As the first week's games once again showed—in all their heart-stopping, tear-streaked, buzzer-beating glory—there is at least one major event in sports that never fails to deliver
CONFERENCE REALIGNMENT feels wrong. Pulling student-athletes off their campuses for most of March to play basketball feels wrong. Paying college players feels wrong, but not paying players feels even more wrong. But the NCAA tournament? It's always terrific. And it makes you wonder: How can college sports be wrong if its signature event feels so right?
"Before I answer that question, I would like to say a few words: catawampus, onomatopoeia and antidisestablishmentarianism," said Wisconsin sophomore forward Nigel Hayes, who was not actually responding to our question, or even the one he was asked, but instead testing the press-conference stenographer last Saturday in Omaha. Hayes continued: "Sometimes if words are not in her dictionary ... maybe if I say soliloquy right now, she may have to work a little bit harder to type that word, or quandary, zephyr, xylophone, things like that ... that makes her job really interesting."
Catawampus probably did present a quandary for the stenographer, who went with the less traditional spelling: cattywampus. Critics who say basketball players don't belong in college surely know what a catawampus is. Of course they do. A catawampus is a fierce wild animal, but only an imaginary one. You know, like a Villanova Wildcat.
O.K., cheap shot. Let's not rip those Cats for their early exit or even question their No. 1 seed in the East. Instead let's marvel at the preposterous first weekend for the team that beat them: North Carolina State.
The Wolfpack trailed LSU by seven points in the final 5:43 of its first game but won on a turnaround hook shot by 6'9" sophomore forward BeeJay Anya. Then they turned around two days later and hooked Villanova 71--68. Logic says that reality will hit N.C. State this weekend in Syracuse. But where was logic in 1983, when the Wolfpack needed two overtimes to win its first game and then went on to win a most unlikely national title?
That tournament famously ended with N.C. State coach Jim Valvano running around the court, looking for somebody to hug. But in March the hugs usually come to you. Michigan State senior guard Travis Trice knows. He was FaceTiming with his parents before his game against second-seeded Virginia in Charlotte when he noticed an unfamiliar yellow pillow in the background. He wondered when his parents had bought the pillow. They hadn't. It was part of the decor of their Charlotte hotel room. They had driven all night from Huber Heights, Ohio, to see him play.
Trice scored a game-high 23 points on Sunday, with his mom, Julie, shrieking to distract the Cavaliers' free throw shooters. Soon she may be all shrieked out. Travis's father (also Travis) will coach his Wayne High team in the state semifinals this weekend. The younger Trice's performance gave editors yet another occasion to use the headline: SON OF COACH STARS IN UPSET.
Sophomore guard Bryce Alford, son of UCLA coach Steve, poured in 49 points on the tournament's first weekend—36 of them on three-pointers—quieting Bruins fans who have screamed about nepotism for two years. And of course, there was 6'6" junior R.J. Hunter, who hit a three from deep in his father's heart to help Georgia State stun third-seeded Baylor 57--56 last Thursday. Ron Hunter, the Panthers' coach who tore his left Achilles tendon in a celebration the week before, fell off his stool on the sideline and looked like he couldn't be happier about it.
Two days later Georgia State's season ended with a 75--67 loss to Xavier, prompting this beautiful soliloquy from Ron Hunter: "There is nothing to be sad about. The greatest week of my life. The greatest time I ever had to be a father. I don't want these guys to be sad."
Ron put his hand on R.J., and then the coach who had just said there was no reason to be sad started to sob. As he covered his face, he said, "I love this kid, man."
Long before it was on TruTV, the tournament was true TV: Drama you couldn't script, with upsets you couldn't predict, starring names you can barely believe. Dayton guard Scoochie Smith almost advanced to the second weekend, but Oklahoma smoochied him goodbye. That set up a backcourt matchup between Sooners junior Buddy Hield and Michigan State freshman Lourawls (Tum Tum) Nairn, who are friends from the Bahamas. Maybe someday we will get tired of Bahamians named Buddy and Tum Tum starring in major sporting events. But we're not there yet.
