PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- What strange psychology is this? The nation at large usually loves a Goliath. America seeks out the commanding and the dominant, places them in high matrices of "best ever" and "all time," all the while ignoring the struggles of the anonymous and faceless David Does below. Until the spring, that is. In March, when No. 1 in the polls becomes the one-seed, our States become united against the powerful; America takes joy in brave dragon-slayers from tiny places and the fall of the gigantic. Building up and tearing down, over and over, just as with the pop star or the famous actor or the golfing legend.
Why? Could this be another by-product of the dichotomy in the general American soul? We are, after all, children of both uprising and conquest, the pitchfork-wielding revolutionary and the marauding pioneer.
It can't be just us, though -- Americans are not the only ones who turn on their heroes so viciously. Our former landlords, the British, perfected this system long ago, and have had a lot more practice. You can find this, too, in Western Europe, even Australia and Japan. But people don't eat their stars as much in places like Peru, or South Africa, or the Baltics, or island nations. This is a first-world dynamic, exercised in places with technology and progress. Maybe there's just such a wide and dark gap between the unknown and the known here, and it's so effortlessly easy to strip the high and mighty of their humanity. Right now, the NCAA Tournament bracket represents a canvas of twisted wreckage. There were wide-eyed teams that fought for four months just to get to the pinnacles of their little leagues, for whom just arriving here was a wonderful experience. They are all gone now. The basketball representatives from Murray State and Old Dominion and Ohio achieved a victory that may end up defining their entire lives; they were all eliminated yesterday. They're now in that strange borderland between happy history and the numbing realization that it always ends in a loss.
And then there are the other three.
Murray State's season ended in the most excruciatingly painful way a season can: with a sequence that will be played over and over in the minds of players, coaches and fans. Maybe if they hadn't driven into the corner, maybe if Canaan had seen the double-team coming a split-second earlier and reacted, maybe if the team had hit some of those bad shots earlier... it would have been different, and they would have survived another week. But nobody can ever take this away from them.
Butler has been here before, as recently as 2007, but the Bulldogs went through plenty of so-close heartbreak of their own. I was there in Birmingham when Tennessee stole away a game in overtime, when A.J. Graves' shot for Sweet 16 destiny was denied by the Vols as well as some other guys who happened to out there on the floor too. Last year, this same group was cut down in the first round against LSU, and that provided a lot of the motivation for this year's bust-through run. As for Gordon Hayward's presence of mind on the final play, it was, well, you know.
Forty-eight hours before, the Robert Morris faithful weren't really buying into a reality that included a 15-over-2 upset until late in their game against Villanova. They'd known about the Wildcats' athletic power, and knew they had a 15-2 scoring burst in them. The run never came; in overtime, the RMU fans opened wide the doorways to their hearts... and Villanova threw a grenade down the hatch. On Saturday, against Saint Mary's, they were punished for their hubris, and the entire country outside the bounds of Philadelphia's northern suburbs enjoyed watching.
The last time I saw Saint Mary's in person, they were being run off the floor at Gonzaga, back in February. The Gaels played the Zags tight in the first half but couldn't withstand the carefully-planned scoring run that came out of the break. Then, when SMC tried to regroup and answer the run, the fans swooped in and finished them off. The players in dark blue jerseys were clearly rattled, humiliated; I knew right then that this wasn't a team that had the mental toughness necessary to take the next step and become champions. But after that lost weekend in Portland and Spokane, they haven't lost since... including a dominant revenge act against Gonzaga in the WCC final. This is a team that plays with a grace and elegance usually only found in overseas hoops outposts. But the poise and toughness they showed against Villanova was, perhaps, not possible if they hadn't experienced a complete lack of same just a month earlier -- if they hadn't had that dangerous glimpse over the cliff's edge.
But, admittedly, Saint Mary's composure is still not quite at the level of Northern Iowa's. The one time I saw the Panthers this year, they were getting ripped apart at Wichita State (a game that would end up costing the team its national ranking). At no time during that contest did they show panic or a loss of poise. When they did the same thing against teams like Indiana State and Creighton on #pixelvision, their emotions were similarly in check. Nothing rattles this team, nothing shakes them, nothing forces an unnecessary emotional reaction. UNI is as cool as anything can be coming out of Cedar Falls, Iowa.
So Valley watchers weren't surprised at all when a Hawkeye State kid came down the floor in the closing seconds of a 9-vs.-1 game, with more than plenty of time left on the shot clock, and calmly drained a 3. There's really only two words that are capable of describing an under-pressure act like that.
In one beautiful Saturday, a No. 1 seed and a No. 2 seed went down. America at large gained some new sports names to remember, like Ali Farokhmanesh and Gordon Hayward and Omar Samhan, and there are new entries into the eternal NCAA highlight reel. For the first time in several years, America will get to choose among multiple Cinderellas, and there's once again that annual rite of passage within the annual rite of passage -- the setting aside of busted brackets, and the adoption of a little team with Sweet 16 dreams.
Maybe they'll see a little of themselves in the calm of Northern Iowa, or Butler's success despite long financial odds, or the quick response to adversity that Saint Mary's has shown. But when the losses come, and odds are that they inevitably will, they will once again pack Sports Bubble Stadium and tune in their sets to watch Goliaths compete for the National Championship. And someday, they might ask themselves exactly why they have such a strange and varied set of idols.