The March Madness Narrative: About More than the Champion

The NCAA Tournament is known as March Madness for its fast-paced, unforgiving mad rush to the cutting of the nets over an abbreviated three weekend period. There is so much more to the story than just the one team rushing the court and lifting the trophy. Each weekend hits teams like a hurricane. Within moments of their celebrations ending coaches must have players turn on a dime for the next game less than 48 hours away.

At the end of the tournament, we are left with one winner. This year, that is the North Carolina Tar Heels. However, that is nowhere near the full story. The tournament produces things that can supersede even the Final Four or the champion of the season.  This type of environment forges stronger memories that last. It produces magical runs, heart-pounding and tense action as well as singular moments that capture our hearts. What is made in March lasts forever.

Bryce Drew hit one of the more memorable shots in tournament history. (Photo courtesy of usatoday.com)

Throughout the years, many things have surpassed the champions in our memories, but certain moments continue to captivate us. Many people could not name the 1998 Final Four of Kentucky, North Carolina, Utah and Stanford but the vast majority of basketball fans know the phrase “Drew, for the win!” and the Ole Miss loss to Valparaiso that accompanies it. This is now a moment etched in stone. It speaks to the fact that the chaos of March Madness can create a generational memory that lasts far beyond winning a game or the championship.

There are countless examples of this. For small schools, moments such as these can define a program.  They can be the thing that coaches point to when attempting to recruit against bigger schools. Need a better example of this? Look no further than the legendary Davidson run to the Elite 8 with now NBA All-Star, Steph Curry. Big moments for small schools are part of what defines March.

Even Blue Blood programs, however, can also see their drama elevate fan folklore to a higher level. Take what is arguably the most iconic moment in NCAA history: Christian Laettner hits his shot to beat Kentucky in the 1992 championship game…the championship game for the region that is. Duke and Kentucky each have amazing programs in their own respects but every time these two share the court together, this is brought up by fans and broadcasters alike. Laettner had a less than stellar career in the NBA and was a forgotten part of the 1992 NBA Olympic “Dream Team” but he is forever immortalized for one shot in a game that was only to make the Final Four. Making the Final Four is certainly something to be remembered, but that game is referenced far more than the Blue Devils championship victory over the Michigan Wolverine’s “Fab Five.”

It is not just moments that capture our hearts, but runs as well. The 1983 run by Jim Valvano’s North Carolina State Wolfpack is a true story that moves far beyond the 40 minutes on the game clock. That year’s title run was capped by one of the more inconceivable upsets of the Houston “Phi Slamma Jamma” team that featured future hall of famers Hakeem Olajuwan and Clyde Drexler. This Memory of March moved beyond 1983 into the life of the late Valvano and seemed to mirror his outlook on the impossible battle for his life.

March Madness is just prone to stories such as this. With the tense nature of the one and out tournament, drama is sure to elevate the intensity. Yet, time and time again teams put together seemingly impossible roads to the Final Four. Shaka Smart and VCU became the first team to go from the NCAA’s First Four play in game to the Final Four. Though they were unable to bring home the title, this is remembered just as fondly. George Mason’s historic run to the Final Four in 2006 made a career path for Jim Larrañaga much easier to achieve.

Chris Chiozza (11) lets a prayer fly. (Photo courtesy of fansided.com)

This year’s tournament is no exception in either case. Several moments have grabbed our attention. Thus far there are two points in time that stand out the most. The first is The Wisconsin-Florida ending. The game came down to the final second of regulation and eventually led to overtime.  With Wisconsin leading by two points, Florida had one final chance. Enter Chris Chiozza. Going the length of the floor, Chiozza let a leaning, running, impossible shot fly. Buckets. This gives Florida fans that, “Hey, remember when…?” for years to come.

Luke Maye’s shot to beat Kentucky is an example of just how the tournament can become something wholly other than itself. Maye originally was to be a walk on at North Carolina. With some roster shifting, Roy Williams found one for him and he has torn it up in the NCAA tournament. This season he averages 5.8 points and 4.2 rebounds per game. In these past four NCAA Tournament games he sits at 12.5 points and 6.7 rebounds per contest. This includes arguably the most important shot in the tournament thus far.

