Of all the NCAA tournaments this is the most non-traditional. First, it’s without the normal March beacons Duke and Kentucky. Second, there’s mostly empty gyms because of COVID limitations. Most importantly, it’s all enclosed into one host city as Indianapolis and the surrounding areas are housing the entire month-long hoops festival. It’s also the breath of fresh air we needed as we embark on a spring and summer that moves us far closer to normalcy in sports and in life. Last year’s tourney was memorably scratched. No buzzer-beaters. No Cinderellas. No fun. So let’s rank the top 5 best things about the return of madness.
5) The bracket. We all missed losing $20 in our office pools last year. Even if you haven’t watched a minute of college basketball until the Selection Show, it’s impossible not to have a misplaced confidence filling out the sheet. “Oh, this is definitely the 5-12 upset.” “You’re an idiot if you don’t eliminate a 2-seed and 3-seed opening weekend.” “Tom Izzo is money in March!” It may all be wrong, but for those glorious 20 minutes you’re filling out the bracket you’re Jay Bilas and Clark Kellogg’s love child.
4) The chokers. The Big Ten reminded us just how great a national folly is in March. In a divided America we need common ground to laugh at. Enter the B1G Blecch. Illinois was a 1-seed. Buh-bye. Ohio State earned a 2-seed. Gone. So did Iowa. Toast. Purdue was a 4-seed. See ya. Even Michigan State couldn’t make it out of the First Four. When the dust settled on Monday only Michigan remained, meaning a lonely single team (from the supposed best league in America) survived until the second weekend. Thanks for pulling us together, Big Ten.
3) The chaos. Before the weekend was over ESPN had no more perfect brackets left. Everyone in America has at least one miss and we hadn’t even finished the Round of 32. Talk about remarkable. The disaster of the Big Ten, plus 14-seed Abilene Christian’s upset of Texas, and 13-seed Ohio taking out Virginia meant red Sharpie was scribbled through everyone’s picks. The Sweet 16 features four teams with 11-seeds or higher (15, 12, 11, 11) and 25% of the teams left are from the Pac-12, the least respected power conference. Sure, it’s great to have a clean bracket. But it’s even more fun to watch the big guys fall. Americans remembered what craziness felt like in a tournament.
2) The impossible. Only once prior in tournament history had a 15-seed made it to the Sweet 16, and that school built a brand off it. FGCU’s “Dunk City” run in ’13 launched the program into the national consciousness and Andy Enfield to USC. Eight years later, it happened again. Oral Roberts stunned Ohio State with a ferocious defense and smart possessions late, then survived another high-major in Florida. You may have had ORU winning once, but no one had them heading to the second weekend. And no one is complaining.
1) Someone to hate. Without the Blue Devils or Wildcats in the tourney, and the Tar Heels and Jayhawks bounced early, America lacked a villain. Rick Pitino was one-and-done with Iona, and no schools have a major scandal hanging over their head. We don’t even have a shady recruiting story or egomaniacal head coach about to jump to the NBA. So in steps Syracuse, the closest thing we have to a national rallying cry. The Orange slipped into the tournament as a bubble team once again, and can’t help itself busting brackets along the way. Irritable Jim Boeheim. The perplexing 2-3 zone. The loud and boisterous alumni in the sports media. Thank us later. We knew you needed someone to hate. We’ll sit back and enjoy it.