Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 24, 2019

One Year Later, The Clouds Are Darker

From the first tipoff at one of the four play-in games to the release of confetti at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis following the conclusion of the national championship contest, the men’s NCAA Division I basketball tournament lasts one day short of three weeks. The women’s tournament lacks the play-in contests and has its championship weekend scheduled around the men’s Final Four, so it is four days shorter. CBS on the men’s side and ESPN for the women’s tourney, along with the various cable channels that carry some of the men’s games, all do their best to mine drama and suspense out of all the games, even the blowouts. But the truly crazy days of both tournaments are the first few, when multiple games are being played at the same time and national productivity slows while workers, many of whom have based their decisions on the colors of uniforms or the pedigree of mascots, feverishly check to see if their brackets have been busted.

By the end of the first weekend (Monday night for the women, Sunday for the men), 48 of the 64 women’s teams and 52 of the 68 men’s squads will have seen their seasons come to an end, their trips to the so-called Big Dance over before their dancing shoes were even broken in. Games remain to be played as this is written, so it’s still possible that four of the men’s Sweet Sixteen and five of the women’s will be teams from the bottom half of the draw, seeded ninth through sixteenth in their quarter of the bracket. But history says that by the time the final horn sounds on the opening weekend of both tournaments, almost all the would-be Cinderellas will have turned back into scullery maids.

Despite the possibilities only one lower half team is guaranteed a spot in the next round, in the men’s South Region. That’s where #12 Oregon and #13 UC-Irvine both pulled off first round upsets and now face each other late Sunday in the final game of the men’s second round. It will be Ducks versus Anteaters for a spot in the Sweet Sixteen, which should at least be an intriguing matchup for fans whose brackets are mascot-based. Aside from that outlier it is possible that two of the men’s brackets will see the top four seeds move into the next round, while a third promotes seeds one, two, three and five.

The women could see the top four seeds in all four regions advance, a reminder that while UConn may no longer be the colossus women’s program, the game on that side remains top-heavy in terms of talent, with no more than a half-dozen teams legitimate contenders for the national title. Forced to deal with the ignominy of being given a number two seed this year, the 32-2 Huskies, who at number two in both the AP and Coaches polls are ranked ahead of three teams awarded top seeds, surely have all the motivation head coach Geno Auriemma needs for a dep run at this year’s tournament.

In short, we already know that we won’t see history made like last year, when the Retrievers of UMBC carried the torch for every #16 seed in history, knocking off top seed Virginia in an opening round rout. Some of the nearly 14,000 students at Maryland’s commuter school in Baltimore County may not have even known their team was in the tournament on the morning of March 16th. But by the end of the day, as word spread of the 74-54 final score, they were no doubt claiming to be among the squad’s most devoted fans.

Nor does it seem likely we’ll see a story as heartwarming as last season’s run to the Final Four by unheralded Loyola-Chicago. In defiance of their eleventh place seeding and with the unwavering support of their 98-year-old team chaplain, Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt, the Ramblers won their first three games by a total of four points before cruising past Kansas State in the South Regional Final. The fairytale ended against Michigan in the national semifinals, but the stories of the Rambles and the Retrievers were what CBS and ESPN would like us to believe happens all the time in March.

As both of this year’s tournaments show, even with their handful of mild upsets and Duke’s near-death experience against UCF on Sunday, reality tends to be decidedly more prosaic. That’s especially unfortunate right now, because college sports could use a feel-good story. The closest thing to one currently might be the return of Zion Williamson from a potentially serious knee injury caused by a defective shoe. But even fans of the Blue Devils would concede that when discussing college basketball “Duke” and “feel-good story” don’t fit comfortably into the same sentence.

One year ago the post in this space was headlined “The Madness Begins, Under A Cloud.” It noted multiple problems afflicting collegiate basketball, including one-and-done freshmen players and what were then recent indictments of shoe company executives, sports agents, and assistant coaches alleging widespread corruption in recruiting.

Since then there has been movement toward eliminating the one-and-done rule, but it’s still not clear exactly how that will play out. Meanwhile the corruption scandal has only gotten worse, with the first guilty verdicts read and sentences handed down. What’s clear is that there are more to come. And this week the stories about the games had to share space with one about Auburn coach Bruce Pearl, who spent three years out of the game after leaving his last job under a cloud and who has had one former assistant plead guilty to bribery and another suspended while being investigated for the same crime. Then there are the problems with collegiate sports in general, like universities profiting from young men and women who are prohibited from sharing in that wealth, and this week’s admissions scandal blockbuster involving sports a bit further from center stage.

But during this first weekend we fans do our best to ignore the obvious. We squint hard at what’s going on, so we can see only what we want to see. We hope for upsets and buzzer-beaters and dream of that elusive perfect bracket. If the Anteaters don’t have a 98-year-old nun, maybe they at least have a live mascot.

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