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Wright remembers his first NCAA game

Villanova coach Jay Wright has coached in 23 NCAA Tournament games in his 20-year career as a Division I head coach. Unlike Jim Boeheim, he has a vivid memory of his first one. It was in the same place where he'll be coaching in Saturday night's third-round game -- Buffalo.

Back in 2000, the first year Buffalo hosted an NCAA subregional, Wright brought Hofstra to the tourney as a 14th seed. The Flying Dutchmen played Oklahoma State in the opening game. They lost, 86-66.

"My wife and I were riding over on the bus yesterday," Wright recalled Friday, "and it was the exact same snowy, lake-effect day. It was St. Patrick's Day. We got hammered in this building by Oklahoma State: Eddie Sutton, Big Country, Doug Gottlieb of all people! I heard Doug Gottlieb talking on TV yesterday about somebody's shooting. He couldn't make a foul shot in that game."

Actually, Big Country Reeves wasn't on that Cowboys squad, but what the heck, Wright was on a roll.

"We had Speedy Claxton at Hofstra," Wright said. "He was a great guard. They were big and physical. They had a two-guard (Desmond Mason) who went to the NBA. Speedy came off a ball screen early and ran over to me at the bench and his finger was like that (Wright bent his little finger on a 90-degree angle). I was like, 'Oh, we're dead now.' They re-set it, but they hammered us.

"I think Bobby Knight played his last game with Indiana here, too, that same night. it was amazing."

True. Indiana lost to a Pepperdine team coach by Jan van breda Kolff, which is another story.

"We got hammered, but it was a little different then," Wright said. "We were still happy. We got hammered, we were happy to be here. We got hammered, and we got hammered after the game. We were so happy to be here."

Boeheim: Mercer was the better team

Jim Boeheim's press conference on Friday was minutes after Duke's upset loss to Mercer. Boeheim, who is Mike Krzyzewski's good friend and Olympic assistant, watched the game and said it wasn't really that much of an upset. In fact, he said Mercer was the better team.

"Yeah, I watched the game and I watched almost the whole game," Boeheim said. "Honestly, I
haven't seen Mercer. It's probably the only team in the country I haven't seen play this year. I don't know how I missed them. Just watching them play, I thought they were a better team.

"I didn't think this was like Duke playing bad or anything like that," he said. "Whoever's playing
Mercer's in trouble, that's what I think. Inside, guard play, big guys ... I just think they a really good team.

"In this tournament, when you lose to a really good team, and it can happen anytime, that's just the way this tournament is. And it can happen any time to any team in this tournament. It's as simple as that. You watched those games last night and it was just a thread as to who was going to keep playing and
who was going home.

"That's what makes the tournament great and what makes it heartbreaking for the teams that don't quite get there. It's one play, one shot, one missed free throw. That's what it is, and it's very, very difficult."

You can't blame Boeheim for sticking up for his buddy. I consider Coach K the best coach in history. His Duke teams have now lost as a No. 2 seed (to Lehigh) and a 3 seed (to Mercer) in the last three tournaments. Boeheim knows how the early upsets can stick with a coach. He's still living down a loss to Richmond more than 20 years ago.

Boeheim's Senior Moment

Syracuse's Jim Boeheim is coaching in his 31st NCAA Tournament this week, a record for Division I head coaches. During Wednesday afternoon's press conference at First Niagara Center, I asked Boeheim what he remembered about his first one.

"My first as a coach?" Boeheim said. "I haven't been thinking about this, so I probably won't even remember. You''ll have to give me a clue. Let's see, first tournament. Is that when we beat Tennessee? I don't know. I swear to God. I wish I could remember. I think it was.

"We thought we had an easy tournament, and then we had Charlotte, and they had a guy named Cornbread Maxwell.  It didn't turn out so easy. I think that was it. I'm not 100 percent."

Pete Moore, the basketball sports information man for SU, confirmed that it was indeed the 1977 NCAA tourney. Syracuse upset Tennessee in the first game of the Mideast Region, 93-88 in overtime. The Orangemen lost to NC-Charlotte in the Mideast semifinal, 81-59. There were 32 teams in the field in those days.

