There was Kemba and Jimmer and a buzzer-beater by Isaiah Thomas – not that one, he’s a college coach now and his team isn’t any good. There were overtimes, back-and-forth action, clutch free throws and blown game-winners. Even the Ivy League delivered epic drama – Princeton extending Harvard’s tournament drought, karma for Mark Zuckerberg’s treatment of the Crimson crew twins.
There were all sorts of tears – of disappointment at dreams ended (countless players) and in joy at a buzzer-beater reversed on replay (by Virginia Tech’s Seth Greenberg, a victory that wouldn’t prove enough).
USC coach Kevin O’Neill got suspended after a verbal altercation with a rival fan in a hotel lobby bar (he’ll be back on the sidelines, and perhaps the tavern, for the NCAAs). There was even a near postgame brawl in the Mid-American Conference – this is serious stuff to Kent State and Akron.
The whole thing was so wild that no less than Bill Clinton showed up at Madison Square Garden to watch.
And that was just to get into the NCAA tournament.
Welcome to America’s Tournament, the annual three-week, 67-game basketball bonanza that enraptures the country in ways no other sporting even can. No, it isn’t bigger than the Super Bowl. No, it doesn’t have the star power of the NBA Finals.
Instead it is an event so vast, so diverse and so enthralling that it brings an entire country together – big city and small town – rooting for the same improbable upset by kids they don’t know playing for a school they never heard of possibly from a state they forgot existed.
It’s the rite of spring that keeps on giving.
Pro sports are about big cities, big markets and big money. The NCAA tournament brings hope to everyone else. The game is played at the Division I level in 49 states (only Alaska misses out), which provides the possibility of local rooting interest for nearly everyone.
And if, say, Indiana State gets a lead on Syracuse, then people will stop in front of the giant TVs in Times Square, hover around iPhone’s spewing scores in staff meetings in Houston and find themselves high-fiving strangers at a beach bar in Waikiki.
Because Indiana State has a "14" next to it and Syracuse has a "3," and that alone is enough for everyone to root for the Sycamores like they once had the meatloaf special at the old Larry Bird Boston Connection restaurant in Terre Haute, Ind.
This is perhaps America’s least-egalitarian event. The unwashed masses getting an equal shot with the sport’s high-priced blue bloods. UC-Santa Barbara spent $1.3 million on its entire basketball program according to the most recent financial records. Its opponent, Florida, paid coach Billy Donovan $3.5 million alone.
This isn’t just the little guy in theory, either. Last year the Butler Bulldogs of the Horizon League came one halfcourt heave from winning the entire thing. So good luck, Hampton Pirates, you have a shot – albeit the chance of a 16th seed about to play Duke, which means, what, a one-in-a-million chance?
So you're saying there's a chance.
There is always a chance in the NCAA tournament, which is why an influenza epidemic will sweep offices and classrooms this week. It may even start early, with the NCAA breaking out a new format to handle an expanded 68-team field – the “First Four” games will be played Tuesday and Wednesday in Dayton.
As always, the field comes in all shapes and sizes. There are giant public schools and little private ones; liberal arts schools and conservative religious institutions. They come from 29 states and the District of Columbia, from small towns (Greeley, Lewisburg, Manhattan – the one from the Flint Hills of Kansas) and giant cities (Los Angeles, New York, Boston).
This is a bizarre world where a place such as Kansas, generally congenial, friendly, wholesome Kansas, is to be feared. Where Oakland is in Michigan, not California, and everyone is picking them for an upset. Where everyone is complaining how unfair life is for the guys at Harvard.
Mostly this is the week when we all become Golden Grizzlies and Blackbirds and Peacocks and Musketeers; when everyone is a Northern Colorado fan, even if most people didn't know there was any other kind of Colorado. When you catch waitresses using the proper technique for a 30-second timeout to ward off impatient customers and overhear school kids debate the spelling of Krzyzewski.
This is where atheists cheer for Notre Dame, the Jersey Shore roots for Long Island, and everyone likes Morehead State, even if they have no idea who Morehead is or when exactly we named a state after him.
The facts that no one knows the players, few have heard of the coaches and that you need a Barron's Guide to figure out the schools don't seem to matter.
Well, unless it screws up your bracket, of course. Gambling is the engine that drives the base popularity, even as the pursuit is such folly. This is an event where Maria from accounting gets the better of all those CBS College Sports junkies because her dominant state flower formula magically predicts the 12-over-5 upset each year.
A report will come out this week claiming that we illegally wager the GNP of many countries on this tournament. But no one ever seems to do anything about it, probably because at this very moment inside the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington, home of the FBI itself, a bracket is getting passed around.
And if Belmont starts raining threes on Wisconsin, if Bucknell pushes Connecticut into the final minutes, if Boston University takes a late lead on Kansas, the feds will hover around a TV cheering, too, just like in the dorm rooms, just like in the break room, just like all the sports bars that will do bang-up, mid-day business.
Because how couldn't they?
This is, after all, America's Tournament.