The Road to the Final Four: Why March is so Special

The Final Four is set. Oklahoma, Villanova, Syracuse, and North Carolina will be playing in Houston for a shot at a National Championship. It will certainly be an intriguing weekend of basketball. Can Syracuse keep its unlikely run alive against a dominant Carolina team or are the Heels just too strong? If UNC and Oklahoma play in the Championship, what a match up that would  be. Seeing the nation’s best player Buddy Heild up against arguably the nation’s most balanced team Carolina for a shot at the championship would be incredible. I am as excited as anyone to see what is in store, but March (and early April) is about so much more than who will cut down the nets on Monday.

March Madness exemplifies everything that is good about sports. It brings together the die hard fan and the casual viewer, as brackets become the topic of conversation at every workplace and school, allowing everyone a chance to participate rather than simply observe. I can still remember filling out my first bracket back when you used to have to cut them out of the newspaper. I picked North Carolina.  Because of the parity, your bracket is as likely to succeed as Jay Billas’s, because let’s face it: they were both probably busted after the first round. This was the second time I have lost my champion in the first round. This year it was Michigan State. I also had picked Missouri when Norfolk State beat them. Kentucky and Cal – two of my other Final Four picks lost during the first weekend, but that is what makes it fun.

March Madness weaves together layers of complex story lines that Shakespeare and Dickens could have only dreamed of authoring.  There are the villains – Duke and Kentucky just to name a few – that are better than any from a superhero movie, and there is more magic than Disney. And the suspense? Well, The Walking Dead has nothing on March Madness. Say what you will, but I will take binge watching the first weekend of the tournament over Netflix any day. Just when you think you have seen it all, Texas A&M comes back from double digits to Northern Iowa in under a minute and wins in double overtime.

Only in March do ordinary human beings, who are just like us become immortal. Players who no one has heard of all year steal the show. This year it was Thomas Walkup and Makai Mason.  I will probably never see them play again, but from the two games I saw each of them play, they will be etched into my memory forever. Others from the past like Sherwood Brown, Scoochie Smith and Kevin Pittsnogle, none of whom have gone on to play in the NBA, will never be forgotten. Sure some breakout stars like Gordon Haywood, Shelvin Mack, C. J. McCollum, and of course Steph Curry will make it to the next level, but even if Curry wins ten straight championships and MVP with the Warriors, my fondest memories of him will always be from his magical run with Davidson to the Elite Eight.

Schools that are not supposed to win anything have a chance make their imprint on history. Sure there was the Appalachian State upset over Michigan in college football, but that game did not really mean all that much. And of course there are the Boise State’s who have had incredible seasons, but there is something different about March. In a matter of days a school like Florida Gulf Coast can come out of nowhere into the national spotlight. The whole country can rally around a school like George Mason. Though it has been ten years, I can still remember hearing that they beat Michigan State in the first round. “Who is George Mason?” I thought. Then they went on to beat North Carolina. Then they beat Wichita State. And I can vividly remember sitting, actually I think I was standing by the end of it, in my basement with my dad and my sister (she actually watched part of a basketball game) when George Mason pulled off an overtime win over number 1 seed Connecticut to advance to the Final Four. I can remember the call from Bill Raftery, “what can Brown do for you?” referencing the UPS slogan. as UConn’s Denim Brown hit a crazy layup that barely rolled in as time expired to take the game to overtime. I can remember thinking that there was no way that George Mason would win in overtime. And the pure joy that ensued. Certainly professional players and those from major college football and basketball schools experience joy after winning, but there is something different and more authentic when you look at the faces of players from a  “mid-major” who wins a game in the tournament. A select few schools – Gonzaga, VCU, Butler, and Wichita State – turn their schools into nationally recognized programs. The impact of under recruited players like Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet for Wichita State will likely be felt for years to come as the Shockers become a tournament regular.

There is something so American about March Madness, at least in the way we like to think see America. It reflects the idealistic notion that anyone can succeed if they work hard enough. Entering the conference tournaments in late February and early March, everyone has a chance to win the National Championship. Only in March Madness can a school like Holy Cross, who has only had 9 wins all season,  win their conference tournament and then a game in the First Four. Only in March Madness can a 7 seed like UConn catch fire and end up winning a championship.

One moment in particular this year sums up the ethos of March Madness to me. Sitting in a hotel room, I was watching the Northern Iowa vs Texas game. At the last second Paul Jesperson hits a game winning half court heave. Immediately I turn to the Cincinnati vs St. Jose game as I see it is coming down to the wire. As soon as I switch a player from St. Jose hits a go ahead three. Down by two, Cincinnati drives down and misses a shot, but another player from the Bearcats dunks the ball in as time expires to send the game into overtime. After a long review the refs decide that it did not count. The contrast in the jubilation of Northern Iowa and heartbreak of Cincinnati perfectly paints the spectrum of emotions felt in March and the fractions of seconds that lead to these.

March Madness is the purest American cultural event left. In a day when the Super Bowl is a showy spectacle of gloated consumerism and the Oscars are marked by over analysis of fashion in which good art is overshadowed by who has the hottest dress, there is a hint of innocence in March. Coach K got it right: “For one month, college basketball unites the country. Don’t mess it up. It’s too damn good. It’s too damn good.”

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