With five rounds of Madness still reverberating through my mind, I feel compelled to spread the word that the death of March Madness has been greatly exaggerated! I’ll confess, I was in the camp of haters proclaiming that the one and done “student” athletes had ruined the college game. That the level of play had declined so drastically from eras past that the only place to get my fix was watching The Association. That the constant realignment of the power conferences was killing the traditional rivalries. But over the past few weeks, I’ve been reminded that when you pit 68 teams of 18-22 year old’s in a win or go home format and turn on the TV cameras, something magical can happen. You just have to watch.
I’ve always felt that the first round games of the tourney, which take place on Thursday and Friday, should be an elective paid national holiday for all sports fans. After all, it’s Spring, it’s March Madness, it’s time to rejoice! Attempting to work under these conditions can be detrimental to your career. A case in point, many years ago at work in my cube on day one of the tourney I was busy scoreboard watching, stressing over a $20 bracket, and trying to place orders for pots and pans. Somehow, when it came time to order a single Le Creuset 20 qt stock pot at $160 for a little old lady in Michigan, I put the price in the quantity field and hit submit. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to envision what happened next. A few days later a semi truck rolled up to the house and started unloading pallets in the driveway!
Chalk up another work snafu to March Madness.
Thankfully this year, due to the well timed birth of my daughter, I spent the first week of the tourney at my in-laws house holed up in a quiet room with a 50” tv all to myself. While the baby was holding court upstairs with a steady flow of well wishers, I felt like the disheveled guy who lives in the basement and is seldom seen because he works the night shift at the local mini-mart. I would surface only when CBS had a break in the action (note to director – this should never happen), if a deli sandwich magically arrived, or I felt the paternal urge to run up and quickly cuddle my sleeping baby during a 10 minute replay review to determine how many seconds should be put back on the game clock.
It didn’t take long to get caught up in the spirit of Madness as the first game came right down to the final shot. As a man who grew up dreaming of playing basketball for a living only to see my “career” wrapped up in high school, I always feel for the college seniors who suddenly, after missing that open 12 footer, are hit with the reality that they have just played their last second of real hoops and it’s now time to start thinking about a first job with Enterprise Rental Cars. But hey, that’s what makes the tourney the best sporting event in the land and the ultimate reality show. If Jim McKay were here today he’d refer to it as the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat!
While some watch the tourney because they really do enjoy basketball, the truth to it’s success lies with the bracket. Bracketology has taken on a life of it’s own. Every March, Joe Lunardi arguably becomes the most important member of the national media with Jay Bilas, Andy Katz and Doug Gottlieb ranking right alongside Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw. It’s estimated that 3 billion dollars annually is poured into bracket pools. I don’t know where it goes, because I’ve never seen a cent back.
For a lesson in bracket picking futility, here is my 2014 story: Round of 64 Edition
Right out of the gate, I was 0-1 after OSU’s Aaron Craft missed a short runner to beat Dayton. But I have to pin this loss solely on my lack of preparation. The second that I realized Archie Miller was the coach of the Mighty Flyers and I witnessed their defensive intensity, I knew I was cooked. The Millers are the Harbaugh’s of college hoops. Poor picking on my behalf and goodbye to the Buffet Billion!
But next up the Crimson of Hahvahd took care of Cincy and I was on my way to an excellent morning. You gotta love the dreaded 5-12 seed games! It’s usually a surging mid major with a heartwarming back-story handing it to a shell shocked major conference team to the delight of the fans in attendance. These games also provide the spark that sets the likes of Bill Raftery, Verne Lundquist and Gus Johnson on fire.
During the evening rounds my luck began to falter. My Sweet 16 pick, VCU (a 5 seed), lost in OT to Stephen F Austin??? (a 12 seed of course) after blowing a huge lead and allowing a 4 point play in crunch time. My Sweet 16 pick, St Joe’s, threw away a late game lead to UCONN and eventually lost in OT. DAMN THE A-10!! Then the one A-10 team that I didn’t pick, St Louis (a 5 seed) rallied from a double digit deficit in the final minutes to beat my 12th seeded NC State Wolfpack. Confused?
For the final 5-12 seed act, my North Dakota St Bison fought valiantly to force overtime against a young Oklahoma Sooner team and then prevailed when an unused freshman had to replace a fouled out senior leader and scored 4 straight points without even breaking a sweat. Madness at it’s finest. My father in law decided to join me for this game and must have been amused (or confused) as I paced the room like the Bison coach, threatening the refs, calling out offensive sets and asking for somebody to rebound. Something about that 4th beer that always transforms me into a coach.
Somewhere in the chaos I flipped over just in time to witness a Texas kid pick up a loose ball and flick it in at the buzzer to beat my 10th seeded ASU Sun Devils, inflicting pain equivalent to 10 kicks to the balls.
I was then transfixed with the Manhattan – Louisville game. I may have been darn near hallucinating after watching 10 straight hours of ball, but the Manhattan kids looked like they were playing in fast forward mode. Rick Pitino’s prized thoroughbreds could barely keep up. It took all of their size and Luke Hancock’s daggers to stave off the upset. I like the idea of Manhattan becoming a storied hoop program. CBS does as well.
And you can’t put the first round to rest without mention of Mercer defeating Duke! A Bracket Busters Delight. What I love about watching Duke lose is the reaction of Coach K. Do you remember when he used to cry over the thought of saying goodbye to his seniors? “Whaaa whaaa I love Jon Scheyer like a son.” This year he almost seemed giddy to see his crew of one and dones and sophs loose to a gritty team of college players. Coach K even went into the Mercer locker room after the game to be with the Mercer kids.
Final Round of 64 record: 24-8. Teams left in the Final 4: 1 (Fla). Rank in the ESPN Challenge: 4,951,828 (55%)
Before signing off something has to be said about this run that the Kentucky youngsters are enjoying. Their last 4 games, wins over Wichita St, Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin, by an average margin of 2.75 points, should be packaged up and sent straight to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Each game has been a heavyweight slug-fest and a pure joy to witness. Uptempo, free flowing basketball in the mid 70’s with confident kids making great plays. Cal may be a total dirt dog, but he gets the best out of his kids on the court. And spare a thought for the savant who had his shoulder tattoo’d before the tournament with UK National Champs 2014. He may just get the last laugh.
When these Kentucky kids are cutting the nets on Monday night, what will they be known as? We already have The Fab 5, The Cardiac Kids (‘83 NC ST) and Phi Slamma Jamma. On an individual level it can’t really get any better than Never Nervous Pervis (‘86 Louisville).
How about Cals One Semester Wonderkids?