Long after the ancient powerhouses like it faded off and were forgotten, Western Kentucky continues to make its mark in March.
And America continues to be surprised.
Thursday night it was Hilltoppers 76, Illinois 72 in a game that was an upset in seed and name recognition only. This wasn't Western Kentucky getting hot and riding some Cinderella luck. This was the better team winning a game.
Western Kentucky didn't shock, stun or upset the Illini. It just beat them. It took a late Illinois surge just to make the game close and even then the Illini never had possession with a chance to take the lead.
It looked exactly like what you'd expect from a team that went to the Sweet 16 a year ago at a school that boasts the eighth-highest winning percentage in Division I history.
That team isn't Illinois, which boasts an impressive history itself. It's WKU.
It's the Universities of Louisville and Kentucky that garner the most fan and media attention from this basketball-mad state. That's understandable; those programs have won numerous NCAA titles and will win more in the future. Western Kentucky probably won't.
When it comes to college basketball though, there should be a sliding scale of expectation. Just because WKU can't win it all doesn't mean it can't win two games. Often, it turns out. In the first round of the NCAA tournament, a Western Kentucky victory should never be considered an upset. If the Hilltoppers make the Elite Eight, then call it that way.
It's not a single coach or a single player, it's the program, the one E.A. Diddle built back in 1922, that's the constant.
Western lost its best player, Courtney Lee, and its coach, Darrin Horn, from last year's Sweet 16 club and it hardly mattered. Former Hilltopper Ken McDonald took over as coach and his team Thursday used five double-digit scorers to win.
None of it was a surprise. Unless you keep forgetting how good Western Kentucky usually is.
• The historic highlights are always about buzzer beaters – the final-second shots made courtesy of superior play. And that's fine.
Thursday night though, UCLA's Darren Collison delivered the defensive equivalent, making the play that won the Bruins their first-round game over VCU, 65-64 in the East Region.
Collison guarded VCU's devastatingly quick guard, Eric Maynor, who just two years ago scorched the Duke backcourt for a game-winning jumper.
With Maynor looking to duplicate another game-winner over an all-time program, Collison cut off the lane, made Maynor pick up his dribble and then refused to fall for a foul-drawing pump fake. With a hand in his face, Maynor was forced into a disjointed 17-foot jumper that fell harmlessly short.
Anything less out of Collison and Maynor probably scores, UCLA loses and the shot is remembered forever.
Nobody wants to watch highlights of a guy playing defense. The video of Collison on Maynor won't be a Pontiac Game Changer or be immortalized in future commercials. It won't be toasted in Westwood the way, say, Tyus Edney streaking the length of court, still is.
This was the game-winning play though. And it spared the Bruins from being on the wrong end of the replay.
This is the reason UCLA is back to powerhouse status, seeking its fourth consecutive Final Four. Ben Howland is a great defensive coach and quite often that's where the game is really won. Thursday, his star player proved it in the biggest moment of the game.
• It had been 11 years since the Michigan Wolverines had been in the NCAA tournament. That's an astounding drought for a program that from 1989 to 1993 reached three Final Fours and won one national championship.
Now Michigan isn't just back, it's advancing. With a solid 62-59 victory over Clemson, the Wolverines move into the second round in coach John Beilein's second season in Ann Arbor. From here, both in the short and long term, who knows how far Michigan can return.
There's never been an excuse for Michigan to be an average program, not with its proximity to a never-ending pool of talent in metro Detroit. Scandal, indifference and the rise of Tom Izzo up the road in East Lansing all contributed to do it though.
Beilein is a different kind of coach for Michigan. It isn't about the best prep stars locally or nationally, but the best ones that fit his system that's proven to be a winner at all levels of the game. That doesn't just mean offense either.
"You can look at just the score," Beilein said when asked what Michigan succeeded at. "Clemson is averaging 79 points a game and they had 59. I don't think anybody in that game was holding the ball, right? We've learned in the Big Ten you do not survive if you are not going to guard people, you know, be able to guard people for 35 seconds."
It didn't. Perhaps most impressive for Michigan was the attitude it brought to the game. No, they don't bring the swagger the way the Fab Five did, but in a quiet, confident way they showed a mentality that had been missing for over a decade.
"We expected to win," said Manny Harris.
• Clemson's Terrence Oglesby was ejected from the Michigan game for an elbow. Morgan State's Ameer Ali was tossed for throwing Oklahoma's Blake Griffin over his shoulder. One ejection is rare in the NCAA tournament, but two in the same day?
Maybe they should play these games in the octagon. Or a Beale Street restaurant.
• The rest of the night was about as boring as the day. No upsets. Few even remotely close games. The big teams completely dominated. The biggest "upset" was 10th-seeded Michigan holding on to beat seventh-seeded Clemson, which won't exactly stir pulses outside of Ann Arbor. American and Akron took their shots at Villanova and Gonzaga, but in the end didn't have enough.
The good news for drama seekers is that the law of averages says Friday will be full of predictable unpredictability.
The chalk can't all advance. Can they?
- Western Kentucky
- Eric Maynor