PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- In the big picture, the really
big picture, it doesn't mean much at all. It's a basketball show. This is entertainment for rich people, a diversion for any remaining members of the American middle class with disposable time. The performers are judged on whether their effort pleases the audience, who are seated in expensive courtside seats and royal suburban viewing thrones. Is there a suitable measure of March magic here? Switch to the other game if there isn't.
The power and importance of the NCAA Tournament are directly correlated to that which we ascribe to it, what we put in. Whether that's a filled-out bracket, or a t-shirt and a pom-pom ordered online from an alma mater's bookstore, or a long drive to Buffalo and a night on a stranger's floor just to see the team play... you get what you give. This is emotional investment
at its most fair and equitable. Our Game's singular guarantee is that our time, effort, passion and patience will always be repaid in emotional weight, and that we will never be denied the force of equal feeling.
There are no promises, though, no unwritten stipulations that designate what those feelings will be. In very few cases, there's the kind of joy that fans, families and followers of Old Dominion, Butler, Murray State, Northern Iowa, Saint Mary's and Ohio were able to experience on Thursday. But more often than not, it's going to end like it did yesterday for seven of the nine teams on our side of the Red Line -- a crushing loss sealed by a merciful buzzer, and the parade moving along without you. If you're all in, you get to feel big things; that's all the contract says. If you've been living the long five-month ride with Temple, Siena, Wofford, Utah State, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, New Mexico State, Morgan State, Vermont or UC Santa Barbara, you got to feel pain on Friday, and a lot of it.
In the little picture, what happened yesterday will hurt for a long time. Maybe the team just never got going offensively, and were overwhelmed by a vastly superior squad
. Perhaps the other guys were more hungry
. Or it came down to just a possession or two, and this is a story about missed opportunities
that will haunt the true believers for weeks and months, while all others will have moved on to the next thing. Or an opponent's weaknesses weren't exploited as much as they should have been
, or there was a lost stretch of minutes
that will never get to be replayed. Or maybe the referees were able to alter the approach to the final sequences much more than the opponents could ever hope to
There were exceptions, of course. Cornell became just the fifth Ivy League team to win at the NCAA men's Tournament, and the first since Princeton in 1998. And it was, of course, the first elimination game that the Big Red have played all season. While I've been fielding various inquiries over the last 24 hours which claim that this is "proof" that the Ivy League's system of sending its regular season champion works fine, the conference is still 5-26 in the 64/65-team era. I think the point is that this particular Cornell team transcends that whole discussion.
This moment has been three years in the making. Fate, mostly in the form of a redshirt, put Ryan Wittman, Jeff Foote and Louis Dale on the same team, at the same time, as seniors. There has not been an Ivy team in over a generation that has featured this kind of scoring up and down the height chart, this quality of shooting and ball control, and this level of defense... all at the same time. And in the era of pixelvision and 100 cable sports channels, no great college team anywhere has been able to remain so mysterious for so long, thanks to the Ivy League's non-existent television contract. This has been a secret in a time of no secrets, and those who have followed closely all year, who have been to every game, are the only ones who will ever truly understand the story.
And Xavier, what can we say? The Musketeers singlehandedly salvaged the pride of the grand old Atlantic 14; Temple may be the Atlantic One, but X is the Atlantic One Left. Again. I remember last year at the Sweet 16 in Boston, picking up the xeroxed book of press clippings each team puts together for the NCAA Tournament, and counting the national articles among all the Cincinnati Enquirer pieces. There were three for the entire year, and Dana O'Neil had written two of them for ESPN.com. It's been better this year (although most of the angles have been related to the longtime head coach who the school couldn't match an offer sheet for), but Xavier still does not get the respect it deserves. It'll never be accepted by the lords of college sports, simply because it doesn't play big time American-Style Football. It spends what money it has on basketball, Our game. Of course they're one of us; I don't think there's any question about that.
The first round is all over, and there are 32 teams left competing for the National Championship. Eight of them are from below the Red Line, a full quarter of the field, the first time since 2006 there have been that many. Over the next two days, there is a guarantee of more pain, but that is only because the heart's hard defenses are fully relaxed now. Supporters of the Last Eight have bought in fully to this moment, and have left the big picture far outside the arena. The true madness is that anyone in their right mind would sign over their emotional well-being to group of men in matching sleeveless shirts. But that's the way it works: if you're on the full ride, you get the full high. We're all trying to shift the inevitable low to another day.
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