Did you know New York has a team in the Final Four?
West Virginia boasts no fewer than six players from the metropolitan area on its roster. That includes all five regular starters -- Da'Sean Butler (Newark), Kevin Jones (Mount Vernon, N.Y.), Devin Ebanks (Long Island City), Darryl "Truck" Bryant (Brooklyn) and Wellington Smith (Summit, N.J.). Bryant has an injured foot and will not play Saturday, but clearly this NYC crew holds West Virginia's fate in its hands -- versus Duke in the national semifinals, and in a potential national championship game Monday night.
Jones -- a 6-foot-8, 250-pound sophomore forward -- has started every game for the Mountaineers this season and is the team's second-leading scorer (13.7 ppg) and rebounder (7.2 rpg). He's had an excellent NCAA tournament so far, upping his scoring average to over 15 points per game and shooting better than 56 percent from the field. Reached by phone Thursday afternoon in Indianapolis, Jones could hardly contain his excitement at being at the Final Four.
"Aw man, it's just crazy out here," Jones said. "We're all really excited."
Jones always planned on leaving the New York area to play his college ball. He wanted to get out on his own -- but not go too far away from home -- and he was attracted by West Virginia coach Bob Huggins' penchant for producing NBA players. Still, Jones carries his New York heritage with him every time he takes the court. "When you're from New York, you have a certain mentality, a swagger about yourself," Jones said. "There's a toughness that New York brings out of you."
West Virginia is not the only team in the Final Four featuring a local product. Duke starting forward Lance Thomas hails from Scotch Plains, N.J., and played his high school ball at St. Benedict's Prep in Newark. Thomas had nine rebounds in Duke's regional final win over Baylor -- including a key offensive board with under four minutes to play, which led to a Nolan Smith 3-pointer that put Duke up for good.
Several other New York-area players have acquitted themselves well in this year's Big Dance. Tennessee starting center Brian Williams, a Bronx native, averaged over 10 rebounds per game in four tourney contests, and his go-ahead tip-in with 32 seconds to play against Ohio State sent the Vols to the Elite Eight. Curtis Kelly, also from the Bronx, averaged 15 points per game on Kansas State's ride to the Elite Eight, and he had a monster game in the Wildcats' instant-classic 101-96 double-OT victory over Xavier in the Sweet 16 -- 21 points, eight rebounds, five blocks and four assists. And Xavier guard Terrell Holloway, whose hometown is Hempstead, Long Island, poured in 26 points in a losing effort in that game -- including nailing all three free throws at the end of regulation to send the game to extra time.
The Big Apple is buzzing with the hiring of former UCLA coach and ESPN analyst Steve Lavin at St. John's. Perhaps we'll be watching the Red Storm make a run in the NCAA tournament as early as next year? But in the meantime, sit back and enjoy watching several local kids in action on college basketball's grandest stage this weekend.
Who knows? Perhaps one of them will be featured in "One Shining Moment."
Or maybe even six of them.