Yesterday was media day at the South Regional, and while the players and coaches got used to the Reliant Stadium court set-up, and while fans got a sneak-peek of just how bad the seating and sight lines actually are, we media got busy coming up with the story lines that will guide you fans through the weekend.
There's the God battle between the Catholics at St. Mary's and the Baptists at Baylor. There's the underdog at St. Mary's. There's the redemption at Baylor. Purdue is out to prove the doubters wrong. And Duke is set on returning to its rightful spot in the Final Four. There's the crowning of a media superstar, St. Mary's Omar Samhan. Mike Krzyzewski appears to be all set to write another book, this one on the difference between "since" and "never." There's Australian's team claiming to also be America's team. And finally, there's just this strange obsession with Taylor Swift.
The action gets underway tonight at about 6:27 when 10 seed St. Mary's (28-5) takes on three seed Baylor (27-7). Baylor would be the underdog in any other year, especially on the basis of its redemption story that's seen it rise from that of a runaway program featuring teammates killing other teammates and a former coach and his assistants lying to all involved in an attempt to cover up the facts. But for now, they're going to have to be satisfied being the team with the home court advantage.
"It's great to be down here," said Baylor head coach Scott Drew -- a man who, from a distance, looks disturbingly like first-class bore Jim Nantz. "Our team is really excited about being close to home, and having the opportunity to have Baylor nation down here. And more importantly, also representing the state of Texas and the Big 12 Conference."
St. Mary's is one of those mid-major teams which, every year, fly under the radar of the major conferences until tourney time when they seemingly pop up from nowhere and take out favorite after favorite. St. Mary's coach Randy Bennett claims this squad is not as good as last year's NCAA tourney team -- he cites a lack of talent, depth and having to play six freshmen as part of the reason that his team shouldn't have made it this far. Then again, maybe the power of Australia is playing a role as the team has five Australians on the roster and has been adopted as Australia's team.
But St. Mary's, according to star center Omar Samhan, is more than just Australia's team. They're also America's team.
"We're 11 guys that work hard and play hard together," he said. "I think that's what I want America to know, and everybody to know, we are America's team because we're just a blue-collar team that works hard and brings our lunch pail and hard hat to practice everyday and gets after it."
And after yesterday's press conferences, it's easy to see why Samhan has become of the personalities of the tournament. He easily joked around with the media and worked to make his teammates feel as comfortable in front of the microphone as he did. And Samhan's also the one behind the Taylor Swift obsession as he confessed to more than just a fondness for the singer.
"Are those camera's on?" he asked, looking into the TV cameras. "I love you, Taylor. You should call me. I'm a huge Taylor Swift fan. I listen to her before games. People think it's weird, but...there's so much emotion and excitement before games that it just kind of slows you down, and it keeps me mellow. I'm like a time bomb waiting to go off. So it keeps me mellow. Taylor, I feel like she's singing to me sometimes. I love her. I'm going to keep listening to her."
And after that, the Taylor madness slipped into the Baylor press conference where Baylor guard Tweety Carter was forced to answer a question about Taylor Swift and Samhan. Carter responded that he didn't really know about what was going on over with St. Mary's, and just reiterated that he and his teammates saw this as a business trip that they can't enjoy too much because they didn't come to just play in the Sweet 16, they came to win games.
Taylor Swift was never mentioned when the Purdue's head coach Matt Painter and his players faced the press. Then again, Purdue's (29-5), and the South Regional's fourth seed, has been struggling with other matters, like learning how to play without star forward Robbie Hummel who was lost to a knee injury just before the regular season ended. They went from scoring 11 points in the first half of their last Big 10 game against Minnesota, to surprising the public and experts by advancing to the Sweet 16.
Purdue has the misfortune tonight of facing the region's number one seed, the Duke Blue Devils (31-5) who are on a mission to regain their god-given spot in the Final Four. Senior guard Jon Scheyer stated that they're well aware of their recent reputation for post-season meltdowns, but that this group of players is out to change things. Scheyer was then sucked into the Taylor Swift madness, but refused to talk about the subject.
"I just want to talk about our team," he said. "That's how Coach always wants us to talk about. I don't know what [Samhan] said, or what he's done. I just know that people have been talking about him."
That brings us to the other star of the press gathering, Duke coaching legend Mike Krzyzewski, otherwise known as Coach K. And perhaps it says something about the type of program that Duke has become under Coach K -- 10 Final Fours, seven title game appearances, three NCAA titles, and nine No. 1 seeds in the past 13 years -- that a failure to advance past the Sweet 16 since 2004 is considered a disappointment.
That's where Coach K turned on the wit and went to work. He teased one reporter for asking a question about Purdue's inconsistency by responding that maybe she should have asked that question to the Purdue coach. Then he refused to rate his current Duke team against his past teams, saying "that I don't do that. Especially in Houston. [Houston Rockets forward and former Duke standout Shane] Battier would kill me." But he also joked that he hadn't spoken with Battier, saying he only talks to healthy former players. "He's making a lot of money. He should be on the court, playing for the Rockets," he said to laughter.
Then he addressed the legacy issue.
"There are two words, when you compete, that are interesting," he said. "'Since' and 'never.' I'm glad we're the 'since.' Let me leave it that. Each team is different. What we have 'since' done is pretty good. And what we have done 'since' then has been really good. We're proud of everything that we have done. There's a reason why not many people win these things over and over again. Because it's very difficult and you have a different team each year. Since 2004, we've still gone to Sweet 16s, and probably has won as many games in the past two years as anybody. I'm proud of our guys. You're not always going to win a National Championship, and you're not always going to get to a Final Four. Those are difficult things to do."
So come Sunday night, it will be clear if Coach K and Duke return to the Final Four or whether Taylor Swift and being Australia's team can push St. Mary's to that spot. We'll know how Baylor's redemption goes, and we'll know if Purdue can continue to learn and evolve without its star player. The action from Reliant Stadium starts tonight at 6:27 between Baylor and St. Mary's with Purdue and Duke following thirty minutes later. The game time for Sunday's game has yet to be announced.
A MISCELLANEOUS ISSUE:
For those wondering about the basketball layout at Reliant, know that the court sits at midfield, and is raised about three feet off of the floor. St. Mary's coach Randy Bennett was pleased with the actual court, saying that he'd found no dead spots, which was rather unusual for a court in a football stadium.
Mike Krzyzewski had yet to see the court, as the Duke press conference was before the team's first practice on the court. But from what he said when asked, I don't think he's going to be a fan. He doesn't like raised courts since he likes being able to sit, watch the game, and confer with his coaches. That's not possible at Reliant as the benches are on the Reliant Stadium floor, and if you sit, the court comes up to your chest. He also worries, he said, about player safety, and it looks to be rather easy for a player to go diving after a ball and find himself landing on the floor and tweaking an ankle or suffering a more serious injury.