"Basketball's 'A Clockwork Orange'"
A drama-comedy-tragedy-farce in three parts
I didn't sleep well Monday after watching Tennessee's 59-58 victory over Rutgers on TV. See, I had this dream, and it seemed so real
In it, I actually was in Knoxville, and accidentally got killed when Rutgers guard Matee Ajavon crashed into press row chasing a loose ball. The force of her impact caused my buddy Mel Greenberg's tragically overworked laptop to finally explode. The flying screen nearly decapitated me, saving some disgruntled readers the trouble.
The last words I heard echoed from the Thompson-Boling Arena crowd, "Dang it, Voepel, I always knew you really liked UConn and hated Tennessee. Look whose floor you're bleeding all over! What a mess! You'd never do that in Storrs!"
Then as my spirit ascended, I began to chuckle. It appeared I was sneaking into heaven despite possible sins, but felt reasonably certain the SEC would soon release a statement that there was nothing improperly done by anyone involved.
Then came a bellow from a towering figure I had just spotted, one who certainly looked like Tennessee coach Pat Summitt. Wow! She was the boss in this place, too? OK, now things were starting to add up
"MECHELLE! GET OVER HERE! THIS ISN'T ABOUT YOU!"
I reluctantly approached her. "Rebound!" I yelped, petrified.
"You think you're settling down in heaven? Hah! Don't you ever do that again!"
So thinking maybe I could still escape hell, I fled to a place where a sad-looking figure in a pink dress came up wheeling a cart that held four enormous boxes full of microcassettes. Although I am theologically challenged, I guessed where I was.
"Coach Stringer, is that you?" I said. "What are you doing in purgatory?"
She sighed, "Waiting with four Final Fours trips and no freaking national championship yet. And one more [cough] loss to Tennessee. I don't know if I'm ever going to get out of this place. Andy Landers just went to get sweet tea with Debbie Ryan and some Vanderbilt fans, and Gail Goestenkors ran off somewhere muttering about when Nicky Anosike made both those free throws.
"So in the meantime, I'm assigning all the duties around here. I've taped my press conferences for the past 20 years, and your penance is to transcribe them all."
I considered my options. OK, my only "option."
I asked her, "Have you heard if stuff like that supposed lake of eternal fire is truly, you know eternal? Because, no offense, but that's a lot of transcribing. Besides, when I think about it, I hardly did anything that bad in my boring life. So it's kind of unfair that I'm even here, let alone possibly headed to hell."
"Unfair? You want to talk to me about unfair?" C. Vivian said. "How much time to you have?"
I unwisely cracked, "Well, plenty of time I guess. But I'm just curious, how long does two-tenths of a second last here?"
As Stringer became unhinged I woke up in a cold sweat from my nightmare.
OK I might have taken a little dramatic license here -- although I swear I really did dream Monday night I was covering a Tennessee game -- but anyway
Tuesday morning, I turned on my computer, checked e-mail and wondered if I was still dreaming. I was hearing from UConn fans outraged at something bad happening to Rutgers? Huh? What next? Was my dog going to start shouting that my cat didn't get enough attention?
Then, of course, I reminded myself that to Husky Nation, those scarlet pests from Piscataway are a lesser evil than the orange menace from Knoxville.
Floating around the Internet, there were all sorts of theories about the "weird" ending Monday at Tennessee, when something (Hello, SEC headquarters! Take your fingers out of your ears!) did indeed go wrong with the clock and appeared to give Tennessee the chance to go to the line when time should have expired.
There was talk of a phantom whistle -- or maybe a not so-phantom-one, blown in "anticipation" of a foul. There were frame-by-frame breakdowns. Real-life referees and armchair refs debated on message boards.
Rutgers released statements from C. Vivian Stringer and athletic director Robert E. Mulcahy. Precision Time Systems inventor and president Michael Costabile was contacted by reporters and said there was room for human error in running the game clock at Tennessee. (Stop singing "lalalalalalalala," SEC headquarters!)
