senior forward Juan Mendez, the MAAC Player of the Year, wanted to make sure. Mendez, who played on the Canadian national team, hit 10 of his first 12 shots and scored 27 points. Mendez has been brilliant for Niagara all season, ranking among the top scorers in Division I (23.6 ppg, fourth-best nationally).
Niagara has been among the nation's best offensive teams this season (85.2 ppg, also fourth-best nationally).
Niagara coach Joe Mihalich celebrated Monday's win big-time, and so did his mother. Dolores Mihalich, 80, has been battling cancer and really wanted to see her son's team play in the NCAA Tournament. The Purple Eagles didn't let their coach's mom down, knocking off ESPN analyst Digger Phelps' former team (yes, my buddy Digger attended Rider).
Loughton Leads Old Dominion To Dance
In Norfolk, Va., Old Dominion was known as a women's basketball powerhouse for years, thanks largely to superstar Nancy Lieberman.
Now the Old Dominion men are going to the Big Dance for the first time since 1997. Remember the name Alex Loughton, a 6-9 Australian forward who was absolutely brilliant in the Colonial Athletic Association championship game against Virginia Commonwealth.
Loughton scored 28 big points Monday night, including six in overtime, and grabbed 11 boards. He is one of the premier players in the league -- he was named this year's CAA Player of the Year -- and he responded under pressure.
You couldn't find a happier guy than Old Dominion coach Blaine Taylor, the CAA Coach of the Year who worked for years as an assistant under Mike Montgomery at Montana and Stanford.
Taylor's Monarchs beat a tough Virginia Commonwealth team coached by former Duke standout Jeff Capel III. Ironically, Capel's dad (Jeff Jr.) led Old Dominion to the NCAA Tournament the last time the Monarchs danced.
Watching the celebration after the game, it was like a national championship moment for ODU. Teams getting into the field of 65 have plenty to celebrate, baby!
First Time Since '79 For Eastern Kentucky
Making the Big Dance is also special for Eastern Kentucky coach Travis Ford, who played in the Final Four at Kentucky during the Rick Pitino era.
Ford must have felt elated watching from the sidelines as his team beat Austin Peay on Saturday to win the Ohio Valley Conference championship and earn a trip to the Big Dance.
This is Eastern Kentucky's first NCAA berth since 1979, and Ford will be making his Dance debut as a head coach.
Oakland: Sub-.500 Cinderella Story
Then there's the latest Cinderella story, Oakland University of Michigan.
Earlier this season, coach Greg Kampe's team lost to Illinois, Michigan State, Marquette, Texas A&M, Missouri and Kansas State. Oakland enters the Big Dance with just a 12-18 record, and three of those wins came in winning the Mid-Continent title.
A stunning Mid-Continent title-game win at Oral Roberts, a team that won 25 games, put Oakland into the field of 65.
This is the best month in sports, baby! I can't go anywhere without people talking about March Madness. Even at a Major League Baseball spring training game in Sarasota, that was the topic of conversation everywhere.
March Madness is the greatest time of the year and the best sporting event of them all. Old Dominion, Niagara, Eastern Kentucky and Oakland are just four examples of why this event is so special. Look at the passion and emotion displayed when these teams punched their tickets to the field of 65.
Dick Vitale coached the Pistons and the University of Detroit before broadcasting ESPN's first college basketball game in 1979. Send a question to Vitale for possible use on ESPNEWS.