The Kentucky and North Carolina game was marred by officiating woes but did not lack in end of game drama. The Wildcats surged back from a nearly double digit deficit with two minutes to go. Freshman Malik Monk’s three tied the game with under 8 seconds to go. Roy Williams commented that the team knows to push the ball with this amount of time left.  It worked. Forward Theo Pinson took the ball 80 feet and used his body to create separation for Maye who drained a mid range jumper with Minimal time left.  He showed up to an early class the next morning and received a standing ovation.

In addition to these brief stops in time, there have been more lengthy runs in this tournament that were less than expected. The South Carolina Gamecocks reached the Sweet 16 this year for the first time in school history,  Then they made the Elite Eight. No reason to stop there, so they made the Final Four. This is a team that was off the radar for so many. South Carolina was picked in 0.6% of brackets to reach the last weekend.

Michigan made do with their practice jerseys. (Photo courtesy of sportingnews.com)

There is one more storied run in this tournament that will go down in the history books. The Michigan Wolverines are the epitome of what March Madness is supposed to be. They got hot coming in to the tournament. Considering the fact that they almost did not make their conference tournament, they are a surprise. The Wolverines plane from campus to the Big 10 tournament skidded off the runway and caused some minor injuries. Due to the nature of the investigation, John Beilein’s squad were forced to play in practice jerseys. Their regular equipment remained on the scene of the incident. They did  not just play well, they won the whole thing. They rode that momentum all the way into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Their last win was over a Louisville team that many experts believed talented enough to make the Final Four.

Now, the Wolverines went on to lose in fantastic fashion to the eventual champion of the region, the Oregon Ducks. Even though they were just inches away from continuing the magic, there is still plenty to rejoice in here. You see, faced with a less than ideal situation the team found a way to put a string of wins together and make something out of it. This is nothing short of the stories that March creates each and every year. This year it happened to be Michigan.

For some schools, just making the tournament is the ultimate goal. So when a school like Lehigh takes down Duke there is more magic present than the powerhouse making it all the way. March is beautiful because of things within it, not just because of the last team left standing’s victory. College sports entail a high level of passion whether it is a family tradition or an alma mater. That is why reaching a little higher than expectations or completing that wonderful play at the end of the game often gets remembered longer.

On title night, there is a reason that it does not end with the presentation of the trophy. There is still one last piece of business to attend to. When “One Shining Moment” plays it is different every year.  New images are now engraved in our minds of that year’s tournament. March is the time when the ordinary becomes extraordinary.  Every moment has the potential to become something eternal, and that is what this month is all about.

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Way-Too-Early Top 10 For the 2017-18 Season

The 2016-17 season is officially over after what turned out to be a different season from what most people thought. However, isn’t that always the case?

We expected Duke to rein supreme yet again last year with one of the most talented rosters we had ever seen. They were ESPN’s number one ranked team in the way-too-early top 25 without question. College basketball proved for the millionth time that what is expected to happen never happens.

With seven months until the start of the 2017-18 season, we take a swipe at the way-too-early top 10 for next season.

1. Kentucky Wildcats 

You know the drill. We’ve seen this before. Kentucky’s freshmen stars are going off to the NBA (De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo) and being replaced with another bunch of talented studs. The Wildcats have the number one ranked recruiting class in the country yet again, bringing in five ESPN top 100 recruits. They also will have redshirt freshman Hamidou Diallo.

Even if these new guys don’t turn out to have the same star power as the players they’re replacing, Kentucky has players like Isaiah Briscoe (if he returns), Wenyen Gabriel and Isaac Humphries who could only step into bigger roles.

There’s no reason coach John Calipari and the Wildcats won’t be national title contender with a stacked incoming class and key returning players.

2. North Carolina Tar Heels 

College Basketball

UNC guard Joel Berry II drives in a game earlier this year (Photo/ Google images)

The Tar Heels are losing a significant amount of players, but hold on for a second. They are losing Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Nate Britt and most likely ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson. However, they’re still UNC.

Many believe Joel Berry II will come back as well as forward Tony Bradley, who is one of the best rebounders in the country. If that’s the case, the Tar Heels would be poised for another late tournament run.

They will also have Elite Eight hero Luke Maye and freshman five-star shooting guard Jalek Felton. Both could have a significant impact on their success.

There are a lot of ifs, but as we’ve seen, Roy Williams can do magical things with ifs.

