March Madness is clearly back — and we have some new Cinderellas to celebrate

In a span of five days and 51 games, the NCAA men's tournament has delivered us four double-digit seeds in the Sweet 16, four Pac-12 teams advancing to the second weekend and a record number of upsets.

We’ve met Abilene Christian’s Joe Pleasant, just as he stared a hole through the rim before hitting two free throws to beat Texas. We’ve met Kevin Obanor and Max Abmas, the relentless offensive engines behind No. 15 Oral Roberts. We’ve met Ohio’s Jason Preston, the sportswriter-turned-March fever dream.

These were all introductions, but really re-introductions. We’d met the archetypes of these characters before — David Messiah Capers at the line for St. Bonaventure (1999), Dunk City marauding to the Round of 16 for Florida Gulf Coast (2013) and C.J. McCollum soaring from obscurity for Lehigh (2012). Pick a bracket, and memories flood from similar paradigms.

After a year off because of the COVID-19 pandemic and a choppy regular season filled with virus-related pauses, the NCAA men's tournament returned over the past five days in an overwhelmingly glorious flourish. This was a sports family reunion, reunited with familiar faces like Mark Few, Jay Wright and Jim Boeheim and happily introduced to some new blood — ACU’s Joe Golding, ORU’s Paul Mills and North Texas’ Grant McCasland.

Surely, it wasn’t perfect. A COVID-19 outbreak among VCU’s team kept the No. 10 Rams from playing a first-round game against No. 7 Oregon, putting a permanent stain on what otherwise has been a smooth event. And NCAA president Mark Emmert’s bungling of equity issues surrounding the women’s tournament again showed off the skill that’s defined his tenure — the persistent ability to do and say the wrong thing every chance he gets.

But with 51 of 52 games played and more upsets prior to the Sweet 16 than any other tournament in history (12), the event has roared back and resuscitated many of those old feelings. The lightning bolt of possibility when No. 14 Colgate jumps up on No. 3 Arkansas by double-digits. The nerves that accompany watching No. 15 Oral Roberts on the cusp of history against No. 2 Ohio State. The jolt of adrenaline when No. 8 Loyola starts methodically eviscerating No. 1 Illinois.

Oral Roberts celebrate its victory over Florida in the NCAA men's tournament. (Trevor Brown Jr/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
Oral Roberts celebrate its victory over Florida in the NCAA men's tournament. (Trevor Brown Jr/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Golding, the Abilene Christian coach, gave what should be considered the Rudy-like speech for the NCAA men's tournament returning. In his folksy Texas twang, Golding managed to capture all the uncertainty, angst and loss in America that led to the welcomed distraction the past few days.

“It's been a tough year for all of us,” he said after ACU stunned Texas. “Obviously, COVID is a real thing. We have had a lot of social justice issues. We have had a presidential election that divided our country. We needed March Madness, man, we needed some type of normalcy to our country. We needed people to fill out brackets. We needed people to cheer for the underdog. This is what March is about in our country, man, we celebrate this and to be a part of it.”

There are still two weeks remaining, a compelling Sweet 16 that will lead to a bizarre Final Four playing out in the relatively empty streets of Indianapolis. And assuming the NCAA bubble continues to be generally effective, those weeks will be filled with more buzzer-beaters, more heroes rising from obscurity and more unknown campuses suddenly becoming unforgettable.

While those games will hold high-end cachet, the barrage of chaos this zany sport has provided since Thursday night has been both overdue and overwhelming.

We’d waited about 720 days for the buzz of wall-to-wall basketball — with a Thursday night First Four and Friday-to-Monday format that have been compelling enough to spark conversations about changing it that way permanently. (You can almost be assured that the all-day weekend formats of the Round of 16 are here to stay, as it makes too much sense from a television perspective.)

Many thanks to Mr. Pleasant, Mr. Preston and the boys from Oral Roberts for ducking into our lives and introducing yourselves. We already look forward to the next iteration of the unique stars of March returning on schedule again next season. We appreciate you showing us exactly what we missed.

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