Here is a quick question to start the Madness: Which state is Jacksonville State in? Wrong. It has nothing to do with Florida. The school that bills itself “The Friendliest Campus in the South” is in Alabama. And now its basketball team is in the NCAA Tournament for the first time.
The Gamecocks, Division II champions in 1985, had been in Division I for 22 years without a taste of the tournament. That did not seem likely this season, either, as first-year coach Ray Harper (formerly of Western Kentucky) inherited an 8-23 squad that was picked 12th in the preseason poll of the 12-team Ohio Valley Conference this season. But it went 20-14, won the conference tournament and will play Louisville, a No. 2 seed, on Friday. That kind of glass-slipper story is what trumps the justifiable cynicism about March Madness and helps make it America’s greatest sporting event.
On no other huge canvas is there room for subtle strokes like those from Jacksonville State and fellow first-timer Northern Kentucky (in its first year of eligibility). The NCAA Tournament has room, at least at the start, for large and small, for urban and rural, for North, South, East, West and Northwestern, which also finally made it for the first time.
No arguments from this quarter to some of the skepticism. Massive money drives the tournament. Coaches get huge paychecks. Top players are really just passing through, in a one-year holding pattern for the NBA. Then there is the key element The Big Dance shares with the Super Bowl: People can bet on it, and millions do.
But even that is not so bad. Most people filling out brackets are not looking to make a killing. Office pools and tavern contests are generally good-natured, part of a common national discourse for a country that desperately needs one.
Other reasons why the tournament still is a No. 1 seed among sports spectacles:
Noted alumna Julia Louis-Dreyfus immediately tweeted “We’re going to the dance, boys!” (with a clip of her awkwardly dancing as Elaine in “Sein feld”) after it was announced that Northwestern will play Vanderbilt on Thursday. Northwestern hosted the first championship game in 1939 (won by Oregon) and patiently waited 78 years for its chance to get on the floor. Among those making history is Wildcats walk-on Charlie Hall, Louis-Dreyfus’ son.
Northern Kentucky improved from 9-21 to 24-10 and won the Horizon League Tournament. It is 1-for-1 in NCAA appearances, having just become eligible after moving up from Division II four years ago. Like Stony Brook last year, it will have the lifelong memory of debuting against Kentucky.
The bands. Live music has been squeezed into little bits at professional events, but school pep bands are the brassy soundtrack for March Madness.
The handshake line. Hockey lovers, like yours truly, get rhapsodic every spring about the conciliatory postscript to each Stanley Cup playoff series. But in college basketball, teams do it after every single game. The ritual becomes more poignant and heartfelt in the tournament, when it’s goodbye for one of the sides.
College hoops are perhaps the last refuge for fun in big-time sports. I am not advocating poor sportsmanship, but cleverness deserves its due. During the ACC Tournament at Barclays Center last week, a member of the Boston College band attempted to distract Wake Forest free-throw shooters by passionately reading aloud from the children’s book “Goodnight Moon.” Then he pulled out a copy of the U.S. Constitution. As the Wake player bounced the ball and focused on the basket, he heard, “We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union . . . ”
It didn’t work (Wake Forest made its free throws and became one of nine ACC teams in the NCAA field), but it was quite educational.
Now the big week is here, and no doubt someone will try to come up with something even more clever.
It wouldn’t be the first time.
We’re going to the dance, boys! @NUMensBball making history! #proud #B1GCats #poundtherock #NCAA @marchmadness