What a weekend to be a college basketball fan.Sure, there was plenty of action on the court, but just as compelling was the battle in the boardroom, as participants traded blows in the winner-take-all NJBIZ Brackets tournament, which pits Garden State executives against one another as they root on their almae maters.
There were plenty of upset specials in the early going, but Doug Johnston had to fend off Western Kentucky and UNC despite being under the weather. Fortunately, the Jayhawks were sharp enough to prevent Kansas from being the first No. 1 sent home.
Johnston, of AARP New Jersey, said he regularly attended basketball games as an undergrad at Kansas; the school won the NCAA tournament while he was a student there in 1988.
“I was on the rowing team, and we managed the parking lot traffic” for basketball games,” he said. “As payment for that, we raised money for the rowing teams, and we got to go to a lot of games.”
Johnston’s Jayhawk connection came into play early in his Garden State career. He joined AARP New Jersey in 2001, and shortly thereafter met Jim McGreevey at a forum the association held for the gubernatorial candidates.
“He grabs my hand and says, ‘Hey, it’s great to meet you Doug, but I think we’ve met before,’ ” Johnston recalled.
Johnston had just arrived from his home state so he knew for a fact they hadn’t met before. When McGreevey insisted they had, Johnston quipped “Have you been to Kansas lately?”
About a year later, McGreevey was the newly inaugurated governor, and Johnston was called to meet with someone from the governor’s office to talk about pending legislation.
“The door opened and the governor’s there, and Dick Codey’s there, the president of the Senate, and Albio Sires, the speaker of the Assembly’s there, and I was hit like a deer in the headlights,” Johnston said.
Luckily, the conversation quickly turned to a topic the native Kansan knew a thing or two about.
“Kansas was almost to the Final Four that year, and they had lost a game the night before, and Albio Sires asked me about it,” he said. “And henceforth, that’s how people started to remember the new guy at AARP as being the Kansas guy.”
Though Johnston and his father both were undergrads at Kansas, and his brother went to law school there, Johnston said much of his family are fans of Wichita State University, which is represented in NJBIZ Brackets this year by Hess’ Cindy Farley. Johnston himself spent his first year at WSU before transferring to Kansas.
Wichita State also is in the Sweet 16 this year; asked which team he’d favor in a Kansas/Wichita State matchup, Johnston deferred, saying he’ll contemplate that only if such a matchup occurs.
The Jayhawks and Shockers are on opposite sides of the bracket, so if the two teams meet in the tournament, it will be in the championship game. –Jared Kaltwasser
On top of things
Another solid-looking top seed is Daniel Flynn, an attorney with Greenbaum, Rowe, Smith & Davis, in Woodbridge. His Louisville squad, in the Midwest, knocked out Colorado State alum Paul Force, of Conti, in weekend action. Next up for Flynn is Deb Howlett, whose Oregon Ducks have been a surprise of the tournament; the No. 12 seed has upended St. Louis and Oklahoma.
Louisville and Oregon take to the court Friday.
“I’m hopeful,” Flynn said. “I think the competition gets stiffer the further we go along. But Louisville’s been playing well.”
So has Oregon, though Flynn admits Howlett’s team is an unknown for him right now.
“You know the tournament is such that the teams are so close on any given day that anybody can win,” he said. “So I’m not sure that I had expectations that Oregon would be there or somebody else would be there. It’s just going to get tougher at each level.”
“I hope to see the game on Friday. I had trouble seeing the past games, because I was out of the country and traveling back,” Flynn said. “But I understand they had a really good defense, and pretty much overwhelmed their opponents with their defense. And that could change when you get a team that is able to deal with the press a bit better.” –Beth Fitzgerald
Nail-biting road to Sweet 16
It hasn’t come quite so easy so far for Miami graduate Michelle Muraski, of the accounting and consulting firm EisnerAmper, who held on to a nail-biting 63-59 win over Illinois on Sunday.
“I’m hoping that they still stay strong going forward. I hope they will come out with another win,” she said.
On Sunday night, she watched the game with friends at a bar in Hoboken, where she lives; her two roommates have been wearing Miami T-shirts to help support her team.
Sunday’s night’s game was exciting, she said. “I’m definitely getting more into it this year as my school is playing well. I’m really excited.” She tips off against David Bataille, of Marquette, on Thursday. –Beth Fitzgerald
Confidence on both sides
Attorney Leslie Prentice, of Hackensack’s Cole Schotz, should have her hands full on Friday, when she settles in for a tilt with Michigan State’s Don Christensen.
But she’s not nervous yet.
“Things seem to be going very well for Duke,” she said. On Sunday night she watched Duke beat Creighton, 66-50.
“It looked like Duke was playing well. I think they definitely won on defense — it wasn’t such a high-scoring game,” she said. Creighton’s Doug McDermott, who was playing for Dennis Kadian, of Bressler, Amery & Ross, “is one of the highest scorers in the country, and Duke really did a good job of keeping the ball away from him, and that was probably one of the things that made the difference.”
For Friday’s game, “I’m optimistic, but I think it’s going to be much more difficult,” she said. “I don’t know so much about Michigan, but everyone says they are a really athletic team and they should be good competition for Duke.”
There’s confidence on the other side of the court, too. Don Christensen didn’t watch Michigan State beat Memphis over the weekend, as he was out of town watching his sons’ basketball tournaments. But Christensen, a partner at Christensen Tamburri Communications, in Raritan, will make sure he catches his alma mater when they face off against Duke.
“Duke is always a powerhouse, so it’s going to be a good game,” he said. “I think Michigan State can beat them but, as I said before, their key players have to step up and play the game of their lives to do it.”
Christensen said he will definitely be wearing his green-and-white sweatshirt for Friday night’s game, and fully expects the Spartans to beat the Blue Devils and make it to the Sweet 16.
“Any time they can beat somebody like Duke, it’s a real feather in their cap,” he said.
Meanwhile, Prentice is looking forward to getting together with friends to watch the game.
“I will probably get together with a few people since it’s a Friday night, as opposed to a Sunday, and maybe go out to a local bar. Everywhere in Jersey City and Hoboken, the bars have been showing the games on their big TVs, pretty much 24/7.”
She is enjoying the tournament. “Now that we are out in the real world and not just in college with our own college peers, it is good to see how all the teams are doing. I filled out a bracket, and I’m actually doing fairly well.” –Mary Ann Bourbeau and Beth Fitzgerald