PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- I have a bobblehead doll of Bryce Drew releasing The Shot
that beat Ole Miss in 1998, and a picture on my wall of Northwestern State's Jermaine Wallace uncorking the three-pointer that eliminated Iowa in 2006
. I'll admit that I have to think for a minute to remember the names of their teammates, or which year it was, or what seed they were. As time passes, those details are more difficult to recall. The single symbol always replaces its context, as well as its meaning, as well as how it felt inside that moment.
In time, the games will fade from memory, leaving just traces behind: numbers and grids stacked in databases, trivia questions, paint-by-numbers feature stories with "stun" in the headlines, single spliced video moments edited into a grouped reel. Two hours will be distilled into two seconds. There was a Shot, or a demonstrative hug, or a happy blur of purple or green or yellow, and that's all that'll remind people that something happened, something important and powerful enough that the rush of adrenaline helped push some of the poison from our souls. A little thing beat a big thing, and such moments are still possible in a world like this.
There were six teams that survived Thursday that probably shouldn't have, whether it was because they were overmatched, overlooked or just underfinanced
. Each victory stands for the idea that big things aren't necessarily best
, and that drive and hunger and hope are still viable vessels for dreams. That's a deeply important message, one that goes all the way back to the Bible
, and it resonates not only in Hoops Nation but across the entire country. It's why a lot of fans show up to join us in March, because they need this reminder of why and how America came about in the first place.
For most, the string of single notes is enough. Some of us, we'll try to hold on to the map, and recall the emotional geography of it. The first Thursday is usually a afternoon full of heartbreak
, of low seeds tumbling out of the bracket and the abrupt end of five-month journeys. But on March 18, 2010, it was one after another -- first Old Dominion, then Murray State, Butler next. Northern Iowa and Ohio happened within minutes of each other. Somewhere in the middle, Saint Mary's survived fellow small-conference traveler Richmond. On the first day, the mid-majority sent six teams through to the second round, and for a few hours we had an actual bracket
Each took a different path. ODU was left for dead in the first half against Notre Dame, until the Monarchs flung open the casket and dropped a 9-0 run early in the second half. Surviving a game like that is quite like escaping from a room with all the walls caving in, and the CAA champs were able to withstand the barrage at the end to go on to the next round. And a couple of hours later, there was this.h/t @dhm
That's Mark Morris, Murray State's student manager. When the No. 13 seeded Racers finished off No. 4 Vanderbilt, using the unselfish play and cocky confidence that got them through the Ohio Valley Conference with just a single loss, they piled up on the court. Morris flew in from the bench, in his little suit, because it just felt right. He had given four years of service to the team, and this was the culmination and high-water mark of his college career. It's what any of the fans in the stands cheering for Murray, or any of the other winners on Thursday, would have done. That's why this is one of my favorite NCAA celebrations ever, because it's the closest to a court storming as we'll see at the Big Dance.
In the afternoon, there were two examples of year-over-year vindication. Last season, Butler had to fight uphill against LSU and failed. This time, against a UTEP team that couldn't be effectively defended in the paint, the No. 5 Bulldogs fell behind early again, but exploded in the second half when Shelvin Mack took the team on his shoulders. The year after Northern Iowa couldn't solve Purdue in Portland, the Missouri Valley champions survived the disruptive defense and ball control of UNLV to move on to the second round as a No. 9 seed. Both the Panthers and Bulldogs returned for 2009-10 intact from their failed attempts. And both teams are testament to the power of one more year, and one more chance.
Each one of the six winners from yesterday --yes, even dynamic and deep Saint Mary's -- won their conference tourneys; each one can be found on this list of the Champions of Hoops Nation. Four of them won both the regular season and tourney titles, the January/February marathon and the March sprint, while Ohio and Saint Mary's proved their ability to win a series of one-and-done games in recent weeks. Every year, there's the same tiresome, circular debate about how teams enter the Tournament field, but yesterday was small vindication for the idea that the autobid system works quite well indeed. If the Mid-American Conference sent its regular season champion, would it have been tested in the same one-and-done battles that awaited it in the Big Dance? As a No. 9 seed, the Ohio Bobcats had plenty of experience playing in dark jerseys with their backs against the wall. They had already passed that test four times before it went up against a much less motivated Georgetown team, against which Ohio shot 58 percent and nearly hit the century mark.
In the stands at Providence, there were green-clad fans hugging and high-fiving each other. I jumped over the barrier to join them. I found Tim Burke, an Ohio grad who put together the famous Stephen Curry "Flash" video. Tim was stunned, not in the national-website headline sense of the word, but because he had flown up from Florida for the day and had a late return flight. He wasn't really expecting that his Bobcats would be the first No. 14 seed through to the second round since 2006. He just wanted to be there to cheer on his team, and maybe see some #omgdunx. "I have to get to a CVS or something," he said. "All I brought with me on the plane was my Bally."
But don't forget that there were other champions that were not so fortunate. Montana of the Big Sky, for instance, scored just one point in its last three possessions and let their 14-vs.-3 chance slip away against New Mexico. No. 16 seed Lehigh was quickly disposed by overall top seed Kansas in the late evening. A-Sun champion East Tennessee State was there, in the Dance, and then it quickly wasn't there anymore. And in our first game here at Providence, No. 15 Robert Morris from the Northeast Conference was minutes away from punishing a bored, sloppy Villanova team when a lead that lasted all game was nullified in the final seconds, and there was just not enough energy to make it through an extra five minutes. Villanova 73, Robert Morris 70.
Afterwards, in the tunnels of the Dunkin' Donuts Center, there were cheerleaders shaking and crying in each others' arms. There were male band members in RMU hockey-style jerseys doing their best to maintain composure, but finally breaking down in tears too. This is the side of March Madness that's never televised, because there's another game to get to and there's no time for losers. NEC interim commissioner Ron Ratner said to me afterwards, "It was like having a winning lottery ticket, then as you were about to walk through the door to cash it in and change the course of your life, some rich guy steals it from you... and then punches you in the stomach for good measure."
There's nothing that will console the fans and players and coaches of Robert Morris now, on this Friday morning. It's going to be a long time before they can see the big picture again. But Thursday gave us six examples of everything that's possible, for every small yet overachieving school, every conference tourney nine-seed and forgotten program, every program that spends a tenth of what the big boys do on sports. In ten years, we'll all probably forget that they all went through together, all the winners on one of the greatest days in the history of the NCAA Tournament. But they all march forward, united as underdogs.