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Mike Lopresti | | February 1, 2014

Carrying on the legacy

INDIANAPOLIS -- The picture on Dan Gavitt’s desk is of the late father whose voice still speaks to him, especially this time of year.

Dave Gavitt spent a lifetime with college basketball and the NCAA Tournament. The picture shows him coaching Providence in the 1973 Final Four. His son is now the chief caretaker of the tournament, and he looks at the image every day.

“I think of his words often. They always come back to the players and the coaches, and the experiences they have,” Dan Gavitt said. “If nothing else, I try to make sure that with any decision I make, that’s the first thing I think of. He would want me to focus on those two groups, and I try to, always.”

February is here, which means Dan Gavitt’s days get longer and his nights get shorter. It means a college basketball game is always on his television screen, home or office, live or recorded. On this last Friday in January, he estimated there were 25 games on his DVR list.

No time, for say, a movie or reality show? “Not even close.”

Gavitt is in his second year as vice president for men’s basketball. In other words, when it comes to the tournament, he’s part czar, part mother hen.

I know every day I get to wake up and work on this tournament and work with the people I do, it’s hard to imagine anything better.
-- Dan Gavitt

His life at the moment: “Exciting, exhilarating, sometimes a little overwhelming.

“We’re right in the heart of it, right?”

Right. Which means he was in Louisville Thursday, headed for Indiana-Michigan Sunday, and hoped to catch Wichita State at Indiana State next week, if his flight back from Florida was on time.

“I don’t have a vote in the room, and I shouldn’t have a vote in the room. That’s the job of the committee,” he said of the selection process. “But I do want to be a resource for the committee. In order to do that, you have to watch games.”

Which means he will be convening the Men’s Basketball Committee soon, in a vital orientation to prepare for the cauldron of selection weekend in March.

“There’s no margin for error a month later. I feel the responsibility to make sure the dry run is very much a real exercise.”

Which means all the logistics and details of running the crown jewel of college sport – from officiating to seedings to making sure the team buses are on time – will soon start keeping him awake at night. If they aren’t already.

Some things he could never see coming. His first tournament last March was going fairly smoothly, until Kevin Ware’s leg exploded right in front of Gavitt at the regional in Indianapolis.

But all in all, it was a good rookie year, though he came to know one sensation very well in the noisy journey from the first round through the Final Four.

“The feeling of responsibility to make sure that this huge event that’s so important to so many kids and coaches and fans like came off without incident. You can’t replicate that feeling of responsibility until you go through it,” he said.

“I know the schedule and the pace better. It felt like there were times last year that I didn’t quite know what was coming around the next corner, so it’s a little comforting to know exactly what we’re preparing to do.”

And what is he exactly preparing to do?

“All you care about at the end of the day is that the games are competed fairly with equal opportunity for both teams to have success.”

Which is his why his worst nightmare is easy to guess.

“An unfortunate missed officiating call that costs a team a game. I’m sure that’s what our officials worry about, too.”

Gavitt has coached, been an athletic director and worked as an executive in the Big East that his father helped build. And now he runs the dance. It’s the latest chapter in a love affair with the game that was fanned in 1979, when he tagged along with his dad to see his first Final Four at the age of 12.

Not a bad way to be introduced to the event. Michigan State and Magic Johnson against Indiana State and Larry Bird in the championship game.

Gavitt thinks the tournament’s hold on the masses starts with kids, dreaming of winning their own championship with their own Christian Laettner or Mario Chalmers shot. Gavitt had his own fantasy winning shots as a kid, but for whom?

“Probably Providence College, because my dad coached there.”

Now this stage of childhood dreams and teenage hopes is under his care. So before February’s crunch time gobbled his time for good, Gavitt made a few observations at his office:

On the season in general . . .
"My sense is we’re a little bit deeper this year than last year, with more teams you can point to and say they have a legitimate chance to get to the Final Four and win the national championship.”

On the latest statistical trends that continue to show scoring, field goal percentages and fouls all higher than last year, with the officiating emphasis on cutting down defensive contact . . .
“That’s encouraging to me because that means the predictions about how in conference play, the whole thing’s going out the window isn’t bearing out in the data.”

On the figures he recites, that the average number of fouls per team per game for 65 years was 19.4, dropped to 17.7 last year, and is back to 19.5 this year . . .
“What that tells me is we had just stopped calling fouls that were fouls. We’ve gotten back to where the game has been for the last 65 years. It feels like a shock because more fouls are being called, but we’re just getting back to where we should have been.”

On the possibility of a highly-watched tournament game turning into a free throw contest . .   .
“It’d be unfortunate short term, but my responsibilities aren’t short term.  I think we’re trying to make these changes for the long-term health of the game. Losing 10 percent of your scoring over 20 years is a bad trend and it’s going to take more than one year to get that trend going the other direction. We’re going to have some ugly games along the way, including the tournament probably. That’s not the goal, but it’s probably the reality.”

Such matters go to the heart of the game, which is where Gavitt longs to be. All he need do is look at a picture on his desk to understand why.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever particularly aspired to be one particular thing or be in one particular role. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve had a lot of other great opportunities,” he said. “But now that I’m here and I know every day I get to wake up and work on this tournament and work with the people I do, it’s hard to imagine anything better.”

Bottom line, what is Dan Gavitt’s world like in February?

“Every hour of the day, there’s a game going on.

“No better place to be.”

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