"We had to go to LSU and play Tennessee and play Ernie (Grunfeld) and Bernie (Bernard King)," Boeheim said. "We had an unbelievable game."

"Overtime," Moore said from the side of the interview table.

St. Bonaventure fans will surely recall that '77 season, which was Jim Baron's senior year. The Bonnies were the only team to beat Syracuse between Jan. 1 and the NCAAs that year. Syracuse got them back in the ECAC playoffs. SU went to the NCAA tourney. Bona went to the N.I.T. -- and won it.


Live chat at 1 p.m.: Sully on Sports

Live chat at 1 p.m.: Sully on Sports

Brandon sticks up for his coach

Ever since the Bills made the ill-advised decision to play one home game a season in Toronto, I felt it was a deterrent to attracting top head coaching candidates to Buffalo. What self-respecting coach would take a head NFL job, knowing he would be playing only seven games in his home stadium? The answer, of course, was a coach who was desperate to get one of the 32 NFL jobs and had no other options.

Doug Marrone would never admit it. He had to toe the company line on the Toronto venture, even if it meant giving away the home advantage in one of his eight home games. Chan Gailey never complained, either. The only player who ever had the guts to rip the series was Eric Wood, though he backed off last year after signing a long-term extension.

But there was never a doubt in my mind that Marrone hated playing a game in Toronto. The Bills remained competitive through all sorts of adversity in his first season as head coach. They were still on the fringes of contention in the AFC when they played the Falcons in Toronto. When they lost to a staggering Atlanta team, the folly of playing a home game in Canada was more evident than ever.

Russ Brandon was beside himself after that game. It was clear that he felt the players had been put in a compromising position by playing a game away from the Ralph. Soon after the loss, Brandon went public with his determination to re-evaulate the Toronto series and do what was in the competitive interests of the team.

I suspect that Marrone gave Brandon an earful after that loss to the Falcons. The players said it was a highly emotional scene in the locker room afterward. Part of the emotion had to be the knowledge that the organization had put profit over the team's fortunes on the field. Brandon must have told himself he would never do that to his team again.

The Bills have left open the possibility of playing games in Toronto in the future. Brandon has found a politically comfortable way to move away from the series. But it's a good sign that Brandon is exercising the full power of his position -- as he promised to do when he assumed "total" control of the organization on New Year's Day of 2013.

It's interesting that this news would come so soon after Tim Graham's story about a power struggle in the Bills organization between the entrenched money men and the new football people. Brandon needed to make it clear that he stands with the young, progressive football men who are now responsible for the product on the field, and not the money counters.

This was a great way to do it, whether Brandon intended it that way or not. You can't claim to be on the side of your football guys while selling off their precious home-field advantage. Brandon has clearly sided with Marrone, who had to believe the Toronto series made the franchise look small-time.

I don't see how they could take a regular-season game back to Toronto now, especially if the Bills became a more legitimate contender and needed every edge to get back in the playoffs. Marrone's star will rise if the team continues to improve. Going back to Toronto at this point would be a slap to his face.



Swedes accuse IOC of ruining a great day

SOCHI, Russia -- Considering the way Canada played defense over the last three games, it's hard to imagine one player making a big difference in game. That didn't stop the Swedes from crying foul after the IOC ruled center Nicklas Backstrom out of Sunday's gold-medal game after he tested positive for an allergy medication.

Sweden, which was already down its two top centers, Henrik Zetterberg and Henrik Sedin, because of injuries, lost to Canada, 3-0, in the Olympic final at Bolshoy Ice Dome. The Swedes were also playing without top winger, Johan Franzen.

"I talk for the players, and for the coaches, and for all staff, and we are all very upset today," said Tommy Boustedt, general manager of the Swedish team. "Our opinion is that the IOC has destroyed one of the greatest hockey days in Swedish history."

