It’s been 20 years, so when Michael Wernicki, assistant men’s basketball coach, thinks back to his appearance in the 1993 NCAA men’s basketball tournament with the University of Pittsburgh, he admits he forgot some of the details.
Still, he was left with a lasting impression.
“It’s a special experience,” he said.
Jason Pacanowski, director of men’s basketball operations, agreed. He reached the NCAA men’s tournament with Southern Illinois University in 2007 as the team’s graduate assistant.
Pacanowski described the experience as “unforgettable.” However, he struggled to put those memories into words.
“It’s just unexplainable for the most part,” he said.
A third member of the Youngstown State University basketball program has experienced March Madness as well. Tavares Jackson, assistant women’s basketball coach, reached the women’s NCAA tournament in 2003 with Austin Peay State University as an assistant coach.
Like Wernicki and Pacanowski, Jackson raved about the experience.
But unlike Pacanowski, he tried to explain the phenomenon.
“Put it this way: Everything that you would think of a normal college basketball game, it’s three notches up from that,” Jackson said. “The opposing team, your team — everybody feels that you’re in the moment and in the now.”
Jackson’s moment came at the University of Colorado, where his 14th-seeded Governors played third-seeded University of North Carolina in the first round.
“It was an amazing environment,” Jackson said. “Here’s this little school, Austin Peay, and we were playing the big dogs of North Carolina. People that were associated with our program knew about us, but not that many people gave us credit for our body of work.” The Governors gave UNC all they could handle, but eventually lost, 72-70. Jackson recalled the crowd shifting to support his underdog team.
“The Colorado fans are chanting, ‘Let’s go, Peay!’ and you got 10,000 people in the stands that are chanting your name and pulling for you,” he said. “There’s nothing comparable to the postseason in terms of being in that environment for the coaches, for the kids, cheerleaders, band — just everyone.”
Pacanowski, whose Salukis reached the Sweet 16, spoke about the incomparable environment as well.
“They plan everything for you — the hotel, police escorts to the games,” he said. “Then, you have the fans there. You have fans that meet you at the hotel, and you have fans that are there when you leave the hotel.”
SIU defeated the College of the Holy Cross in the first round, then Virginia Tech in the second round.
“When we came home after beating Virginia Tech — before we left to go to San Jose, Cal., to play Kansas [University] — we had at least 1,000 fans at our regional airport just waiting there to see us come back, cheering like crazy,” Pacanowski said. “It’s very unexplainable how amazing that is.”
The Salukis fell to Kansas, 61-58, in the Sweet 16. Still, Pacanowski is thankful for the “memorable run.”
“The energy from both the coaching staffs and players are at a completely different level,” he said. “Everybody knows it’s win and move on, or lose and go home. We had a lot of seniors who tried to cherish every moment because they knew the end was close.”
Wernicki, a guard on the 1993 Panthers team, can relate.
“It all happens so fast. … If you lose, it’s over in a heartbeat,” he said. “That’s just how it goes. It’s really quick. But it is special.”
Pittsburgh matched up with the University of Utah in the first round at Vanderbilt University, losing 86-65. While his experience was brief, Wernicki made some observations.
“Its so much more of an event than a one-game thing,” he said. “It’s different because you’re playing in a big building with six or eight or four different teams that are playing in the same arena. It’s not like playing a home game — not that intense. But there’s just a lot of stuff going on.”
Wernicki added that just stepping on the court to warm up for the game was a memorable moment in itself.
“The initial moment of going out on to the floor for the first time was probably the neatest part,” he said. “When you realize and know that you’re at the tournament — that’s probably the coolest thing.”
So while the three Penguins basketball members each experienced the tournament in different times, venues and roles, there is an overriding opinion.
“Being in the NCAA tournament — there’s nothing like it. I think it’s just a great environment to be in at this time of the year — just the March Madness hoopla in general,” Jackson said.