3. West Virginia Mountaineers

Besides losing seniors Tarik Phillip and Nathan Adrian, press Virginia is back. Guard Jevon Carter will take another offensive leading role, while forcing steals on defense. Forwards Esa Ahmad and Elijah Macon will be crashing the boards and running the floor both defensively and offensively.

With a Kansas team that will lose a lot of key players, could this be the year Bob Huggins and the Mountaineers take the regular season Big 12 title away from Kansas? It could be.

4. Louisville Cardinals

College Basketball

Louisville forward Jaylen Johnson celebrates their victory over Kentucky earlier this year (Photo/ Adam Creech)

Don’t be fooled by the Cardinals short stay in both the ACC tournament and the NCAA tournament. They are a prime defensive team and will gain three incoming freshmen from the ESPN top 100 and maintain almost the entire previous group.

 

With the exception of Mangok Mathiang, who is a senior, and Donovan Mitchell and Deng Adel, who could leave for the NBA, Louisville is still poised to have another great season in 2017-18. If Mitchell and Adel stay, Louisville will be in a good place.

5. Gonzaga Bulldogs 

Enough is enough, Gonzaga is for real. The nation’s top defensive team will look to replace fifth-year senior Przemek Karnowski. The Bulldogs will hopefully look no further than Zach Collins, who could potentially leave for the NBA.

If Collins does return along with Wooden Award finalist Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga will be extremely good. Josh Perkins, Johnathan Williams, Killian Tillie and Silas Melson also all return to make a dangerous Bulldog team out for redemption.

6. Wichita State Shockers

The Shockers finished 31-5 and managed to jump all the way up to 15th in the BPI. It looks like they’re just getting started.

After they were given a 10 seed in the tournament, which many believed was highway robbery, the Shockers lost to Kentucky by one bucket in the round of 32. Don’t let that fool you.

Landry Shamet, who could possibly be the most underrated point guard in the country, along side sharp shooter Conner Frankamp, could take the team on another tournament run. This time they won’t be considered a Cinderella.

7. Florida Gators

College Basketball

Florida guard Chris Chiozza hits a game winning shot in Florida’s Sweet 16 victory over Wisconsin (Photo/ Courtney Culbreath)

The Gators are returning one of the best, if not the best, backcourt in the country in KeVaughn Allen and Chris Chiozza. They will look to top their Elite Eight appearance from this year.

Most of the core crew is still intact. They will add a top 10 recruiting class as well as two transfers.

The Gators are dangerous. This could have already been one of the nation’s best teams. With the addition of the incoming freshmen and transfers, they are only getting better. Third-year head coach Mike White doesn’t seem too fazed after following Billy Donovan and the greatest era in Florida basketball.

8. Villanova Wildcats 

Villanova will wave goodbye to a class that helped lift the Wildcats out of their slump in the 2010s, including Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins. Granted, these two are of major importance and have been throughout their years at Villanova.

However, the Wildcats have an ongoing star guard in Jalen Brunson. They also have Donte DiVincenzo, who improved his numbers immensely from his previous year, and looks to improve them next year as well.

Jay Wright’s team is resilient. What many might believe to be somewhat of a rebuilding year could be another year in the limelight.

9. Kansas Jayhawks

The Jayhawks will lose a lot of players, including national player of the year Frank Mason III and potential top five pick Josh Jackson. That gives room for guard Devonte’ Graham to flourish in an even bigger role.

The Jayhawks return sharp shooter Sviatoslav Mykhailuik on the wing and add top prospects Billy Preston and Udoka Azubuike. They will also add Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman, who was one of the top point guards in his class two years ago. Whatever happens, we all know one thing: Kansas will be good. They’re always good.

10. Duke Blue Devils

College Basketball

Duke big man Marques Bolden looks to be the new face of the Blue Devils down low after losing Harry Giles and Amile Jefferson (Photo/ Streeter Lecka)

It won’t be all doom and gloom for the Blue Devils next season. They’re still Duke. However, the Blue Devils are going to lose a lot of players starting with Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles, who were their two top prospects from last year. They will also lose senior captains Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones, who have been a source of stability over the past four years.

The Blue Devils do have some top prospects coming in, including Wendell Carter and Gary Trent Jr. There also rests the possibility of both Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard coming back for another year.

If they both chose to leave, the Blue Devils’ starting line up will most likely have no one older than a sophomore. Either way, don’t ever count out the Blue Devils.

 

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