PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- This is the last week we'll all be together, before the 23 Champions of Hoops Nation (and a few others) move on to the fourth and final round -- leaving everyone else to figure out what comes next. It's a bittersweet final few days, full of joy and anguish, ultimate wins and terminal losses, and, of course, Mid-Majority protocol. There will be the annual list of forgotten overachieving teams, a second annual Floor Storming Symposium, a few awards, and we'll end the week with a long-overdue tribute to a great man and guiding light.
But first, a spot of housekeeping.
I am okay, no, really. I appreciate that there are a lot of people -- most of whom I've never met -- who look after my health; I realize that not everybody has that, and it makes it impossible to be lonely, so I sincerely appreciate all the kindness. After my immune system shut down upon my return from Vancouver, I was a walking ball of phlegm for a while, but I was fully recovered by Friday. But then (and some of you might recognize this dynamic), I had to finish all the work I couldn't do while I was immobile on the couch. We have a book launch this week
, you know!
There's also been a fair amount of stress. I don't talk about my trips to Peru too much in this space, because they don't have much to do with basketball. But my translator had been missing since late January, not responding to messages of any kind. From a selfish standpoint, this was horrible timing, because I'm supposed to go to Lima later this month to visit (and to attend his college graduation), and losing Oscar's services would destroy my ongoing mission. Finally, after texts and e-mails to siblings, friends and pastors, he turned up on Facebook Saturday night. He was simply without reliable internet access for a month... the things we take for granted.
Once, on a long taxi ride, Oscar asked me exactly what it is I do. I explained Division I college basketball to him -- how every March, through a complicated series of playoffs, second chances and one-and-done elimination games, over 300 teams from all across America are whittled down to a single champion, in less than a month. I told him that we call it "March Madness."
He couldn't believe what he was hearing, the intricacies of this system. "Three hundred? It sounds like just trying to keep track of all of those teams would drive anyone crazy."
Later, I sent him YouTube links of kids storming the floor after conference championship games, the celebratory explosions as thousands of students swarmed over the hardwood. "And this is how excited people get just to have their team be one of the final 65," I added.
"They all look so happy," Oscar typed back. "I hope that I'm that happy about something someday, and that I have that many friends who are all happy about the exact same thing."
So don't forget how great these days are, how much distilled magic there is in March. A key part of the process is Championship Fortnight, where most of the wheat-chaff separation takes place. If everyone sent their regular season champions, we wouldn't have these victory moments -- there would be a lot of scoreboard watching and backing in and waiting for other teams to lose, and how much fun is that? And if there weren't those past four months of buildup, the joy would not be explosive, and the heartbreak would not hurt as much.
Things was much more urgent in the days of the 32-team bracket, and we'll never get that feeling back, but there's enough left so that these days are still unforgettable. They'll keep tinkering with the machinery until it becomes "March Mildness" for the sake of a few extra million bucks, but we'll always have our memories.
Circumstances prevented me from being part of first week of Championship Fortnight, for the first time in almost a decade. After years of Oregon Ducks basketball in my own undergraduate years (there was no Pac-10 tourney then, but everyone knew half the league was going to the Dance anyway), I discovered early-March elimination when I went to Drexel. All that anticipation, knowing that the next loss would be the last one... and we always seemed to be eliminated by Delaware. That's the stuff that really
But it wasn't until I started going farther afield that this TMM idea really took shape -- to events like the MAAC tourney in Trenton, the A-10 back when it was really 10, and the NEC brackets when it was all held under one roof. Without being blinded by a rooting interest, I was better able to see what makes this time of year so special, the emotional investment that people put into their old college teams. I saw busloads of supporters cheering their lungs out, the sad exchange of ticket books outside the arena between sad fans of eliminated sides and the overjoyed fans of teams that earned an extra day. I learned about the hard political decision that low seeds face: send the band and cheerleaders
, or not? And, of course, I learned about court storming.
And then, I decided to made a quest out of it.Season 0: 2004 (10 days, 9 leagues, 25 games)
I remember the near-riot in the stands at the NEC, between the homestanding Wagner fans and the visiting Fairleigh Dickinson supporters (Jersey vs. S.I.), that spilled out into the meadows on Wagner's campus. All this over a quarterfinal game! It was the first time I'd encountered the green floor
of Richmond's Ashe Center, where the MEAC used to play, and it was my first trip to UD Arena, where the A-10 had moved. I recall that even then, Dayton fans showed up and watched intently even when their own team wasn't playing. (Mostly, it was to boo Xavier, though.)
