When MAAC teams advance to the NCAA tournament, it's a proverbial golden opportunity for coaches to pitch the message of their respective schools, mostly at the formal press conferences.
If coaches are witty enough and loquacious enough, the national media notices and the desired attention is attracted.
Your scribe can't profess to being a regular attendee of NCAA tournaments (five total), but cannot recall a better performance than one turned in by former Siena coach Mike Deane when he took that program to its first NCAA appearance in 1989.
That was the year, veteran Siena fans will remember, that the school went through a measles' epidemic on campus and the team, once cleared health-wise, played much of the second half of the season and through its league (the old North Atlantic Conference) post-season tournament in empty gyms fully devoid of fans.
But the fan ban was lifted for the MAAC tournament, and Deane took full advantage. During one particular press conference prior to his team's game first-round game against Stanford in Greensboro, N.C., that year, there were 20 questions asked of the Siena coach. One involved the school's new nickname (it changed from Indians to Saints late that season) and the other 19 were about the measles.
Deane good naturedly answered them all and, when the inquisition was complete departed from the podium with one final remark: "I'm so darned sick of measles," said Deane. "All I care about is winning the game ... even if it's only by one `measly' point."
Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to one of the best question-and-answer participants the MAAC's coaching ranks has ever had.
That would be Loyola's Jimmy Patsos, who lifted that program from a 1-27 finish the year before his arrival to its highest victory total on the Division I level and its first NCAA tournament berth since 1994.
Patsos should be an absolute joy for the assembled media to speak with at the Pittsburgh site of his team's first-round game against No. 2 seed Ohio State.
Those of us who attend Loyola games on occasion know him to be part stand-up comic, but also brutally honest and revealing when addressing the media. In other words, the perfect ambassador for his school, one whose ability to think fast and talk intelligently and with great wit will result in more positive publicity for Loyola than most mid-major level schools can hope to attract.
Patsos held a conference phone call late Monday afternoon, and the following are a few highlights:
- "I had a lot of doubt when I first came to Loyola (after serving as an assistant under Gary Williams at Maryland)," said Patsos. "After three months, I wondered what I was doing here. When I called recruits when I was Maryland the entire family would gather by the phone. But, when I said I was Jimmy Patsos from Loyola ... it was like `hello ... hello? Is there anyone there?"
- When I was at Maryland, I was not very involved in those Tuesday luncheons with Red Auerbach (legendary luncheon meetings of some of the sport's royalty every Tuesday in the Washington, D.C., area). But I went a couple of weeks in a row when I was thinking about moving on. I was nervous about leaving Maryland. So, at one luncheon, Red sat me down, spun the lazy Susan on the table and told me to stop being so nervous. He knew Loyola had gone 1-27 the previous year, and he told me: "Heck, even you can do better than 1-27.
"The following year, after we finished 6-22 in my first year at Loyola, Red sent me cuff links engraved with 6-22. He became very involved. He came to some of our games. He had a profound affect. He told me it didn't matter if we played a tough non-conference schedule. That didn't matter as long as we won games."
- "I remember, my second year, getting booed pretty good at Iona and turned around and yelled to the crowd, `We'll get some players in here and one day we'll be good ... you'll see.' I really like the fans. Siena has some of the best fans. There's a Siena fan whose sign I ripped up during one game there and we later became friend and, now, I've been invited to his wedding."
- We're a 15 seed. The best we could have gotten was a No. 14, but we prepared for finding out that we'd be a 15. I told our players to take off their rose-colored glasses, that we're a 15 (before the seeds were revealed). What I like about it is that we play Ohio State and that will gives us a lot of national attention. You know when you play a program like Ohio State you're going to be on TV big time. That's what you dream of when you're a player at this level.
"They're stronger and bigger than us, but they're not as quick and we can win. It will take a solid, solid effort, but we'll do what we can do. We pressed when we played at Kentucky (an 87-63 Kentucky victory after Loyola was within five with under 18 minutes remaining). We threw lobs against Kentucky. We'll do those things against Ohio State. We'll have to do a great job Thursday (against Ohio State), but it's a chance for our kids to play a game they've dreamed about being in all their lives."
- "(Jared) Sullinger (Ohio State's All-America 6-foot-9, 280-pound post presence) ... like some people say, you don't contain him you just try to neutralize him. I'm a Celtics' fan, and I hope they get him (in the future). That's what I think of him as a player ... I hope the Celts get Jared Sullinger. If we can hold Sullinger to 18 points and nine rebounds ... something like that. We need to keep him from getting second shots, and we need to fast break and make him run up and down the court. But, no doubt, he's an NBA lottery pick."
- "I can't wait until Iona (an at-large invitee from the MAAC) kicks someone's butt (BYU's) tomorrow night. They're a great team with a professional (Scott Machado) at point guard. They've got one of the other best players in the league in Michael Glover. And, they've got Momo Jones, and Arizona didn't make the tournament this year because they missed Momo. They've got a good coach, an exciting team and went on the road and played everyone anyone asked them to play. They played 20 minutes of bad basketball in our league's tournament (losing in the MAAC event's semifinal round to Fairfield), but should they be punished for that by not making the NCAA's? I don't believe that."
- "I've matured. I've quit yelling so much at players. I've grown up. Very rarely do I yell at players any more, especially at practice. We have a great time on the team bus when we travel. We take field trips (Patsos said he'll take his team to the Andy Warhol museum while it's in Pittsburgh: `They know who he is.'). I still have occasional outbursts, because we play 30 games ... 30 times a year we go to war. I think I've learned to communicate well. I listen to when, say, Shane Walker makes a suggestion, but I still have to make the final decisions. Now, if a player yells at me I don't mind and I'll yell back. I tell them they get one shot, but I get two. They get to yell at me once but I get to yell twice."
- "The perception of players about Loyola started to change (Patsos' predecessor once offered the opinion that Baltimore's high school stars viewed themselves as a failure if they couldn't do better than a scholarship from Loyola) when Andre Collins transferred here from Maryland and finished third nationally in scoring. It changed when Gerald Brown came home to attend Loyola from Providence. Guys like that said that this is a great place to go to school, and we got some other transfers. For a while, players didn't want to come to Loyola, but the MAAC is a great basketball league, and players started to realize that. We've had Jason Thompson in this league; Luis Flores was at Manhattan when I first got here ... Jared Jordan at Marist. This is a basketball league. I also know that you have to have good recruiters on the staff. We kept trying (in Baltimore), but the first wave of players said no. I starting getting the second wave. Now, both our guards (sophomore Dylon Cormier and freshman R.J. Williams) are from Maryland. This is the third wave. All the talk, when I first got here, was that they weren't going to like it here, but I kept selling that we'll show you that you'll love it here."
- "I'm good friends with Brian Cashman (the New York Yankees' general manager), and when we played at Kentucky, I offered to let him sit on our bench. But, Brian's a smart guy. He went to Lexington (Ky.) Catholic High School. I introduced him to (John) Calipari when Brian came to that game, but he told me as much as he'd love to sit with us ... `No offense, bro, but that (Kentucky) is my squad. That's my home town, and I'm not about to come home and sit on your bench.' "
- "Erik Etherly (his first-team All-MAAC selection this season) is an undersized power forward, but ever since he transferred here from Northeastern we've won a log more games."
Patsos and Loyola would like to win one more this season. If it does, it would surely be one of the tournament's most-memorable upsets.
Win or lose, though, the likelihood is Patsos will ensure this will be a memorable NCAA appearance for his team, he'll provide immeasurable fodder for publicity for his school.