March Madness is upon us with 64 teams beginning NCAA tournament play this week. Fidgeting on the sidelines this time is Terry Truax.
Truax has been the coach at Towson State for 10 years. In two of those -- 1990 and 1991 -- his team went to what is now known as The Dance.
Towson didn't go last year because its East Coast Conference, whose championship Towson won, no longer had an automatic bid to the NCAAs. The league disbanded and Towson, along with UMBC, joined the Big South.
Ten days ago Truax thought his Tigers were in a good position to return to the NCAAs. The team, 18-9 on the year, won the Big South regular-season championship with a 14-2 record. Truax won Coach of the Year. But No. 1 seed Towson was upset in the tournament quarterfinals by No. 8 Winthrop, which went on to the finals and lost to Coastal Carolina.
"You look at what's been happening around the country," says Truax, "and a lot of No. 1 teams have been knocked off in their tournaments -- North Carolina by Georgia Tech, Kansas by No. 7 Kansas State, Vanderbilt by No. 6 LSU.
"We don't match up well with Winthrop. They beat us by 12 in the regular season. I sensed that our players didn't want to play Winthrop."
Coastal Carolina, as its reward for beating the Nos. 7, 6 and 8 seeds and winning the Big South tourney, has the privilege of playing Michigan in Tucson Friday. The Wolverines and their Fab Five are seeded No. 1 in the West Regional. Many pick Michigan to win it all.
Truax knows how Coastal Carolina feels. He can also empathize with Rider, a fellow former East Coast Conference member, which opens against Kentucky Friday in Nashville, Tenn. -- and with Delaware, another ex-ECC school, which faces Louisville Friday at The Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis.
Three years ago Towson made its first NCAA appearance. It drew Oklahoma, then No. 1 in the country. Said DeMatha High coach Morgan Wootten: "After the great season Towson had, it's almost criminal to make them play Oklahoma in the first round."
Before the game, Truax racked his brain for a Knute Rockne-type speech to inspire his underdogs. As it turned out, he didn't need one.
With Oklahoma warming up out on the court, Kennell Jones, from Towson's locker room, stole a peek at the Sooners. Jones ran back to his teammates and announced: "Hey! They're no bigger than Delaware!" Which Oklahoma wasn't.
That was all the encouragement Towson needed. With six minutes to play the Tigers trailed, 58-56. Oklahoma finally won, 77-68, but Towson State had earned new respect. The following year Towson lost its tourney opener to Ohio State, 97-86.
"There are two good reasons to want to draw a No. 1 seed in the first round," says Truax, who has spent the last week fighting off the flu.
"One, you might as well play No. 1. It's good publicity for your program. Two, if you draw what I call a system team like an Indiana or a Syracuse -- a team that sticks to a system -- you can prepare for it.
"But Coastal has to play Michigan, and they're not a system team. They're just tremendously talented athletes. Who knows what they're going to do?"
Coppin State, the No. 1 team in Greater Baltimore this year, faces a different kind of task, as Truax sees it. Coppin opens Friday against Cincinnati, a Final Four team last year now seeded No. 2 in the East Region.
"Coppin has a shot against Cincinnati," says Truax. "Coppin beat us in December for their first win and they came along very nicely under [coach] Fang Mitchell. But I can't see them slipping by a team like Cincinnati that plays such great defense."
Truax, along with most of the nation's coaches, will be in New Orleans for the Final Four on April 3-5. The teams he expects to see still in action then are Arizona, Indiana, North Carolina and Kentucky.
If Truax has handicapped the Final Four accurately, which team will emerge as the NCAA champion? "Kentucky will be awfully hard to beat," he says.
In the meantime, Truax is finalizing the three scholarships he has for next year. As for Keith Booth, the Dunbar High star who was recruited by Maryland, Kentucky, Duke and Towson -- and last week chose Maryland, Truax shrugs.
"I don't think we were close to getting Keith Booth," he said. "I think Towson was sort of a security thing with him. I do know he has a close relationship with our [assistant coach] Jim Meil. Keith is a good fit at Maryland. He'll be a very good player there."