Dan's Road Trip: The Akron Non-LeBrons
AMHERST, N.Y. – There is a rhythm to the college basketball season, a series of dates that stirs all of us passionate about the sport.
Some are obvious – Midnight Madness, the first day of the NCAA tournament. Others more personal – perhaps the Wednesday before Thanksgiving when a feast of great games are staged, or the first Carolina-Duke matchup just after the Super Bowl.
Personally, two have stood out of late for me. First, the annual preseason Trippin' Tour I embarked on for six consecutive years to write up the top programs and players of the upcoming season.
Then came the day in late February when the email arrived hailing the deadline for entry in "The Jerome."
The Jerome is a tournament pool for the truly deranged NCAA follower – mostly, in this case, sportswriters armed with too much useless information and too little of a real life. It requires picking the winners of all 30 conference tournaments and, through various bonus points, churns out a champion who truly should be ashamed of his knowledge of the sport.
It's basically your NCAA office pool on steroids.
It is named after Jerome Lane, the legendary Pitt Panther who back in 1988 broke a backboard on ESPN with a mighty slam, prompting the incomparable Bill Raftery to declare, "Send it in, Jerome!"
Just to participate in The Jerome is to admit you have a problem with college basketball. It requires you to know not just that the Atlantic Sun is a conference not a casino, but that Belmont has been on a tear of late. It means realizing Houston Fancher is not a boutique hotel in Texas but the coach at Appalachian State.
And it means knowing not only that Oakland University is in Michigan, not California, but never forgiving them for completely screwing your Mid-Con picks back in 2005.
And yet, the arrival of the Jerome entry form is considered one of the biggest days of the season.
"Most of us take this more seriously than our fifth and sixth years of college," said Pete Thamel of the New York Times.
And so, with the spirit of the Trippin' Tour and the Jerome in mind, I decided this year to combine the two, which explains how I wound up in this noted college hoops hotbed when the best game of the night was clearly UCLA at Washington State.
The best part of "Championship Week," as ESPN calls it, is the low and mid-major tournaments, the events where winning and losing are the difference between making the NCAA tournament or not. As much fun as the big events are, they can be anti-climatic.
Not so in the Big South or even the Horizon League.
So for the next six days I – in service to you who have a life, a wife (or husband), work, school or anything else productive – am crisscrossing the country hitting the best mid-major tournaments.
It started here Thursday with the University of Akron, a team that not only may be the class of the Mid-American Conference with LeBron James' former coach, but also three of his boyhood friends (and two teammates at Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary High School) in the starting lineup.
And if you are the kind who needs some symmetry to the assignment, please recall that The Jerome himself is an Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary's alum.
On Friday, I'll be at the Missouri Valley Conference tournament in St. Louis. On Saturday, it'll be the Big South title game in Rock Hill, S.C. On Sunday, I'll take a break from the mid-majors for Duke at North Carolina (because Duke-Carolina is always good enough, even when they keep losing, to corrupt even this good of an idea).
Monday will feature the title game of the Colonial Athletic Association (the league that gave us George Mason) in Richmond. Then the Horizon League championship, probably in Dayton, will wrap things up on Tuesday.
Consider it a tourney primer. Or a chance to read some less-told stories. Or just an opportunity to watch someone try to hit six towns in six states in six days, while, most likely, closing some bars in the process (also a Trippin' Tour staple).
Or maybe it is just the ultimate cry for help from a Jerome addict.
As for the pool, hopes are high but nerves frazzled. Last year, I was in the hunt until some disastrous Conference USA and SEC picks doomed me. I don't even remember where I finished – when it comes to the Jerome, like Nike used to say, you don't win silver, you lose gold.
My selections for the early tournaments are below. And spare me the hate mail. In this pool, the smart bet isn't always the favorite. Just trust me. So I don't want to hear from any of you, say Campbell Fighting Camel fans, claiming disrespect.
America East – Vermont
Atlantic Sun – East Tennessee State
Big Sky – Northern Arizona
Big South – Winthrop
Colonial Athletic – Drexel
Horizon – Wright State
Metro Atlantic – Siena
Mid-Continent – Oral Bob
Missouri Valley – Southern Illinois
Northeast – Central Connecticut
Ohio Valley – Tennessee Tech
Patriot – Holy Cross
Southern – Davidson
Sun Belt – Western Kentucky
West Coast – Santa Clara
My first priority is to beat my college hoops-obsessed father again. This was no problem last year when he finished dead last (perhaps tied with Andy Staples of the Tampa Tribune). Both were supposed to be banished to the women's Jerome for a year, but apparently they picked up enough bar tabs at the Final Four to be allowed back in. I'm not sure.
What I do know is my father has been on a crusade to clear his name. Fueled by the humiliation of last year, he spent the winter studying up, holed up in his basement with extra batteries (for the remote) and Bud (for emergency), leaving only to scout games at Boston College, UMass or Providence. It has gotten so bad that this weekend my mother just plumb gave up on him and went to New York to visit my cousin.
Meanwhile, I spent too much time covering football. So this could be closer than it should be. And I simply can't have that.
"Redemption," he promised Thursday, while bragging he has a sure-bet sleeper out of the MAAC that will score him major points.
Preemptive trash talk from your father about the MAAC tourney? Yeah, that's pretty much the Jerome. And that's pretty much the Trippin' Tour.
And that's what you're getting here in championship week of college basketball, which, depending on your level of addiction, either will or will not make complete and perfect sense.
March Madness, indeed.
- Jerome Lane