By Nathan Keil | Sports Editor
We’ve all been there before – we watch intently as the entire season hangs in the balance and then comes crashing to the ground as the underdog sinks the game winner as time expires.
The truth is that the nature of the NCAA Tournament is cruel. We watch hours of basketball, follow our favorite teams through their ups and downs of the season, hoping they will be the lucky ones cutting down the nets in early April – and in the blink of an eye, 40 minutes is done, and their season is over.
As March brings spring upon us, it can also dish the cruelest winter, sending our hopes as well as our championship dreams back out into the cold offseason.
Cemented safely in the brackets is where all schools desire to be when the season begins with “Midnight Madness” and other campus tipoff events in October. At the start, 347 schools compete for 68 spots. After two days in Dayton, Ohio, the field is set for 64. As Saturday rolls around, the field is cut in half to 32. After days three and four, it’s down to 16. The tournament’s nature is to eliminate and to do so quickly.
So if your team or your school has been eliminated already, don’t feel bad. This is how the tournament is supposed to go. Low seeds from smaller conferences enter coming off conference championships and excellent seasons with nothing to lose and everything to gain. Little known, overlooked prospects that dream of playing on the national stage elevate their games and become national heroes overnight. Crazy and unprecedented things happen, and this is the beauty of the tournament.
Players like Marshall guard Jon Elmore scorched fourth-seed Wichita State to the tune of 27 points, and Buffalo guard Wes Clark delivered 25 points as the 13-seeded Mid-American Conference champs upended the Arizona Wildcats. Even though both South Dakota State and the University of North Carolina-Greensboro lost in the first round, the world now knows the names of Jackrabbits’ center Mike Daum and the Spartans’ guard duo of Francis Alonso and Demetrius Troy, as all three were superb in defeat. The University of Maryland Baltimore County entered the history books by becoming the first 16-seed to beat a No. 1 seed. Basketball heroes are cultivated and celebrated in March.
But those heroes come with a cost – at the expense of our office bracket pools and the dreams of a top seed’s championship drive. If this is the camp you find yourself in today, as only 16 teams remain, this doesn’t mean your season was a failure. The sting of unmet expectations will leave a mark, but that’s the great part of the tournament – it starts all over again next March.
But as teams untie their shoes, pack their bags and answer the media’s questions one final time, remember that an early exit from the NCAA Tournament doesn’t mark your season as a failure. Your conference championships and 18-30 win seasons are valid and something to be proud of. Upsets are an absolute joy and utter tragedy depending on your horse in the race, but they are crucial to the game. In defeat, celebrate all your team has done throughout the year and hope they can repeat their success next year.
March Madness is an unforgiving and exclusive place. No matter how many wins you have or the seed number in front of your name, don’t get too comfortable, or else you just might be punching your ticket home next.
Nathan Keil is a graduate student at Truett Seminary from Northwood, Ohio.