The first Thursday of March is my favorite day of the year.
It's the day Arch Madness starts, the tournament I've attended for 10 straight seasons. On this particular Thursday, I settled into my seat at the Scottrade Center with a big, bright smile.
It was the same smile I had on my face in fifth grade when I watched Drake and Illinois State play an opening-round game in 2003. I don't remember much from that game, just that my father, a Drake alum, and I sat in a half-empty stadium watching the Bulldogs miss a three-pointer at the buzzer. A decade later, nothing has changed in St. Louis. My life has taken me from fifth grade to high school to college, but Arch Madness on the first weekend of March is the one constant in my life.
Every year, I still marvel at the sights and sounds of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. I've determined which fight songs I love (Northern Iowa) and which fight songs I hate (Evansville). I observe the mannerisms of every coach -- I miss Jim Les storming up and down the sidelines with his arms crossed, something he did for several years until Bradley fired him in 2011. The players come and go, but every year there's a new guy who captures your heart. There is a magic to this event, a magic nobody really understands until they attend.
I love the first Thursday of March. More than any day on the calendar.
And yet I think I'm the only one in the building who can say that.
Everybody else in the tournament hates the first Thursday of March. The players hate it. The coaches hate it. The fans hate it. Everybody hates it because the first Thursday of March has a stigma to it. It means you finished seventh or worse in the Missouri Valley Conference. It means you had a poor season. That you fell short of expectations. That you have to win an additional game -- four total games in four days -- to reach the NCAA Tournament.
It means you failed. So while I sit there like a little kid taking in the atmosphere, everybody else dreads the first Thursday of March. That makes for sloppy, uninspired basketball games -- get me out of here is all anybody's thinking about.
That's what it looked like when Southern Illinois and Indiana State played the first opening-round game on the first Thursday of March this year. The Sycamores won Arch Madness last year and were supposed to compete in the MVC again this season, but they fell apart during the winter months. In this wild league of parity, another win might have earned them the third seed, but they lost on the final weekend of the season and fell all the way to eighth place.
So they played on the first Thursday of March against a team about to fire their coach. Southern Illinois dances around this subject every year -- will they or won't they fire Chris Lowery? They never do. Until this year. The Salukis have won only eight basketball games all year before this matchup with ISU, a far cry from when they used to be the most feared defensive team in America.
They used to go to the Sweet 16. Now, they play on the first Thursday of March.
They didn't want to play on Thursday either, but they were here again. After the Salukis collapsed in the final minutes and lost by 15 points, everybody in the building knew Lowery's career at SIU was probably over. The next day, the school fired him. It's a big business, even in Our Game. And after spending just one day in St. Louis -- the first Thursday of March -- the Salukis headed home for a long, bitter off-season.
It's a cruel thing, this first Thursday of March. It's a day nobody but me likes. I think that's why it's my favorite day of the year.
INDIANA STATE 66, SOUTHERN ILLINOIS 51 03/01/2012
SOUTHERN ILLINOIS 8-23 (5-13) -- M. Seck 5-14 4-4 14; K. Brown-Surles 3-7 4-4 12; D. Daniels 2-4 1-2 5; J. Bocot 4-9 1-1 10; J. Early 2-7 2-2 6; T. Lindsay 2-6 0-0 4; D. Taylor 0-1 0-0 0; T. Setty 0-2 0-1 0; H. Whitt 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 18-50 12-14 51. INDIANA STATE 18-13 (8-10) -- D. Lathan 6-11 3-3 15; J. Odum 6-12 5-6 17; S. McWhorter 0-1 0-0 0; L. Eitel 1-2 0-0 3; C. Richard 1-3 2-2 5; M. Walker 5-11 2-2 12; J. Printy 1-2 0-0 3; J. Gant 3-4 0-1 6; R. Mahurin 0-2 1-4 1; J. Kitchell 2-2 0-0 4. Totals 25-50 13-18 66.
Three-point goals: SIU 3-12 (J. Bocot 1-4; K. Brown-Surles 2-4; D. Taylor 0-1; J. Early 0-1; T. Lindsay 0-1; T. Setty 0-1), INST 3-7 (J. Printy 1-2; D. Lathan 0-1; C. Richard 1-1; L. Eitel 1-1; J. Odum 0-2); Rebounds: SIU 28 (M. Seck 11), INST 26 (J. Odum 8); Assists: SIU 10 (J. Bocot 3), INST 9 (C. Richard 3); Total Fouls -- SIU 15, INST 15; Fouled Out: SIU-None; INST-None.