Jack O'Donnell has been waiting for this since 1992.
The partner at the Withum, Smith & Brown accounting and consulting firm graduated from La Salle University, in college hoops-crazed Philadelphia, in 1982, but hasn't been able to watch his team play an NCAA tournament game since 1992.
That changes tonight, when the Explorers tip off against Boise State in Ohio, in the final play-in game of the tournament.
"I think they're going to win," O'Donnell said. "I have high hopes for them. It's been a long time, and the drought will probably give them a little sense of urgency to at least get to the next round."
And for O'Donnell, the stakes are even higher — he's representing La Salle in this year's NJBIZ Brackets competition, which pits Garden State executives against one another as they root on their almae maters. Boise State is represented by David Ryder, of Honeywell.
O'Donnell said he's confident of a win tonight.
"I hope I'll be home to watch it on TV," he said. "They play on Friday if they win — I'm kind of looking past this (tonight's) game already." In fact, he's already looking deeper into the bracket, predicting the Explorers will best Kansas State before losing to Wisconsin, which he called "a really good team, and the Big Ten is probably the best conference this year for basketball. They put a lot of quality teams in the tournament. So, I don't think La Salle can compete beyond that, unless they get lucky."
There's plenty of pride for his alma mater, though. La Salle, O'Donnell said, "is a great school. It was small when I went there — I think we had about 8,000 students. I went there before it was a university, it was La Salle College at the time. It's got a grand tradition — it has won the NCAA twice back in the '50s, so they have a strong basketball tradition."
The team hasn't enjoyed the recent success of Big Five rival Villanova, a No. 9 seed this year, "but they are trying to build it back. Last year, they had a pretty good season, but they failed to get in. It's great to see them get in this year."
That's not the only drought coming to an end tonight. James Madison University hasn't danced since 1994, when it lost to Florida in the first round, but Kristin Lynn is no stranger to having her college team compete on the national stage. The Hampshire Cos. investment manager was a James Madison University senior in 2004 when the Dukes won the NCAA Division I-AA national championship in football.
The spotlight is now on the JMU men's basketball team, which will play in tonight's other play-in game. The squad will play Long Island University-Brooklyn for the No. 16 seed and a shot at Indiana in the Round of 64.
"It's certainly exciting to see your school in there," said Lynn, who conceded that if the Dukes win tonight, getting past a No. 1 seed will be a tall order.
Lynn said she had not followed the program closely prior to its recent success, but it became hard for her to miss after the team won a trip to the tournament earlier this month.
"All of a sudden you go on Facebook and so many people are talking about the JMU Dukes," she said. "So it was certainly fun to see all of the media on it."
Hoping Gaels blow away Memphis
Meanwhile, there's no rest for John Meckfessel as his alma mater, St. Mary's College, prepares for Thursday's game after defeating Middle Tennessee State in Tuesday's play-in game.
Meckfessel, director of global strategic marketing at Johnson & Johnson, said the team's success depends on how much support the Gaels provide star point guard Matthew Dellavedova, who scored 22 points in Tuesday's decisive 67-54 win that he hopes gives the team momentum into Thursday's contest against No. 6 Memphis.
"They just need a couple of guys to step up," said Meckfessel, a 1991 graduate of the Moraga, Calif.-based Catholic college. "They need to rebound, not give up second shots, hit some shots, and I think they have a legitimate chance.'
Regardless, Meckfessel predicts Dellavedova will be the best player on the floor at Thursday afternoon's game in Auburn Hills, Mich., when he takes on Memphis alum Patrick Young, of News 12 New Jersey.
"Hopefully, more of the country will get to see him," said Meckfessel, who coached as an assistant for three years at California State University before venturing into pharmaceuticals. "He's a good shooter, has good vision, just an amazing basketball I.Q. and leadership qualities. He knows who to pass to at all times."
While it's an uphill climb going forward for the No. 11 Gaels, the team did advance to the Sweet Sixteen in 2010 by defeating second-seeded Villanova.
"Anything could happen. That's the excitement of it," Meckfessel said.
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