Levine: For a month, it's Madness again

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Levine: For a month, it's Madness again

By Rich Levine
CSNNE.com

In the midst of my 48th straight hour of watching players Ive barely heard of run up and down the MSG floor, theres only one thing I have to say:

College basketball is back!

And I know thats a ridiculous statement.

I know that for millions of fans out there, the notion that college basketball somehow hasnt existed these last few months is more insulting than the ATM surcharge at casinos (and . . . other places). For a lot of people, college hoops has clogged the sports radar since the clock struck Midnight Madness, and has remained at the forefront for the better part of this painful winter.

And I appreciate that.

I have nothing against the grind of the college basketball season, or the game itself, and nothing but respect for the diehard fans.

Im just not one of them.

At least, not anymore.

I grew up obsessing over college basketball.

For most of the 90s, I studied recruiting classes, could rattle off seven or eight guys on each of the Top 25, and probably break you off a pretty good scouting report on the top 50. (In retrospect, it might not have been that insightful during the middle school years.) I watched a ridiculous number of games. I read every magazine (even Lindys!). I had far more pictures of UNCs Jerry Stackhouse on my wall than anything that would now be considered cool. I loved college hoops.

The first reason was just that I loved basketball, and at the time, the Celtics werent exactly the worlds most exciting team. The Big Three were past their prime before I could really appreciate them, and after that, the only remotely cool player in Boston was Reggie Lewis. He died when I was 13. And until Antoine Walker came along three years later, the C's didn't have too much going on (Although, looking back, I wish I'd been smart enough to realize how awesome a Dino Radja poster would have been)

But regardless of the lack of professional options, I also loved college hoops because I felt closer to it. The NBA (especially after MJs first retirement) was old. College players were younger, cooler, and more like me. Not that I actually had much in common with Cameron Dollar and Miles Simon, but it felt like I did. Every one in the NBA had existed before Id started to care. These college athletes were new; they were the future. And that seemed so much more interesting than whatever was going on now.

(It also helped the that around the same time, UMass was consistently one of the best teams in the country and BC made their ridiculous run to the Elite 8. Where you at now, Meat Hook?)

Anyway, Stackhouse was probably the tipping point. Im not kidding about how obsessively I followed him. Its pretty uncomfortable to think back on now. I kept an album of his newspaper clippings (mostly from Basketball Weekly) in my closet. I had his 1995 SI Player of the Year cover framed above my TV. My first AOL screen name: UNC2342 (Jordan and Stack). It was really weird. And then, in the summer of 95, he moved on to the NBA.

I was 15, my favorite athlete was changing leagues, and I had to straighten out my priorities.

That season, Stackhouse, along with Rasheed Wallace and Joe Smith, joined an NBA that was already starting to be dominated by players Id watched grow up through the ranks: Shaq, Kidd, Webber, Penny. And eventually, as the league continued to fill up with more and more of my college heroes, and the time I had available to spend obsessing over sports wasn't getting longer, I had to make a decision:

Whats more important: Is it the game or the players?

And ultimately, it wasnt that difficult of a choice.

I still have my VHS copy of Stackhouses first game against the Celtics. It was a preseason game, and entirely meaningless. Afterwards, I watched it every day for probably two weeks. And from there, the NBA started its take over. Over time, Stackhouse, Wallace, Webber, Kidd and Penny were joined by guys like Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Antoine Walker, Tim Duncan, Marcus Camby, Vince Carter and Paul Pierce.

Meanwhile, players like Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Jermaine ONeal and T-Mac made college feel a little less important, as did the influx of international talent. There were guys who were too good for college basketball? Does that mean college basketball isnt that good?

It didnt all happen at once; it was more of a slow, decade long shift. But by the end, just like that, my college basketball had become the young NBA.

The time Id once invested into college hoops was now spent watching my favorite athletes compete at the next level. Eventually, the college game became the equivalent of what the college fan in me used think about high schools. I only cared about the stars. Now its gotten to the point where Ill only tune in, at least in the regular season, when a guy like Adam Morrison (yikes), Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, John Wall or Jimmer Fredette comes along. And even then, its never about winning or losing, or even college basketball. Its about the fact that I know this guys going to be a pro, and I want to know more now so that Ill be ready when he gets there. When it matters. Its sad thats its gotten to that, but what can you do.

As time goes on, you have to make sacrifices, and ultimately, college basketball was mine. (Some people graduate with a big-time alma mater to keep them focused on the college hoops. No offense to Colgate, but I never had that.) I cared more about following my guys than finding the new ones. The future wasnt as appealing as the present. And now, my love for college basketball exists entirely in the past.

To this day, Ill be messing around on the court, throw up a bomb and yell, Alex Dillard for three! or Curtis Staples with the dagger! (Its even funnier when I miss the rim entirely.) Ill still laugh any time someone mentions Serge Zwikker or Mamadoue N'Diaye. I swear to God that God Shammgod still comes up in conversation at least once a month. Im just about having an anxiety attack over how great Sundays Fab Five documentary is going to be.

Thats all still there, but as far as today, Im casual at best. The NBA won. It consumes almost all of my basketball focus even if, by now, Jerry Stackhouse and just about every player from my college basketball and then the new NBA is either on their way out or already there. The pros rule my world. I'm in for good.

