March Memories: Big East battles and high school hopes

WTOP’s Dave Preston shares a photo from his high school yearbook. (Courtesy WTOP/Dave Preston)

The absence of stimuli and activity is killing me.

Every year at this time on WTOP since 2011, I’ve anchored what is called “Brackets on the Fives,” which updated all of the first-round games from 1:05 p.m. to 6:55 p.m., in addition to my usual sportscasts on 103.5 FM.

It’s fun, crazy, and at the end of Friday’s last update, I’m pumped to have done it but pleased the 48 short snapshots are in my rearview mirror. That won’t be the case this year, but I’m still twitching at four, 24, 34 and 54 minutes past the hour while the “CBS College Basketball” theme song plays in my head randomly.

The 80s was a great time to get into college basketball, and particularly the NCAA Tournament. ESPN came onto the scene and carried quite a bit of the first weekend action to give the tournament more of a national feel; and CBS, after getting the rights, hit the jackpot with seven of eight championship games being decided by four points or fewer.

My enjoyment of the NCAA Tournament went from casual enjoyment to must-watch in the 80s, when the Big East was at its best. And the days when Ewing, Mullin and Pearl captured the headlines were just as good — perhaps even better — than people tell you.

From 1985 through 1989, six of the league’s nine schools advanced to the Final Four, with Villanova posting the biggest “Cinderella” victory ever (N.C. State entered the tournament ranked No. 16) in 1985, when they dethroned defending champion and No. 1 Georgetown.

You were tuned in every “Big Monday” on ESPN and glued to the TV for the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden.

What helped me catch the basketball bug was the fact that my high school was enjoying a resurgence. After winning three games in two years (NH played an 18-game schedule), Manchester West shocked defending New Hampshire state champ Nashua 78-76 in double-overtime, and one thought that if the Wolfpack and Wildcats could live Cinderella dreams, why not West?

My senior year, I introduced the starting lineups at games and wrote recaps for the morning announcements. I saved the announcements after reading “A Season on the Brink” by John Feinstein, thinking one day I’d write the great high school hoops book.

One time, I even tried a “rapping” announcement that celebrated the “Bleacher Creatures” (the unruly fan element that rooted the Blue Knights on and may have been in hot water with the NHIAA at some point) to mixed results.

As 16- and 17-year-olds we were encouraged to think, “Why not?” Why can’t I get into the school of my dreams? Why can’t I date the girl I have a crush on? Why can’t I get extra sauce with my Ugli Sticks at Luisa’s Pizza? .

But while we dream of 14-4, we often get 10-8. If we’re lucky. And although the team I followed and the friends I encouraged went 10-8 before losing in the First Round to Central (which seemed to win EVERYTHING), it was nice to think possibilities first, limitations second.

It’s still nice to close my eyes and feel like I’m in the gym just off Conant Street, embracing the possibilities of a March from long ago. I can still smell the Ugli Sticks at Luisa’s and think the jukebox is going to play my song selection before we leave.

See you next March …

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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