What really stuck with me, though, was the Patriot League semifinals. The first game had Bucknell, a year before it became Bucknell
, going down to eventual champion Lehigh. I remember sitting in the stands at the Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro, Md., eating a pretzel that tasted like a cigarette and getting wafts of equestrian scents. And there, down near the floor, was John Feinstein, holding court. He'd written The Last Amateurs
, a book I was carrying with me in the car, and I thought about going down and asking him to sign it. I chickened out. Little did I know at the time that two years later, I'd be sitting on press row next to him.Season 1: 2005 (9 days, 6 leagues, 23 games)
This was the first season of The Mid-Majority, the year of the 100 Games Project, and the games were coming so fast and furious that I worked myself into a tension headache just trying to write about them all. Writing about the games, recording my experiences, made the journey seem more real -- nobody cared much that I'd done an 82 Game Project the year before. I'll never forget seeing the MAC tourney in the seatbacks with my friend Tony, all the way through from quarterfinals to title game... and then storming the floor with the Ohio Bobcats. But one memory supercedes all the others: March 6, America East tourney at Binghamton, Northeastern vs. Stony Brook. At a media time out, NCAA mascot J.J. Jumper came out to perform, and then, well, let's just say that Wolfie took care of business.(iconic photo by Brian Jenkins)
Season 2: 2006 (10 days, 7 leagues, 28 games)
Zipping around the country on the Worldwide Leader's freelance money, I finally got to experience leagues like the Atlantic Sun and the Sun Belt. But the most memorable part of that Championship Fortnight were the things that we saw in Richmond, the things we didn't know would be of national importance just weeks later. We didn't know that a seemingly innocuous overtime quarterfinal between George Mason and Georgia State would have unleashed an alternate reality had the score gone the other way. We didn't know that Hofstra would be snubbed, we weren't aware yet that the winner of that tourney would be a trivia question... who was that other team in the CAA's first multi-bid season in 20 years? (UNC Wilmington.) Sure, a lot of people might say now that they saw George Mason coming... but I don't. It was all a wonderful surprise.
Season 3: 2007 (10 days, 7 leagues, 22 games)
There was Mason's incredible run out of a 9-9 regular season to come just one game away from a return to the NCAA Tournament, but VCU and its gold chain blocked the way. There was the first year of the MEAC's failed experiment in Raleigh, where nearly nobody showed up for the games (attendance for the whole four-day event: just under 11,000). Personally, it was a mark of a waning era when the America East would play its semifinals in the afternoon, early enough so that one could book it down the road at 85 mph to catch the MAAC semis in the evening. But the crowning moment was Drew Penno's miracle buzzer-beater three-pointer in the MAC final, which gave Miami a 53-52 win over Akron. Do you remember? There was a long delay as officials used a stopwatch to figure out if there was really time left on the clock. With the championship of a one-bid league on the line, those 10 minutes were the most tense I've ever experienced in a basketball arena. I saw an Akron fan puke in a popcorn cup. There were moments of silence when you could hear the Quicken Loans Arena's fans whirring. And then the ball was inbounded, and the RedHawks were the champions, and everyone present was emotionally spent. I could barely write about it at the time.
Season 4: 2008 (11 days, 6 leagues, 23 games)
The first two quests featured overnight drives across the higher Appalachians, through snowstorms, to get from Richmond to Ohio. That was all just warmup for a Saturday overnight drive from Nashville to Binghamton to see both the Atlantic Sun title game and the America East semifinals. Then there was the rare dubl-storm day, the AE title game in Baltimore (UMBC over Hartford) and back to Atlantic City to see Temple crowned as the Atlantic One. But the most dramatic moment was Siena's breakthrough in the MAAC, on its own court, against NBA-bound Jason Thompson and Rider. If star-in-waiting brother Ryan, then a sophomore, hadn't suffered a concussion earlier in the tourney, would the outcome had been any different? Either way, Siena's MAAC tests fueled it on to its first of two NCAA Round of 32's with a shock win over Vanderbilt.
Season 5: 2009 (9 days, 5 leagues, 19 games)
Last year, it was the Atlantic Sun, Valley, Southland, Sun Belt and MAC. A lot of overnight drives there! It was my first Arch Madness, and I skinned my knee storming the court with the Northern Iowa kids after that epic overtime battle with Illinois State (which actually delayed Duke-Carolina on CBS!) That was memorable enough, but anybody who was there for the whole thing remembers the timing controversy in the Creighton-Wichita State quarterfinal; the Bluejays won 63-62 after 1.9 seconds were put back on the clock following an apparent WSU winning basket. MVC commissioner Doug Elgin reviewed the play over 20 times, then allowed journalists from both sides to view the footage in the truck, but Wichita fans quickly put together Zapruder-style breakdowns of the tape, and weren't so easily convinced. Both teams were eliminated in the semis, but Elgin was so haunted by the event, and any appearance of unfairness in his league, that he commissioned a DVD showing every angle of the play that summer. At a cost of $20,000.
What are your Championship Fortnight memories? Tell us with The Form™!