BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Commanding the spotlight this first week of the NCAA Tournament are a 98-year-old nun, a pair of high school teammates who made game-winning shots a half-continent apart, a matchup of programs bonded by airplane tragedies and two, if not more, teams full of nobodies from nowhere who knocked off some of the best-known names in America.
This is what makes it March Madness.
This is what, despite college basketball’s growing list of unseemly, unsolvable problems, makes it a game worth saving.
It has not been a good season for the sport.
Dozens of programs have been ensnared in an FBI probe and subsequent media reports looking into improper benefits to players provided by unmoored coaches and shady agents. That has led the NCAA to trigger an investigation by none other than Condoleezza Rice, who should make her conclusions available shortly after the Final Four.
She will undoubtedly call for change. Critics will undoubtedly say the calls don’t go far enough.
When all is said and done, the NCAA is unlikely to do anything to disassemble this tournament, which is worth more than million a year in TV money and provides the funding that keeps not only basketball, but every other college sport besides football, up and running.
The unspoken irony is that the tournament provides the stage for the small, out-of-nowhere programs that presumably do things the right way to compete against, and sometimes beat, all those monsters who presumably create all the problems that got the sport in this mess to begin with.
When a little guy beats a monster, tears well up and beautiful stories get told.
If it weren’t for all those monsters to beat — to say nothing of that wonderfully designed, NCAA-created, 68-team piece of art called the bracket — the tournament wouldn’t be anything more than an extension of a 5,000-game, 351-team regular season, 99 percent of which flies past mainstream America completely unnoticed.
“The 98-year-old nun and all those other things don’t necessarily redeem the various deep problems,” says Robert Thompson, the pop culture professor at Syracuse who is, himself, a No. 1 seed when it comes to dissecting what America loves and why. “But when you put a bunch of teams together and put brackets in there, then of course, you’re going to get some great stories. There’s the excitement. And sometimes there’s the uplifting, enlightening stuff that manages to seep in, in spite of everything else we’ve heard this season.”
The nun is Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt , who writes up scouting reports for Loyola-Chicago, and certainly had a prayer answered Thursday when Donte Ingram heaved up a shot from the logo at midcourt that went in just before the buzzer to lift the 11th-seeded Ramblers to a 64-62 victory over Miami.
Ingram’s shot came only a few hours after Zach Norvell Jr. of Gonzaga hit a 3 of his own to give the small-but-successful school a closer-than-expected win over UNC Greensboro. Fitting, it seemed, because Ingram and Norvell were high school teammates in Chicago. Their former coach, Robert Smith, said he watched the game from his office: “I couldn’t stop smiling,” he told CBSsports.com. “I was just so proud.”
On Friday, 13th-seeded Marshall defeated No. 4 Wichita State 81-75 in an entertaining upset, though it was impossible to ignore the deeper meaning behind the matchup. The programs were bonded by the tragedies of a pair of airplane crashes that killed multiple members of their football teams over a six-week span in 1970.
A popular meme on social media after Marshall’s first-ever win in the tournament: “We Are Marshall” — an homage to the 2006 movie about the crash.
Even nearly 50 years later, no two-hour game can mend those wounds. But sports have always served as a great healer, and March is filled with stories that briefly take fans to a place where anything seems possible.
Heading into Thursday evening, 13th-seeded Buffalo was barely given a chance against Arizona, which in addition to having an NBA-ready freshman in Deandre Ayton, is also one of the most troubled programs in the country, as a result of an ESPN report that coach Sean Miller was caught on a wiretap discussing a ,000 payment to Ayton.
Miller has denied the allegation , and for a time, Arizona was using the tumult as a bonding agent — a way of saying, “It’s us against the world.”
Buffalo, which doesn’t have a single player with NBA credentials, brought a resounding thud to that story line with an 89-68 win.
Next for the upstart Bulls: None other than Kentucky — a team that needs no introduction.
Some of this stuff you just cannot make up.
“It should make you forgive and forget,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “You watch these games … and it’s definitely captivating, and it makes you want to believe in the good part of the sport, which is probably like 98 percent of it.”
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