Backstrom was the top Swedish center in the Games, their best playmaker. But at around 1:30, Boustedt got a phone call from the Swedish Olympic Committee, saying Backstrom was being called to a hearing. Boustedt couldn't reach Backstrom, who was warming up at the rink. So he rode a bicycle to Bolshoy and the two rode to the Olympic Village, where the hearing was taking place.

The IOC said Backstrom had tested positive for prohibited levels of pseudoephedrine, which the Swedes say had been ingested in a daily allergy medication, Zyrtec-D. Shortly before 2 p.m., coach Par Marts heard the hearing was taking place.

"I didn't get a definite decision that he couldn't play until during the warm-up," Marts said, "so then we had to just take it from there. It feels like a great miscarriage of justice. IIHF (International Ice Hockey Federation) have doctors here who said that they thought Nicklas should play, but the International Olympic Committee said he shouldn't.

"This is something you should get notified on within 24 hours," Marts said. "so if you get to hear about it two hours before the game it feels like they (IOC) are playing some kind of game. It's just rude. You can't just do something like that."

During his press conference after the loss, Marts said the IOC decision was "like kindergarten." He said the Canadians were the best team in the tournament, but it was disappointing not to be able to put his best players on the ice for the final.

Boustedt called the decision a blow to hockey in Sweden. In his mind, the IOC tarnished  "one of the high points in Swedish hockey history." He said he and Backstrom watched the game on television at the Olympic Village.

"We cried, both of us," Boustedt said. "I don’t cry easily, but we were both very sad. It was meant to be the most important game of Nicklas’s life. Then I come cycling like an idiot, telling him he can’t play.

"That was one of the worst games we've ever seen. Not because of the outcome, and the way the team played, but because Nicklas couldn't be in the game. This is one of the toughest days for me in Swedish
hockey, and all because of the IOC.

"They destroyed this hockey day for all Swedish fans, and for lots of fans all over the world."

Backstrom said later that it was very sad to find out two hours before the biggest game of his career that he wouldn't be allowed to play.

"I'm going to speak from my heart now," Backstrom said. "I was watching the game at the village. I've been here for two weeks now, and it's probably the most fun two weeks I have ever had. It was a great group of guys, and I was ready to play probably the biggest game of my
career. Two and a half hours before the game, I got pulled aside."

Sabres defenseman Henrik Tallinder played in Backstrom's stead. Tallinder, who is the eighth defenseman on the Swedes, played only 40 seconds.

""I got the call an hour and a half before the game to get in and get dressed," Tallinder said. "So it's just quick. It's a big loss. It's a big player, one of our best offensive guys. When you have a guy like that not going to play, it hurts us, of course."

I finally got to curling

SOCHI, Russia -- Well, I finally got to curling. The time simply got away from me, with all the hockey games. But I promised my buddy, Chris Burke, I would check out the Ice Cube venue. Chris has been holding curling bonspiels in his North Buffalo back yard for years, using frozen windshield washer jugs as stones. We honor the beer drinking tradition, too.

I went to the gold-medal match Friday afternoon on my way to the hockey game, thinking I could kill two birds with one, uh, stone. I could fulfill my promise to see curling, and also ease some of my guilt about ignoring Canada in the Olympics. Canada didn't let me down. They whipped Great Britain, 9-3. I saw the finish, because it was such a blowout the Brits conceded after the eighth of 10 scheduled "ends."

I like curling. It's usually on in the press room and I watch while working on stories and researching ice dancing. The Canadian women also won gold. I saw their narrow win in the semifinals. I even began to understand the sport, which is basically shuffleboard on ice. These people are amazing. They're generally successful on, like, 96-98 percent of their shots. The Canadian men were near-perfect, from what I could tell. Unlike figure skater Kim Yuna, they actually got rewarded.

Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun told me the Canadians and British aren't fond of each other in curling. Those countries do have a little history. But it was pretty subdued when I got there because the Brits were well behind. The highlight was four Elvis impersonators in black wigs, dressed in Canada's red and white, chanting into fake microphones, "Who rocks the house? Canada rocks the house!"

Now I want to go find the curling club in Buffalo and do a story on them. I hear the weather is getting warmer back home, so I doubt Chris Burke's sheet will be playable.



