The NCAA Tournament is full of losers63 of them, to be exact. Make that 126, if you’re Title IX-inclusive. That’s what makes the tourney so weirdly, subversively wonderful, just about downright un-American, even.
It is not a zero-sum, winner-take-all event. All but one entrant eventually loses, and most of the loserseven the Hofstras and Central Connecticuts who understand that grist is their destinyare happy to have attended the party. Simply reaching the Final Four brings almost as much adulation as winning the tournament.
Wisconsin, which barely even made the field of 64, will be surrounded by much more buzz this week than top-seeded Michigan State. Win a couple of games before you bow out, and, unless you’re one of the perennial eminences at court, your fans can cherish the memory for years. Not only that: Because the champion of the tournament is almost always lucky as well as talented, simply ”making a good run“ accords a corresponding degree of bragging rights, even a certain nobility.
Though Miami, the sixth seed in the South region, never came close to reaching the Final Four, the tourney’s format allows the Hurricanes to savor the pride of accomplishment; they won two games, defeated an opponent seeded much higher than themselves, and exceeded expectations.
Surpass expectations, even in losing, and people will remember you respectfully. Though his exploits occurred more than a decade ago, many still recognize the name of Mouse McFadden, who led little Cleveland State over mighty Indiana. Those who saw the game in Nashville in 1988 can still tell you how Keith ”Mister“ Jennings, the pint-sized point guard from East Tennessee State, dribbled circles around top-ranked Oklahoma and came breathtakingly close to enabling his team to become the first 16th seed ever to take out a No. 1.
Since only one of the 64 teams ends its season with a win, and since the most favored squad as often as not fails to capture the championship, a certain democracy of losing prevails. That’s why, like no other event in collegiate sports, the NCAA basketball tournament isn’t so much about the championship game as about all the moments to savor along the way.
Just as things perennially unfold, most of the best moments and most compelling stories were provided by teams that never got to cut down the nets at the end. This year, the tautest drama occurred on the first day, in the very first game. St. Bonaventure, whose name had not appeared on a tournament bracket in more than 20 years, came within a couple of seconds of stunning heavily favored Kentucky until the Wildcats canned a three-pointer to force overtime. Then, with a fractional second left in OT, a Bonnie with the impossible but perfectly apt name of Messiah stepped to the line to attempt three free throws that could tie the game again and force another extra period.
Just one problem: Even without the pressure of that moment, David Messiah Capers was a poor free-throw shooter. After he sank the first foul shot, Kentucky coach Tubby Smith called time-out in hopes of jangling Capers’ nerves. Pulses quickened throughout the arena in Cleveland and in front of TV sets throughout the country. After Capers swished the second shot, Smith called time-out again. More tension. Another swish. Another OT.
The line on the brackets, the entry that officially matters, shows that the deeper, taller, better Wildcats captured the game, 85-80. Unofficially, though, the Bonnies captured the imaginations of fans; the memory of their defeat, ironically, will linger longer than any impression created by Kentucky, which was rubbed out in the next round. And no matter what else happens to him, Messiah Capers can look back like the doctor played by Burt Lancaster in ”Field of Dreams“: During his one brief moment in the limelight, he was good.
The result was similar, but the emotions broke differently in the Butler-Florida game. Underdog Butler, the Indianapolis school whose gym coincidentally provided the setting for the climactic scenes of ”Hoosiers,“ almost managed a stunning upset that would have been worthy of the movie.
But simultaneous to the exhilarating last momenta game-winning, buzzer-beating shot in overtime by the Gators’ Mike Millercame a poignant one. With eight seconds to play, Butler’s LaVall Jordan missed two free throws that would otherwise have given the Bulldogs a three-point lead. After the game, Butler coach Barry Collier cried, not so much over the outcome as over his player. Only the day before, Jordan had rejoined the team following the death of his great aunt, who raised him.
Perhaps Seton Hall’s players also carried an emotional burden into the tournament, following a dormitory fire that killed three students. Or maybe the burden carried them. Before Round One, they had lost five of their last seven games. But against higher-seeded Oregon, the Pirates’ Shaheen Holloway provided one of the first Friday’s most wowee finishes, driving the length of the floor into a crowd to hit the winning layup in overtime.
Early in the Hall’s next game, against mighty Temple, Holloway, a senior and the Pirates’ leading scorer, badly sprained an ankle. His sophomore replacement, Ty Shine, filled in with seven treys, including the winning shot.
There was Jan van Breda Kolff, run off from his alma mater just a year ago, leading little Pepperdine to a jaw-dropping rout of Indiana. There was UCLA, which lost by 24 in the round of 16. But what they’ll remember is one perfect game, a 105-70 vivisection of third-seeded Maryland, when the circus-dunking Bruins looked as though they could have smoked half the NBA.
There were the women from Oklahoma, some of whom remember just four years ago, when attendance at their games averaged 65, and the school planned to shut down the program. They probably won’t dwell on their crushing defeat on Saturday at the hands of top-seeded Connecticut. Instead, they’ll savor the journey that brought them there.
There were the looks in the eyes of the players from Northern Arizona and Louisiana-Lafayette, as they realized that almost inconceivable upsets were within their grasp. (Both teams lost.)
There was the sight of Stromile Swift as he recorded perhaps the most amazing play of the tournament: a block of an attempted dunk by All-America center Chris Mihm near the end of LSU’s squeak-tight victory over Texas. (Next time out, the Tigers were embarrassed by Wisconsin.)
There was the look of helplessness on the face of Kenyon Martin, the injured player of the year, who could only watch from his seat as Tulsa ended what once promised to be Cincinnati’s inexorable march.
There was Matt Santangelo of freshly ousted Gonzaga, the John McCain of two consecutive tournaments, as the realization set in that he would never again wear his team’s uniform.
And there was the voice of Mike Jarvis, in the locker room after his St. John’s team had been unseated by Santangelo’s Zags, calmly instructing his players that they win with class, and they lose with class and grace.
On Saturday and Monday, the Final Four teams will doubtless provide memorable moments of their own. They’ll be nice but hardly necessary.
Unlike the Oscars show, which shares a space in time with the NCAAs, the tournament stage is big enough for those who don’t win the trophies.
Next week, the title will belong to Michigan State, Wisconsin, North Carolina, or Florida. But the good stories and wistful memories will belong to ones who have long gone home.
How It Looks From The La-Z-Boy
Semifinals: Florida over North Carolina; Michigan State over Wisconsin.
Championship: Michigan State over Florida.