THIRTY YEARS ago a tournament featuring more than 60 teams was considered excessive. (Why don't they just let EVERYBODY in?) Now it is impossible to imagine the American sports landscape without it. And despite the dire warnings that college basketball is dying because of NBA defections, slow play or stoppages that clutter the ends of games, March Madness has retained its charm.
College football is built on tradition, which has made the sport's radical changes so jarring. But so many seminal college hoops moments were built on defying tradition. Texas Western over Kentucky. Phi Slamma Jamma. The Fab Five. That's why NCAA basketball doesn't feel as cheapened when it changes: Because unlike football, it lives in the now.
And the way college basketball is structured, it almost begs you not to take it too seriously. Just consider all the things that can happen when a player pulls up for a shot at the end of the game. It can go in, as Hunter's did. It can be swatted away, as Butler junior guard Kellen Dunham's three-pointer was by Notre Dame senior swingman Pat Connaughton, who flew in from a nearby airport. It can simply miss, like sophomore guard Eric Garcia's attempt to force overtime for Wofford against favored Arkansas. It could even get redirected, ever so slightly, by a zephyr.
This is why even the most devastating losses do not inflict lasting damage. The image of that poor Villanova piccolo player crying after the N.C. State loss was telling. Sure tears dripped down her cheeks. But she kept playing her instrument. Life moves on.
And when Wichita State thumps Kansas like a xylophone, there are implications beyond the men on the court. Jayhawks coach Bill Self has declined to schedule the Shockers during the regular season, the sporting equivalent of a politician refusing to debate his underdog opponent. In basketball terms the Shockers' 78--65 win was not much of an upset. But to Wichita State fans, it sure felt like sticking it to the Man.
One month does not clean up a year-round enterprise. But if we're going to complain about how dirty the bathwater is, we should at least enjoy the baby. Last year, as he announced he would not be leaving Wisconsin for the NBA, 7-foot star Frank Kaminsky wrote, "I hate looking in my bank account at the end of the month and seeing $20 left in there." Yet he stayed for his senior season to chase a national championship that would make Frank the Tank a legend among Badgers fans.
Sure some critics want schools to defund athletics completely. But most of us, deep down, oppose that opposition—put simply, we subscribe to a form of antidisestablishmentarianism. We realize that the worst of big-time college sports is not representative of the whole enterprise; that real student-athletes outnumber the faux ones; and that even if players are being exploited by the system, there are worse kinds of exploitation than getting a free education, playing college basketball and being the toast of campus for four years. Or even one year.
And speaking of which: Kentucky, with its mix of one-and-done, two-and-done and three-and-done stars, will try to win its ninth national championship. Duke (with three potential one-and-dones of its own) will try to win its fifth—all in Mike Krzyzewski's tenure.
Tom Izzo, with a team full of four-and-dones, will try to lead Michigan State to its seventh Final Four since 1999. West Virginia will try to stun everybody by winning a national title, which would probably lead to Bob Huggins Day in the state: Sweatsuits for everybody! UCLA, which has won more national championships (11) than any program, will try to upset heavily favored Gonzaga. Think about that. It's like Goliath dressing as David for Halloween.
The tournament is almost guaranteed a memorable finish, because either Kentucky will sew up the first unbeaten season in 39 years or somebody will beat the Wildcats. And the most likely final would feature a battle of 6'11" freshmen who could be drafted No. 1 this June—Duke's Jahlil Okafor against Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns—plus enough other NBA talent to pay an agent's cellphone bill for a few centuries.
Kentucky-Duke would be epic. But we have 14 more games before we get there—if we get there. And that means 14 more chances for a nation to stop what it is doing, forget which bills are due and stare at the television. In that moment it doesn't really matter if you know that onomatopoeia is "the creation of words that imitate natural sounds." You still get a thrill when a game-winning shot goes swish.