Miller: "I wanted it pretty bad"

SOCHI, Russia -- Ryan Miller finally got his first action of the Olympics on Sunday. Miller played a near-flawless game as the U.S. beat an overmatched Slovenia team, 5-1. He was very close to his first shutout in nearly two years before Marcel Rodman scored with 17.6 seconds left.

Miller laughed when I asked him in the mixed zone how much he had wanted the shutout. He has the longest active shutout drought of 85 starts, dating back to a 3-0 win over Montreal on March 12, 2012.

"I wanted it pretty bad," said Miller, who had 17 saves. "That's just unfortunate there. I looked a little too far left and he hammered it."

Miller didn't face many demanding shots, though he stopped every tough one before Rodman's goal. The Slovenians play a fairly conservative game. They had a few offensive flurries and some decent scoring chances. But they fired quite a few wide or over the net. Miller, of course, played his angles well and was generally in the right postion to challenge the shooters. 

He admitted he had some butterflies in his first game. Coming off an emotional shootout win over the Russians, the Americans needed this game to win the A pool and earn an automatic bye into Wednesday semifinals. Miller wanted to be the primary reason the U.S. team didn't lose its focus.

"Yeah, I definitely had some nerves," Miller said. "It was an important game to ensure that we're at the top of our pool."

"I felt good. I haven't played in just over a week here, probably 11 or 12 days. So it was good to get back in a game. These guys play the kind of hockey where it's easy. You just set up for your one situation, your one passing option and the guys are coming back with sticks and tracking and they get the puck back.

"I like to be busy," Miller said. "I like to be in the game. There's not as many puck handles in this kind of rink. You want pucks heading your way a little bit. That's what I prefer. I got some pucks toward the net early on. I was telling myself, 'I came over here to contribute. This is my chance to contribute and help wrap up this pool and help the guys earn a break'. I did the best I could do."

U.S. coach Dan Bylsma wouldn't commit to a starting goaltender for Wednesday's quarterfinal. The U.S. won't learn its opponent until the end of prelimaries Sunday night. But it would be a stunner if Bylsma didn't go back to Jonathan Quick, who played well in the first two U.S. victories.


Bylsma makes smart move to Miller

By Jerry Sullivan

SOCHI, Russia -- Dan Bylsma announced early today that the Sabres' Ryan Miller will play goal this afternoon in the U.S. men's third and final preliminary game against Slovenia at Shayba Arena.

It's a smart move by Bylsma, who had a difficult job in choosing Jonathan Quick over Miller as his No. 1. This will give Miller some needed work, while showing deference to his spectacular performance in the 2010 Games. It also gives rest to Quick, who had to be exhausted after that epic shootout win over the Russians on Saturday. That will give Quick three days' rest before Wednesday's quarterfinals.

Tiny Slovenia, which is in its first Olympics and stunned Slovakia on Saturday, should be a fairly easy game for Miller. The Slovenes play a tight, conservative style and aren't likely to apply a lot of pressure in the offensive zone. But they proved against the Slovaks that they're a worthy opponent, so the Americans have to be wary of looking past them.

The U.S. probably needs to win this game to win Group A and earn an automatic berth to the quarterfinals. Russia plays Slovakia today at Bolshoy at the same time the U.S. meets Slovenia across the road at Shayba. In the unlikely event that the Americans lose today and Russia wins, the Russians win the pool.

If the U.S. loses the pool to Russia, it will have to play in the qualification round. They have five points (3 for a regulation win, 2 for an OT win.) Finland and Canada, who have yet to play in Pool B, each have 6 points. Sweden, the only 3-0 team at this point, has 9. Switzerland won two of three game in regulation and has 6 points.

Bottom line for the USA: Win today and they win the pool. A regulation win would give them 8 points in pool play. They would likely be the third seed, behind Sweden and the winner of Finland-Canada. That would mean a quarterfinal against the winner of the 6-11 qualification game.

My best guess for the U.S. opponent in the quarterfinals: Switzerland.

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