March 23, 2009 7:53 am ET by Kyle Whelliston
MADISON, Wisc. -- I've long felt that the word "heartbreak" doesn't do a proper job as a member of the English language. It implies shatter or malfunction, and sounds so dry. The true feeling is more of a burst -- so closely related to the challenge of capacity that joy brings, but with a method of fluid release that's painfully different. A heart can fill up with desire, then suffer from complete structural failure.
But you don't need poetry to illustrate this. For instance, put two basketball teams on a court in an elimination game, one side with eight or ten times the available resources than the other. One measures itself against perfection, while the other has to fight for the opportunity to even show up on the same court. If the score is close near the end of the game, and the fight falls away, that's a graphical depiction of the border between hope and heart-collapse that any spectator can understand.
Now repeat this 20 times, until the heart can't fill up and collapse any more, and that's what these past four days have been like.
In the remaining pool of 16 aspirants to the National Championship, there are two programs that come from schools that should be too small to compete with the power-conference Goliaths and their unlimited funds. Of all the teams that we've talked about this year, only one remains. Among the institutions that don't refuse to be labelled as "mid-majors," none remain at all.
Much of the history of the site has been tied up with arguments about definitions; I've spent more time trying to reinvent and defend descriptors than I would have preferred. Within these digital walls, "mid-major" doesn't mean underdog. It doesn't mean cute, cuddly, irrelevant, or "sucks." For our purposes, the hyphenated term was co-opted because all sports fans know it, and nobody has the time or patience to learn new vocabulary words. Here, it's intended to be more closely related to "middle class," the generally accepted term for those without large inheritances or key connections, those of us who have to rely on our own skills, determination and ingenuity to get ahead.
We've talked about Xavier from Day One, included it in our computer index every week, previewed and reviewed the Musketeers' games, and have been correct on most counts due to observation and statistical analysis. There's nothing special about the latter part, because observation and statistical analysis are not the private domains of experts -- the internet has given you so many "experts" that the noun fails its original purpose of exclusion.
Our original plan was to spend this week exploring the differences between Gonzaga and Xavier. It's a discussion that should happen: why one has captured the nation's imagination, and why the other is barely cared for outside its own metropolitan area and alumni base... despite very similar circumstances and accomplishments. We hoped to talk about why Xavier has few consistent defenders in the national media ("but you forgot to mention Xavier, Digger!"), and why few media members can even name three players on this year's team (an informal study this weekend in Minneapolis proved this to be a problem).
All of this would have been followed with an exploration into why winning with a certain kind of style points is more important than winning-period in the ESPN Age, and a look at the public relations consequences of defiance against labels and absolute insistence on respect. In the past decade, Xavier seems to have become the Pete Sampras, Tim Duncan and Fredo Corleone of college basketball.
But to approach the week like this, with this particular focus, would turn this site into a touchstone for the same old debate about labels, which we've spent five years trying to transcend. It distracts from the true struggle that binds all these programs together. The mailbag volume over the past 12 hours, however, would seem to indicate that plenty of people want to argue about what's this and what's that, and that some want to do it in all-caps. Bully for them. We don't want to go out like a radio call-in show or a "sports blog," and it's an indication that perhaps we haven't altered the conversation as much as we wanted to. Which brings its own small version of heart-collapse.
In the meantime, we implore Hoops Nation to throw its collective weight behind Xavier this week. Take the spirit of the current header graphic, root on the Musketeers to victory against Pitt on Thursday. Look past the arrogance of a certain small subset of school representatives, recognize Xavier's struggle as similar to your own team's. Appreciate the Musketeers' selflessness and star-free roster -- you won't see any of these guys in the NBA with James Posey and David West. In the words of their local columnist, this team gives "scholarships to humility."
Look at each one of those successful NCAA appearances at the top of the screen, and know that this program had to fight for every last one of them -- without the advantages other schools had, financial or otherwise. Learn something about the players, even though it might be hard to find feature stories about them. Appreciate their defense, which makes things so ugly for opponents that it generally defies appreciation.
Bally and I will be in Boston rooting for Xavier, hoping that the Musketeers once again keep carrying the flag of a league I've closely followed for over a decade. We wish Messrs. Raymond and Anderson future success (and seven-figure pro contracts somewhere) as their college careers wind down. But as far as Season 5 goes, this is the end of the end. The epilogue is coming on Wednesday morning; in the meantime, we have a long drive back to Columbus to drop this car off, and some hard decisions to make about the future.
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