As a champion of all (well, most) things Rhode Island, it had been a tough 24 hours. Providence last night, URI tonight (despite the best efforts of fellow Bishop Hendricken Hawk Jimmy Baron), both ejected from the NIT. Former URI Ram Todd Bozeman watched his Morgan State team take a chinner from Oklahoma.
But North Providence's own Ken McDonald and his Western Kentucky squad saved the day by providing the biggest upset of March Madness '09's opening day.
Monumental upset? Hardly, given Illinois' loss of point guard Chester Frazier, and some sloppiness in the final minutes let a 17-point lead dwindle to three. But the Hilltoppers have now delivered two straight surprises in 5-12 first-rounders, and Gonzaga better bring its A game a little earlier than it did tonight.
Unlike last year's WKU team, which rode NBA draftee Courtney Lee and Tyrone Brazelton to the Sweet Sixteen, this one defied me to pick a nominee for the Stephen Curry Award (for those of you've read my March Madness chronicles since '04, I've finally renamed the Petey Sessoms Award for a little-known player making a big splash in the tournament. If you press me, I'll pick Orlando Mendez-Valdez, who filled the stat sheet with 11 points, six rebounds and seven assists.
And the Sun Belt champs actually outworked the Big 10 muscle guys on the boards, 35-28.
That's the kind of scrappiness their coach displayed at the Lady of Agganis Manor's alma mater (juco power Community College of Rhode Island) and my father's (Providence, playing for Rick Barnes). After playing some pro ball in Ireland (following in the footsteps of R.I. Attorney General Patrick Lynch), Kenny went into the coaching biz, landing at Texas with Barnes again before Darrin Horn turned WKU's '08 run into an SEC gig at South Carolina.
Too bad ESPN's Doris Burke wasn't courtside. We could've had a full North Providence while we were at it.
A few random thoughts about Day 1:
* They say every serious Final Four contender needs a near-death experience on the way, and Memphis got it today thanks to raging foul trouble and a Cal State-Northridge team that Just. Was. Not. Intimidated. Roburt Sallie was the obvious Player of the Day choice with 10 treys and 35 points (since he averaged 4.5 points during the season, can he be a Curry nominee despite playing for the number 3 team in the country?).
* Thanks, American, for giving my own Final Four a near-death experience. Let's just hope on Saturday, the senior leadership of Dwayne Anderson and Dante Cunningham arrives before Nova gets down 14 in the second half.
* Marcus Thornton was oh so money, racking up 30 points in LSU's close call with Butler. He and '06 Final Four veteran Tasmin Mitchell held the fort after what looked like a blowout in the first 1:45 (9-0 start) turned into a fight to the finish.
* Give Blake Griffin a platinum man card. Not only did he drink Morgan State's milkshake, he proved he could take a bump like Mick Foley after Ameer Ali backflipped him to the court (full-point ippon with force and intent, if you're a judo fan). The best part: Griffin got right up as if this was something he did every day at practice.
* Butler's Matt Howard (22 points for the Horizon League Player of the Year despite foul trouble) looks like Andy Samberg on human growth hormone.