Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 17, 2016

If It’s March There Must Be Madness

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life is spending a few days on the road. As a result Sunday’s regular post will be delayed until Monday. Thank you as always for your support.

So here we are in the midst of the best week in college sports. Football is the king of collegiate games of course, just as in the professional ranks; so there are probably fans who would rank the period that culminates on the January Monday when the College Football Playoff National Championship game is held at the top of the list. But that is a single contest between two teams. Further, while 128 schools field squads in the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision, the reality is that every season before a single pass has been thrown or touchdown scored, there are no more than a dozen teams that have a legitimate chance of playing in the ultimate match.

The same can probably be said for the Division I National Basketball Championship Game, the ultimate goal of all those teams playing this weekend. But that deciding contest is still two and a half weeks away. Here at the beginning are the six days that truly deserve to be described as Madness. The football playoff starts with just four teams and consists of only three games. The College World Series has a 64-team field, but many of the best young baseball players bypass college entirely, going from high school directly into the minor leagues.

Truly the twin tournaments to decide the Division I basketball champions for both men and women stand alone. Last Tuesday afternoon, 68 men’s and 64 women’s teams were part of the brackets that fans who may not have watched a single regular season game were poring over, making selections for their office or online pools. Tuesday and Wednesday saw the four play-in games that initiate the men’s tournament. Thursday the men’s tournament accelerated to full speed, with the women’s tournament ready to kick off one day later. By next Monday evening, a total of 100 games will have been played, and 100 of the original 132-team field will have been eliminated, in a dizzying rush of buzzer beaters and unalloyed joy contrasted with shots clanging off the rim and sudden heartbreak.

In the end the overall number one seeds, Kansas for the men and Connecticut for the women, may cut down the nets. But well before they do fans across the country get to enjoy the unpredictability of these opening days. This year even the play-in games offered up one stunner. The Holy Cross Crusaders finished the regular season with a record of 10-19. They were just 5-13 in Patriot League play, a record that was better than just one other team in their conference. But the Patriot League allows all ten teams to take part in its tournament, and as is the case for every Division I conference except the Ivy League (which is adding a postseason tournament next year), the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA shootout goes not to the regular season champion but to the winner of the conference tournament.

Before a crowd, if one can call it that, of 408 fans Holy Cross defeated Loyola of Maryland 72-67 in the first round of the Patriot League tournament. Then before an audience more than six times as large the Crusaders shocked regular season champion Bucknell 77-72 in a double overtime thriller. Junior guard Robert Champion was the hero of the night, forcing the first overtime with a free throw and the second with a three-pointer. The semifinal match against Army turned into a blowout, and then the team from Worcester, Massachusetts upended second seed Lehigh 59-56 to claim the Patriot League’s NCAA bid.

A team that had lost every road game during their regular season conference schedule won four times on the road to become the twenty-fifth team to make the Big Dance with a losing record, and just the fifth to do so with 19 losses. Of course that meant they were assigned a sixteen seed and relegated to a play-in game against Southern, the Southwestern Athletic Conference champion. The Jaguars were themselves somewhat surprising winners of the SWAC tournament, having finished fourth in the league. But at least they did so with a conference mark of 11-7 and an overall record of 22-13. Records meant nothing though once Holy Cross and Southern tipped off in Dayton on Wednesday. The improbable became reality by game’s end, with the Crusaders winning 59-55.

Holy Cross will have to advance to the national title game to get their season record above .500; and of course in all likelihood their season will end Friday evening when they take on Oregon, the number one seed in the West. Yet if not Friday in Spokane, some year in some arena a sixteen seed will do what has never been done and shock the basketball world by dismissing a number one. As impossible as that may seem, such is the very nature of this week on the college sports calendar.

Already on the first full day of play there have been a pair of mild upsets and two major ones. Both number nine seeds in action Thursday dispatched their number eight opponent, with Butler beating Texas Tech and Connecticut sending Colorado home. The dreaded five versus twelve matchup proved dreadful indeed for Purdue, which lost to Little Rock, and for Baylor, beaten by Ivy League champion Yale 79-75.

There have also been some close escapes, notably defending champion Duke, a four seed this year, just getting by North Carolina – Wilmington. And the women’s teams haven’t even taken the court yet! Down the road order may prevail. Midnight almost always comes for every Cinderella. But in these next few hours and days more upsets are certain, more anguish and more exultation, all a regular part of the most intense and exciting week in college sports.

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