Yesterday, for the first time in my life, I had the pleasure of attending the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. This is something that I have wanted to do since my childhood. Growing up, Portland – the only place in Oregon capable of hosting, really – was prohibited from having the Big Dance because of the sports betting that the state was engaged in. Nearly a decade ago, SportsAction was deep-sixed, opening the door for me to the possibility of seeing the Tournament. This year, all of the chips fell into place for that possibility to become a reality. In the afterglow of my first NCAA Tourney, my gut reaction is: “Meh.”
Blasphemy, right? As someone for whom college basketball plays a daily role in life, I can hardly believe the words coming out of my mouth. It’s entirely possible that I simply did it wrong. I had cheap seats by myself in a sparsely-occupied area. None of the eight teams playing were particular favorites of mine. The Moda Center and the NCAA didn’t really help, either. The fanfare was somewhat lackluster, perhaps due to the fact that most of the teams were not really from the region. In fact, the team with the biggest fan base was Eastern Washington. Having sites in Portland and Seattle in the same year is slightly redundant, since there aren’t that many good teams in the Pacific Northwest. It would be nice if they could alternate hosting in these two cities. On the flip side, it was pretty cool to see teams that normally don’t come out West, such as Georgetown, VCU, and Ohio State.
In the end, it’s probably not anyone’s fault that the first Thursday of March Madness didn’t live up to my expectations. I think the real problem is that I have become so accustomed to the frantic channel-flipping and stream-switching that comes with being able to watch four games at once ALL DAY LONG. By being glued to one game at a time, and being teased with intermittent updates on all of the upsets and near-misses, I felt a little robbed. I was supposed to see that. Perhaps this feeling is so strong because yesterday was historically crazy.
Seriously, let’s look at what actually happened. The day started off with Notre Dame, who was looking like a title contender after beating Duke and winning the ACC Tournament, scratching out a tight victory over Northeastern. Meanwhile, another 3-seed was in trouble. Iowa State, on a similar trajectory to the Irish after their own tournament championship, couldn’t get going against UAB. The Blazers just never went away, even when the Cyclones went up four points with three minutes to play. With 52 second left, Robert Brown knocked down a go-ahead 3 for UAB. Then the teams traded baskets, with William Lee’s jumper at 0:26 tilting the lead back to the Blazers. George Niang hadn’t been able to get the ball in the basket all game, but ISU went to him when it needed two points. UAB shut him down once again, and a few free throws and a missed three-pointer later, the Blazers had pulled the upset.
Really, UAB? Pretty eary for bracket-busting isn’t it? And yet, before we could do the math of how terrible that loss was for our brackets, Baylor was struggling against Georgia State. Another 3-seed? What was going on? One crazy upset is okay. It hurts everyone relatively equally. It’s fun. But two 14 seeds moving on? No, that’s too much. Then R.J. Hunter hit the shot that sent his head coach and father Ron to floor. 57-56. Georgia Sate did it. Baylor is out of the tournament. Brackets across the nation start hitting office trashcans.
While all of this was happening, I was at the Arizona-Texas Southern snoozer. Okay, so maybe I’m just a little bitter.
In one of the days more nondescript games, Butler moved past Texas. This game was close, but it got lost in the excitement of the rest of the day. Another 6-11 game was going to steal the spotlight in a few minutes. SMU-UCLA. The Goaltend. Yanick Moreira’s inexplicably silly decision to bat away a ball near the rim cost the Mustangs the game. Without getting into whether the ball would’ve gone in or not, you simply have to be smart enough to not go anywhere near the ball when it’s coming down near the rim. Position yourself for the rebound, but stealing the ball out of the air is just too dangerous a play at that juncture of the game. And now SMU goes home. UCLA, a team who many thought shouldn’t be here in the first place, is suddenly moving on to play UAB.
One of those teams is going to the Sweet 16. WHAT IS HAPPENING?
