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The Big Dance is nothing without the little engines that can

Yale's Alex Copeland reacts during the second half

Yale's Alex Copeland reacts during the second half in the Ivy League championship against Harvard at Yale University on March 17, 2019, in New Haven, Conn.  Credit: AP/Jessica Hill

Now the big teams officially can start focusing on being the next to lift the trophy, cut down the nets and star in the “One Shining Moment” video. That is all fine and good. The real fun, though, is in watching the teams trying to be the next UMBC or Loyola-Chicago. Once again, here is to the little guy.

March Madness would be March Blandness without the upstarts. The spice in the NCAA Tournament last year originated with the likes of UMBC, the team from Stony Brook’s America East Conference that became the first No. 16 seed to oust a No. 1 seed (and it was overall No. 1 Virginia, at that), and Loyola-Chicago, which reached the Final Four.

Who knows if this Big Dance will reveal a figure as compelling as Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, the chaplain of Loyola-Chicago who took the tournament by storm and had the most anticipated, jam-packed and refreshingly candid news conference during the Final Four. But we are more than ready to find out.

Here’s to Gardner-Webb, the little school from Boiling Springs, North Carolina, that won the Big South Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time. It will play Virginia, of all opponents.

Here’s to Colgate, appearing in the tournament for the first time since 1996, having won the Patriot League title. It will face Tennessee.

Here’s to Yale, coached by Long Island’s James Jones, having made the NCAA Tournament for the second time in four years after not having gone in the previous 54. Make that a hashtag #BoolaBoola, to quote the school’s Twitter feed. The Bulldogs will face LSU, the standard-bearer for the warts and problems in NCAA basketball.

It would be naïve not to cite the downside, what with LSU coach Will Wade under suspension as part of a larger FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball. It also would be wrong to disregard the fact that a great measure of March Madness’ popularity is based on America’s great pastime: gambling. What office or tavern doesn’t have “brackets”?

That said, the mid-majors and big dreamers give The Big Dance texture and excitement. There is nothing like them in any other major sporting event: You don’t have huge long shots in college football or in any of the professional leagues’ playoffs. Thus, the basketball tournament, flaws and all, arguably is America’s greatest sporting event (or at least in the same realm as the Masters, which follows immediately afterward).

You can’t script the kind of genuine jubilation that came out of Colgate in Hamilton, New York. Forward Will Rayman, whose game matured in summer ball on New York City playgrounds, told Syracuse.com: “We want to shock the world. We think we can actually upset a team.”

It is a stirring contrast with the tired and predictable caterwauling of pundits who immediately find something about which to gripe every year on Selection Sunday. This time their ire was aimed at the injustice of Michigan State being a No. 2 seed in the East rather than in the West. We should all have such problems.

Give me a glimpse of Yale’s Jones, a 1982 Half Hollow Hills West graduate, who got into coaching as a temporary job on his way to Wall Street. When he took over the Ivy League team, he said anyone coaching in that conference shouldn’t want to be there in 15 years. Yet there he was on Sunday, beating Harvard for his 310th win in 20 years at the same spot.

He goes into the Madness along with fellow Long Island coaches Tim Cluess of Iona, a former Hofstra player and Post coach who has his team dancing for the fourth consecutive year, and Northeastern’s Bill Coen of Port Jefferson. They will face North Carolina and Kansas, respectively.

They will be among those looking to be Cinderella. We all will be looking for the next Sister Jean, who made everybody at a big school in last year’s tournament second to nun.

New York Sports