Saturday March 21st, 2015

COLUMBUS, Ohio—Perhaps no coach is more aware of mythical potential of the opening days of the NCAA tournament than Homer Drew. In 1998, Drew coached Valparaiso University to the Sweet 16 in a run that embodied all of the hallmarks of March—an unfamiliar school slaying traditional powers with the enduring power of a buzzer beater. To boot, Homer’s son, Bryce, hit the game winning three-point shot against Mississippi on a tip-pass play called “Pacer”—arguably the seminal opening-weekend moment in NCAA tournament history. That shot cemented Homer Drew, the folksy coach from the funny-sounding school, as an eternal March touchstone.

On Friday afternoon, the elder Drew carved a new niche in NCAA lore. In a span of a little more than 24 hours, Drew watched both of his head coach sons, Scott of Baylor and Bryce at Valpo, lose NCAA tournament games in the most heart-aching way possible. No. 3 Baylor failed to score in the game’s final 2:39, as No. 14 Georgia State scored the 13 unanswered points in a 57-56 upset. And there came a karmic twist to the game’s dagger shot, a 30-foot three-pointer that won the Panthers the game created a new generational father-son moment. Homer Drew watched from the stands as Georgia State coach Ron Hunter and his sharp shooting son, R.J., enjoyed their epic March moment. The flipped script wasn’t lost on Homer. “It was devastating and heartache to say the least,” Drew said.

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After consoling Scott, he flew home to get to Columbus to watch his other son, Bryce, coach against Maryland on Friday afternoon. Drew watched the game fitfully, his right leg shaking like a bass drummer in a death metal band. He chatted throughout with a security guard sitting in front of him, who happened to be a retired official. Before the game’s final play with 13.7 seconds left, Drew even borrowed a reporter’s pen to draw up a potential play on a piece of paper for Valparaiso supporters. “I should have used it,” Bryce joked later.

Valparaiso played valiantly, but lost 65-62 when it had the ball with 13.7 seconds left and couldn’t get off a shot on the final possession. Maryland’s Varun Ram hit the right arm of Valpo’s Keith Carter on a three-point attempt in the waning seconds. Official Brian Dorsey appeared to have a clear view of the play and failed to blow his whistle. “He definitely hit my right wrist,” Carter said. “The refs probably didn’t want to call it at the end of the game. I don’t think he got any of the ball.”

When Carter elevated for shot, Ram’s swipe popped the ball straight up in the air—another sign he got far more arm than ball—and the horn sounded. Homer Drew didn’t have a good view of the play in the deep corner on the opposite side of the court. Ever gracious, he didn’t let the consecutive gut punch losses overcome him. But he was clearly exasperated. “Heartbreak,” he said, “in the way that they lost in the final minutes. This is what makes March Madness so unique.”

And it’s safe to argue that no one had a role in the tournament’s first two full days quite like Homer Drew. He traveled to Jacksonville for Baylor’s game and then flew home to Chicago at 8 p.m. to drive to his home in northwestern Indiana on Thursday night. He got home at 12:30 a.m. Along the way, he spoke to Scott around midnight, trying to console his son through one of biggest March meltdowns in NCAA tournament history. But what can you say? “It lingers with you,” Drew said. “It lingers with you, as a coach we live that whole last two minutes. ‘What if I had done this? What if I had put you in and taken you out?’ You relive all those and second-guess yourself.”

Bryce and Homer Drew in 1998
Bryce and Homer Drew in 1998
Getty Images file

Friday’s game left a similar empty feeling. After the Valpo loss, Bryce stood against the wall in the hallway of Nationwide Arena. Four men in his suits surrounded him, school and conference officials from Valpo and the Horizon League. They held their IPhones out showing both still shots and video evidence of Ram’s obvious foul. Drew shook his head in disbelief at one point, asking who he should complain to that a Big Ten official—Dorsey does games in the league— ended up officiating in an NCAA tournament game with a Big Ten team. When approached by a reporter on the topic of the call, he summed up his feelings pithily: “I’m not going to say anything about the refs.”

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Valparaiso hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 1998, a run that ended against Rhode Island in the Sweet 16. Drew still remembers a dagger, double-pump shot from Rhode Island’s Preston Murphy that changed that game. They’ve lost in six straight tournament appearances since. Bryce insisted he'd be haunted by more than a missed call. Valpo shot 10 for 18 from the free throw line and missed countless close looks at the rim. The game was there for the taking and it squandered the chance.

In the end, when the whistle didn’t sound, the second dose of the Drew family’s wretched NCAA tournament stretch did something familiar. It created an unforgettable March hero. That would be Varun Ram, the 5’9”, 155-pound defensive specialist for Maryland who walked onto the team after transferring from Division III Trinity College. He’s studying neurobiology and physiology with a 3.99 GPA and dreams of one day playing for the Indian National Team. Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon inserted him with 13.7 seconds left and Ram’s play ended up winning the game. Ram, obviously no fool, was smart enough to play dumb on the obvious foul. “In my head it wasn’t controversial,” he said, “I thought it was clean.” He ran straight away from the corner without looking at the referee until teammate Jon Graham hoisted him in the air in celebration. “It’s like no feeling I ever felt before,” Ram said.

Homer Drew knows that same feeling. And in 2015 he discovered a completely new one.

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