Well, then Xavier dispatched of Ole Miss easily behind Matt Stainbrook’s standout performance. Villanova crushed Lafayette. At the same time, the best game of the Portland pod was happening. VCU an Ohio State were trading punches all game. Doug Brooks was hitting shots for the Rams and DeAngelo Russell was answering back for Ohio State. This game went to overtime, but VCU could have won the game at the regulation buzzer. An uninspired drive to the basket led to a missed layup, and the Buckeyes fought off the Rams for the upset. I have to imagine Briante Weber would have made a pretty big difference for VCU in the game, but kudos to Ohio State for advancing. Meanwhile, Cincinnati and Purdue were in their own overtime. The Boilermakers held a slight edge for most of the game, including a seven-point lead with 48 seconds to go. Then Cincinnati hit a 3. And then Troy Caupain stole the ball and converted an and-one. One-point game. With seven seconds left, Jon Octeus made only one of two free throws, and Caupain hit the layup that tied the game and sent it to OT. Purdue also missed two key free throws in overtime, as well as most of their shots. The Bearcats made more and stole a victory from the jaws of defeat.
Then Harvard almost knocked off North Carolina. The Tar Heels were one of the lucky few who made it out alive from an upset bid. Another such team was Utah, whom I watched beat Stephen F. Austin. Utah is a great team, but they are a little boring to watch live. The 57-50 score is an indicator of the pace of the game. It was a hard-fought victory, but Delon Wright didn’t look quite right. He’s going to have to turn it on in the next round. Around this time, LSU was building a 16-point second-half lead on NC State. The Wolfpack cut it to 12 with 10:25 to play, and that’s when the Tigers became unable to score. They managed only five more points, all free throws, and ended up losing 66-65 on an NC State buzzer-beater. LSU shot 0-for-12 from the field and 5-for-12 at the line. They gave this game away in pretty unbelievable fashion.
In some of the last games of the night, Arkansas was fighting off a valiant upset bid from Wofford and Kentucky was killing Hampton. Things were winding down elsewhere, but they were just heating up in Portland. Like I said before, Eastern Washington had the biggest fan following in Portland. The Eagles seemed poised, given the events of the day, to take down an overseeded Georgetown team. They had the nation’s leading scorer in Tyler Harvey. They have a grinding big man in Venky Jois. They can score in bunches. The crowd was behind them. Everything was pointing to the upset.
In the first 12 minutes of the game, Harvey had ten points. Four Eagles had hit three-pointers. Eastern Washington held a 24-17 lead over Georgetown. Here we go again. Another upset. Or maybe not. Georgetown surged back and went on a 26-9 run to lead by ten at the half. The crowd was deflated. Was David really not going to beat Goliath? The second half started, and we had our answer. The Hoyas went on a 15-2 run to start the half, leading by 23 with 13:25 to play. If the crowd was deflated before, it was just dead at this point. The Eagles went on a little run to cut the lead to as little as seven, but they never really threatened Georgetown after the Hoyas outscored them 41-11 in a 21-minute span. Instead of what could have been a potentially amazing nightcap, the game went chalk and the Hoyas will face Utah on Saturday. I’m excited to see that game (and Arizona-Ohio State), but I wanted to see some upsets in person. Unfortunately, neither Stephen F. Austin nor Eastern Washington could pull them off.
And so it was, that I spent one of the craziest days of NCAA Tournament history at four of the more relatively tame games. That’s the problem. Relatively tame. They were all actually very enjoyable games. But compared with what went on across the rest of the country, there was no singular, signature moment in Portland. And you can’t blame that on anybody. It simply is what it is. So, really, I am really glad that I went to the NCAA Tournament, but the wall-to-wall action of March Madness is perhaps more enjoyable when you can see all of it happen. Speaking of which, I get to watch all of the games on TV today. All is well with the cosmos.
Here’s to having your cake and eating it, too.
(Oh, and sorry about those bracket predictions.)