MINNEAPOLIS -- Just so we're clear, we don't care about your brackets. We know you want to talk about who you "have," about how three of your eight website entries are totally and thoroughly busted, and how you'll never win that $84.50 in the office pool now. We don't want to hear about how you knew that Illinois was overrated, about how much you know about a sport you were ignoring six weeks ago. (We also don't care that UNC's mission is not to let you down this time
This must be a lot of fun for you, this March Madness. It must be pleasant to rally behind something until you have no use for it anymore, to adopt and dispose the efforts of a team, to judge its efforts without any real consequence. But the idea that your gambling stories are somehow as thrilling as the on-court action is misguided at best. The delusion, however great or small, that any of the participants care who you've picked in your brackets is the luxury of narcissism. It's the same Princess of the Universe mentality that turned a lot of our country into soulless suburbs, each two-bedroom ranch an island unto itself.
Our respect is reserved for those who have invested much more than lunch money or barroom bragging rights. First and foremost, our admiration is for the players, coaches and staff members who fought for five long months to win the championship of a lesser-known league and earn a toehold on this Big Bracket. They didn't do it for the sympathies of strangers, or for the opportunity to stand in front of a Vitamin Water tank on national television.
We respect the dedication and devotion of those who were there the whole time, who dared to tangle their short-term fates up with those of athletes. The families and fans who spent sleepless nights in December worrying about the next opponent didn't do so with the sole purpose of making a "crazy vid" to help Coca-Cola sell Coca-Cola, they drove long distances to games simply just to yell for their team. For them, the joy of an NCAA bid is the fulfillment of half a year of hopes and dreams and wishes. And for most, because of that diehard adherence to the cause, the losses that have come these last couple of days are emotionally devastating.
North Dakota State's loss to Kansas was sealed by the ultimate symbol of power-conference supremacy: a series of primal-scream dunks by a 7-foot behemoth that a school like NDSU would never have a chance to sign. There was the series of stock TV shots -- slumped shoulders, bowed heads under towels... and then the NCAA Tournament, as is its nature, quickly forgot the Bison and continued.
Thirty minutes after the final buzzer, the players and families and fans gathered in a shadow-drawn holding area behind Section 10 of the Metrodome's temporary seating, clutching each other and sobbing. In two quick hours, Bison Fever had become Bison Despair. Some stared into the distance at nothing in particular, the blank look that only comes when you've poured your heart into something that's gone. What do we do now?
To repeat, more emphatically this time: we don't give a flying shit about your brackets.
We respect those who recognize the same struggle in others. The NDSU fans, thousands of them, stayed in the building all day and evening, rooting for Dayton and pleading with Robert Morris in the late game to stay close to Michigan State. We respect the fans of Utah State, who forgot their heartbreak over a one-point loss to Marquette long enough to root on Cornell in the Big Red's failed quest to upend Missouri.
Joy didn't wait for long to resurface, at least in Minneapolis. Dayton is a program that never asked for anyone's sympathy, and has a support base so dedicated that it fills the UD Arena during winning seasons and losing seasons alike. Flyer fans rarely refer to their players by their last names, and are notorious for driving through snowstorms to see their team play. Most among the new generation of students, however, either weren't alive or were too young to know what a basketball was the last time their beloved Flyers won on this grand national stage.
But with a team that embraces and embodies the selflessness and sacrifice of their fans, Dayton ground out a first-round win
over old (and seemingly unbeatable) nemesis Bob Huggins, and the victory over West Virginia represented the program's first NCAA W since 1990. While the Metrodome security attempted to clear the building to prepare for the evening session, the Dayton red-clads stayed put. "We don't want to leave, we want to stay here forever!" one fan cried out.
Dayton was soon joined in the Round of 32 by Atlantic 14 rival Xavier
, a program with a clever and resourceful coach, marvelous facilities and an endless array of available talent. But it's a school that plays in the radio-only shadows for much of the year, denying it much more than the small scraps of national respect it receives... this is in stark contrast with a school out in the northwest with a similar CV of recent accomplishments, one that's given a gold-plated TV schedule full of marquee opponents every autumn. Xavier has earned every hard-earned step and has been granted precious little; we will always respect and admire its unstoppable hunger.
We respect the resilience of Cleveland State, whose postseason hopes seemed over and done when injury and adversity struck over the winter. We respect the Vikings' confidence and defiance. In Miami against Wake Forest, they made clear that they belonged on the court -- more so than the other team. At no point in the game did their power-conference opponents have control, and this can be added to a long list of similarly-bracketed first round games that turned the S-Curve into a cat's cradle. Navy-LSU 1985, Southern-Georgia Tech 1993, Siena-Vanderbilt 2008, Cleveland State-Wake Forest 2009
. The only way to tell which was the No. 13 and which the No. 4 was that the thoroughly outclassed team wore the light-colored jerseys.
Finally, speaking of Siena, the Saints became the fifth team from below the Red Line to enter the Round of 32. Despite the higher seed, it was a more difficult assignment: what amounted to an away game at Ohio State. But after 50 minutes of mistakes, Ronald Moore
, a 5-11, 160-lb. guard who could be kindly described as the team's fifth scoring option (he scored in single digits in 21 of Siena's 34 games), picked up his teammates at the end. He sank the two shots that eliminated the richest school in Division I
So we're down to five. For those who haven't been around at this time of year in previous seasons, The Mid-Majority ends when there are no more teams. (Note: we will
follow Xavier, but we will not
follow Gonzaga, for reasons described above). It could be tomorrow, it could be next week, it could be deep into April. In our continuing efforts to replicate the diehard's experience as best we can, our progress depends on theirs and our season ends when theirs do.
And, of course, we respect the efforts of yesterday's fallen: Morehead State, Robert Morris, East Tennessee State, Portland State, Temple and Stephen F. Austin. Each remains a champion, and each struggled and succeeded to get here. Even as the Big Dance passes them by, we're proud to have been able to record their journeys.