Mel Greenberg's laptop really hadn't blown up -- yet -- although it's loaded with data that goes all the way back to when he was doing the basketball poll and helping set up the tournament for the ancient Greek city-states.
On his cell phone, Mel has the number of everyone who's ever played, coached, officiated or administrated over women's basketball, and he was sharing with me whatever scoop he was hearing.
Mel seems to have a keen ability to typically be present when something goes wrong for Stringer. I have a feeling the next time she puts her change into a vending machine and the candy bar gets stuck and doesn't drop Mel will round the corner, and say, "OK, what now?"
So Mel and I were chatting about how this latest Rutgers drama might affect the very process that we just went through, mock-wise, in Indianapolis last week.
A non-media pal buzzed in on the line, whom I called back later, explaining I'd been on the phone talking to Mel recount the time that Sparta was sure it had the overall No. 1 seed, but then Thebes got it and
My friend, who neither likes nor dislikes the Scarlet Knights, said, "Ugggh. Can bad things please stop happening to Rutgers? I'm so over feeling sorry for them."
Yet now she had to, again.
Of course, as I've written before, no one ever feels sorry for Tennessee. They're just the bad guys, the Evil Empire, the women's hoops Mafia. You know -- supposedly they own the refs, they always get their way. And, gasp, did you hear that they cancelled the series with UConn -- and then got a resolution passed that bans anyone in Knoxville city limits from even thinking that real or toy Husky puppies are cute?
See, it's easy to "demonize" Tennessee because Summitt's program has won seven NCAA titles. Goliath never seems very cuddly.
Sure, the refs at times over the years have seemed "a bit" intimidated by Summitt. But what coach doesn't try to get that edge? And while we can look back at the Baylor game in 2004 and Monday's game -- both of which put Tennessee at the line with two-tenths of a second left for victory -- and say, "Yeesh, terrible endings," you do have to remember the other part to those games.
Tennessee's women's program, when in trouble, scrambles out of it like former Vol Peyton Manning's little brother just did in the Super Bowl. Summitt's teams have done it over and over and over.
Was it a tough, questionable call against Baylor's Jessika Stratton in the NCAA Sweet 16 in 2004? Yes, and I didn't agreed with it. But let's remember how hard Tennessee worked and how many things it did right to get back in that game to be in position to win it at the foul line.
Similarly, it wasn't the clock or the officials that hit two key 3-pointers late against Rutgers. It was Shannon "Get over here!" Bobbitt and Angie "Rocky Balboa" Bjorklund.
So if it seems like I'm straddling both sides of the fence here, I am. For the purposes of voting in the next Associated Press poll, I'm going to at least consider that game being like a "win" for Rutgers. At the same time, it's absurd to think Tennessee, Summitt, Candace Parker and the gang conspired in some way to make time stop just long enough at 0.2.
What we learned from this game is that the Scarlet Knights, if they play like they did in the second half, can indeed win a national championship. But that Tennessee is going to fight hard to repeat.
And that there remain issues with officiating, time-keeping and accountability that still need to be addressed -- despite the previous best attempts of all involved.
Finally, back to our mock bracket session last week in Indy. We talked to NCAA officials Sue Donohoe, Michelle Perry and women's committee chair Judy Southard of LSU about what will take place when the actual bracket is being put together.
They acknowledged that along with all the numbers they crunch, there are certainly discussions about situations that happened during the season that aren't going to be reflected in the RPI or any statistical data.
The Scarlet Knights won't get credit for a "win" against Tennessee by any computer. By humans, though -- including some on the committee -- they just might.
There is still a month left for a lot of other things to happen: more wins, losses, close games -- but we hope no more big controversies. The committee can really weigh what happened Monday when it gathers in March.
Oh, and another thing you might not have realized that the committee does when it meets to make the bracket: It assigns officials for NCAA Tournament games.
That should spark more interesting conversations.
Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.