And as a result, its at this time every year when I feel like an unbelievable fraud.

Because no matter how I spend the first five months of basketball season, come March, Im still a dangerously obsessed 15-year-old. Ill still spend four straight days watching the Big East Tournament, and then set out on a cracked-out cram session to absorb everything I can. Right now, Im lucky if I can name two guys on most teams, but by tip-off next Thursday, Ill be a short-term encyclopedia.

Ill be able to talk the talk, even though most of that knowledge will be the product of 15 minutes spent clicking around a teams online Clubhouse. Of course, that knowledge will be useless. Ill get destroyed in my brackets like I have every year since I can remember. Ill be exposed to be the fraud that I am, and then crawl back under my NBA rock.

But, like every year, Ill have a hell of a time doing it. Because even if I can't hang with college basketball like I used to, for one month, it's still a lot of fun to pretend.

Finally, college basketball is back!

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on CSNNE.com. Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

Knicks' Noah suspended 20 games by NBA for drug policy violation

Knicks' Noah suspended 20 games by NBA for drug policy violation

NEW YORK - Joakim Noah of the New York Knicks has been suspended 20 games without pay for violating the league’s anti-drug policy.

The NBA announced the suspension Saturday, saying Noah tested positive for Selective Androgen Receptor Modulator LGD-4033 – something that can be found in over-the-counter supplements.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports first reported the suspension.

Noah has not played since Feb. 4 and was likely to miss the Knicks’ final 10 games this season because of a knee injury. The NBA said Noah’s suspension will begin with the ”first NBA regular season or playoff game for which he is eligible and physically able to play.”

Noah is in the first year of a four-year, $72 million contract. He and the Knicks (27-45) have been a disappointment this season. He averaged 5.0 points and 8.7 rebounds in 46 games this season, and has been limited to 75 games over the past two seasons.

Haggerty: Legacies on the line at edge of another Bruins collapse

Haggerty: Legacies on the line at edge of another Bruins collapse

BRIGHTON, Mass – Let’s start with the straight fact that it’s asinine, apologist drivel to let the Bruins off the hook, and perpetuate an off-the-mark myth there isn’t enough talent on the B's roster to be a playoff hockey team.

They are middle-of-the-road in the talent department to be sure, and the roster depth clearly isn’t what it was in their elite years, as the Bruins balance an aging core group with an influx of youthful talent from the next generation. But this is also a proud, talented group with one of the best all-around centers in the NHL in Patrice Bergeron, a former Norris Trophy winner and future Hall of Fame defenseman in Zdeno Chara, a legitimate Hart Trophy candidate and in-his-prime All-Star left winger in Brad Marchand, an emerging 20-year-old offensive superstar in David Pastrnak and a former Vezina Trophy winning goaltender still in his prime in Tuukka Rask.

That doesn’t even mention high-end players David Krejci, David Backes and Torey Krug that are game-changing talents in their own right.

Combine that with the other players on the Bruins roster and this is a team interspersed with proud Stanley Cup winning players and enough talent to still take care of business in the final eight games and punch their playoff ticket. Winning a Cup in 2011 can never be taken away from Chara, Krejci, Bergeron, Marchand, Rask and Adam McQuaid, and neither can the seven straight seasons in the playoffs under Claude Julien.

But there’s a danger now of some late-in-the-game tarnish on Black and Gold legacies for some of those distinguished, proud players if they once again collapse down the stretch this season and miss the playoffs for the third year in a row with a late-season nosedive. Four consecutive regulation losses have cast doubt into everything for the Bruins and roused all the same old uncomfortable questions from the past three years.

Bergeron and Marchand need to find their best games and dominate the way elite players do in big-game situations like Saturday night vs. the Isles. Pastrnak, Brandon Carlo and Frank Vatrano need to show they're ready for the playoffs.Rask needs to finally show he's ready to shine as a No. 1 goalie and lead his team to victory in a big game rather than buckle under weighty pressure. 

“This is their legacy, those guys. They are Stanley Cup champions and they missed last year. Each year we talk about writing our own story, and I believe that because guys come and go,” said coach Bruce Cassidy. “But generally there is a core group of guys and it’s their legacy. I’m sure they want to reach the playoffs and get back to being a Stanley Cup contender every year.

“That’s what they want and to a man I’m sure they would tell you that. I do believe that they believe it’s different [this season]. Until you change the course of your results, those questions are going to come. We have to change the results to make then go away. One week of not getting results that we want doesn’t mean we’re panicking, but we do understand what’s at stake. We want to be playing in April and May.”

If the Bruins can’t pull out a win on Saturday night against the Islanders, who just pushed even with them at 82 points on the season, then their playoff lives will no longer be under their own control anymore. It will become another late-season choke job by a team that will have its character and courage questioned. The highs of six years ago will be matched by the bitter lows of the past three seasons.

People won’t talk about a scrappy, little underdog Bruins team that just couldn’t get over the hump once again. Instead, they’ll lament a formerly proud, tough-minded group of hockey players that somehow turned into NHL tomato cans all too willing to play the victim once the going got tough late in the regular season.

That’s no way to go out if you’ve ever had your name etched on Lord Stanley’s Cup, and the Bruins that know better should be taking that to heart right now.