One of the best college basketball players of all time lives in Charlotte. He won a national championship at N.C. State in 1974. His name is David Thompson. He was who a teenage Michael Jordan wanted to be.
You might think after playing in or watching more than 40 versions of “March Madness” that Thompson would be nonchalant about college basketball’s signature month.
“March Madness is the greatest time of year,” Thompson said. “I get so excited about this month. And like everyone, if my team isn’t playing in a particular game, I’m just rooting for underdogs. When Davidson had that big run with Stephen Curry, that was really exciting. That’s what everyone wants to see in March.”
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The Carolinas send up a cacophony of glorious noise every year at this time.
Pep bands play. Shoes squeak. Fans scream. Buzzers sound with a basketball floating in the air and a thousand dreams floating right along with it.
March Madness?! March Gladness is what it is, really, if you care about the game.
And we care – you and me and a few million others. We have cared for a long time. Every March, coaches such as Dean Smith, Jim Valvano, Mike Krzyzewski and Bob McKillop have drawn up diagrams and players such as Christian Laettner, Lorenzo Charles, Cornbread Maxwell and Chris Paul have looked at all those X’s and O’s and strung exclamation points between them.
The state of North Carolina fields at least one potential national championship squad every year – this year Duke is the best bet. UNC and Duke are sure things to make the field. N.C. State and Davidson are likely to make it, too, and several other schools in the Carolinas could win their way in with victories in their league tournaments.
Said Jay Bilas, the ESPN announcer who lives in Charlotte and ranks as one of college basketball’s signature voices: “The NCAA tournament is the best sporting event on the American landscape. Nothing compares. For three weeks, you’ve got casual fans treating it like it’s a scratch-off lottery. They get invested in teams they’ve never heard of. It’s a nice combination of Cinderella stories and populist hope, and then it’s got a bunch of big-shot teams, too. It’s all wrapped up in school pride, with a healthy dose of greed, skepticism and pomposity. I love it.”
‘You know what the ultimate is?’
March bulges with big-time college basketball, so much so that the Final Four actually stretches into early April. The coming week brings us the conference tournaments, with some teams playing for pride and others bristling with the nervous energy that comes with knowing they must win their tournaments to make the NCAA’s 68-team field.
Mike Young, the head coach at Wofford, is one of those men for whom March has already gone mad. Wofford was the best team in the regular season in the Southern Conference. But all that means is that Wofford is the No. 1 seed for a four-day tournament in Asheville that will determine who is the Southern’s sole representative in the NCAA tourney.
Wofford won its quarterfinal game Saturday, but still needs to win two more to earn a slot. Young knows this path well – Wofford has won the Southern Conference in three of the past five years to make the NCAAs – and the coach knows what awaits if the Terriers can do it again and win the final Monday night in Asheville.
“We are hoping like crazy we can catch lightning in a bottle once again this year,” Young said. “You know what the ultimate is? It’s when we are able to win our tournament and go back home to our campus in Spartanburg and celebrate with everyone. The euphoria of that moment, knowing that you’re in the greatest tournament on earth, before you even know who you are going to play – that whole week is just the best.”
The ACC tournament tips off in Greensboro on Tuesday and ends on Saturday night, a back-to-the-future moment for a league that has held its tourney finale on Sunday for the past three decades but used to play it on Saturday nights back when Thompson was soaring above the rim.
Davidson, which has sizzled in its first season in the Atlantic 10, goes to Brooklyn, N.Y., and plays its first game in the A-10 tournament Friday. The Charlotte 49ers try to salvage a disappointing season starting Wednesday in the Conference USA tournament in Birmingham, Ala.
After the conference tournament prelude, Selection Sunday looms on March 15. This year the city of Charlotte will return as an NCAA tournament host, as second- and third-round games get played March 20 and 22 at Time Warner Cable Arena.
An ‘idiot-proof’ event
As always, every school will try to create an indelible memory – Laettner’s shot vs. Kentucky, Valvano’s sprint, James Worthy’s steal – and small schools will try to slay big ones.
Wofford averages about 2,400 fans per game, Young said. He remembers the time in 2010 when his underdog team played Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament in front of a crowd four times that large and came within one possession of upsetting the Badgers.
“Just incredible,” Young said. “Wofford vs. Wisconsin? C’mon. Then we made a couple of shots, the other teams’ fans start cheering for us – man, there’s just nothing like it anywhere.”
Every college basketball fan has a favorite part of March. For some, it is the bracket they fill out and check after every round. For Thompson, it comes smack in the middle of the tournament.
“I actually like the second weekend of the NCAA tournament the best,” he said, “when they cut the field from 16 teams to four. The competition is very good. There are upsets. Most of the games are really competitive by then.”
Bilas has long been a vocal critic of NCAA policy, believing the organization should find a way to pay the basketball players who generate so many millions of dollars through the tournament. He believes college athletes are, to use his word, exploited.
But Bilas, a former Duke player himself, balances that criticism with a passion for the tournament itself and a fondness for its format.
“The tournament is great,” Bilas said. “And it is idiot-proof, thank God. No matter what they do to it, they can’t screw it up. We can go from 64 to 68 teams. ... We can seed it improperly. We can do anything we want. And the tournament, every March, is still going to deliver.”
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Key March Madness dates
Tuesday: ACC tournament starts earlier than ever
Friday: Red-hot Davidson plays in Atlantic 10 quarterfinals
Saturday: ACC championship, 8:30 p.m.
March 15: Selection Sunday, 6 p.m.
March 17, 18: NCAA tournament begins for eight of 68 teams
March 20, 22: NCAA regional tournament in Charlotte.
April 6: NCAA championship, Indianapolis