Saturday, February 03, 2007

Saturday In College Hoops: A Day For Jimmy V

With Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith about to engage in a historic matchup, coaches have been entrenched in the sports spotlight this weekend. One day before the Super Bowl, one coach’s influence dominated the college basketball world. Surprisingly, he’s a guy who passed away 14 years ago. Saturday in college hoops was the day of Jim Valvano.

Most notably, Jimmy V’s old North Carolina State program scored an 83-79 stunner over #3 North Carolina. Despite Wednesday’s upset at Virginia Tech, the Wolfpack was given little chance to knock off the Tar Heels. Even the home court was not seen as an advantage. NCSU’s arena, the RBC Center, received its name because the Wolfpack “Rarely Beats Carolina.”

However, Valvano always relished the underdog role, and his influence must have rubbed off on one of his most notable players. First-year NC State coach Sidney Lowe was the starting point guard on Jimmy V’s 1983 NCAA championship team. The Wolfpack shot 60% in Saturday’s victory, and that strong performance proved that Lowe has successfully made adjustments this season. His earlier strategy, inspired by the classic title game stunner over Houston, had proven to be less effective. Lowe had encouraged his players to shoot airballs, figuring that Lorenzo Charles would slam them home.

Saturday’s victory was a huge boost for Lowe among the NC State faithful. Ever since Valvano left in 1990, the Wolfpack has lagged well behind UNC and Duke in the local pecking order. However, on Saturday the spirit of Jimmy V may have given the Pack some help from beyond – beyond the arc, that is, as NC State hit 8 of 15 on three-pointers. Watching the game in Tallahassee, former NCSU football coach Chuck Amato was seen screaming to the heavens, “Hey Valvano, where was that help for ME???”

Before going to Raleigh in 1980, Valvano was the head coach at Iona, where the spirit of Jimmy V was also present on Saturday. The Gaels finally notched their first victory of the season after dropping their first 22 contests. The 69-57 win over Rider came two days after Siena needed a buzzer-beater to subdue Iona. Clearly, February has been a hot month for the Gaels.

Like NC State, Iona is led by a coach who played at the school for Valvano. Jeff Ruland has been in charge since 1998, and his tenure has been largely successful. Just last season, the Gaels reached the NCAA tournament, falling to Final Four participant LSU in the first round. Since then, Iona endured the steepest one-year decline since Enron. And unlike the Washington Bullets in 1986, the Gaels could not improve their fortunes by trading Ruland for Moses Malone.

Completing his head coaching resume, Valvano also led the programs at Bucknell and Johns Hopkins. Bucknell was victorious Friday night, downing Navy 78-63. Johns Hopkins, #20 nationally in Division III, got a huge double-overtime road win at Haverford on Saturday. Clearly, Jimmy V was looking out for the visiting Blue Jays during the Centennial Conference showdown. If you leave Gooding Arena with a victory over the Fords, you know you’ve gotten some help from above.

In 1993, Jimmy V delivered a legendary speech at the ESPYs while suffering from cancer. Soon he was off to a better place, and not just because he had gotten away from Dick Vitale. That place had some unexpected entertainment on Saturday: a crazy Italian guy running around and looking for someone to hug.