We’re practically there now, to the first Thursday of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and the delightfully unpredictable event we call March Madness.
In many years, this is the NCAA tournament’s best single day and one of the best days on the entire sports calendar. There are 64 teams still alive on the tournament’s first Thursday, which means pristine brackets, wall-to-wall basketball and your annual search to figure out where the heck truTV is on your dial.
It’s not always great, of course. The favorites usually win. No. 1 seeds are 135-1 against No. 16 seeds in the NCAA tournament.
But if you happened to see the one upset – in Charlotte, last year when UMBC roared past a befuddled Virginia team to pull the first 16 vs. 1 upset ever in the men’s tournament – you will never forget it.
I was there, and I remember listening to K.J. Maura after that game. He was UMBC’s 5-foot-7 Puerto Rican point guard.
“We gave hope to teams that come to the tournament with lower seeds,” Maura said. “We’re giving hope to guys that aren’t even that tall, like me.”
Exactly. While the Elite Eight and the Final Four mostly end up being about college basketball’s royalty, this Thursday and the first weekend is about the guys that “aren’t even that tall.”
This is the week where everyone roots for the little guy, mainly because we all were little once.
There won’t be any teams from the Charlotte area in the tournament this year, but there is Gardner-Webb – nestled in Boiling Springs, about an hour’s drive west of the Queen City. And No. 16 seed Gardner-Webb – making its first NCAA tournament appearance ever — is one of those little guys.
The small private school will try to duplicate UMBC’s incredible upset in 2019. The Runnin’ Bulldogs (yes, not just the Bulldogs, these are the Runnin’ Bulldogs!) play Virginia at 3:10 p.m. Friday in Columbia, S.C.
That probably means that by 5:10 p.m. the Runnin’ Bulldogs will be out of the tournament. But, as Jim Carrey said in “Dumb and Dumber” when a pretty woman tells him that the odds of the two of them becoming a couple are a million to one: “So you’re telling me there’s a chance!”
Yes, that’s what the NCAA tournament tells you.
“This is the tournament,” Wofford coach Mike Young said. “We all play in lots of tournaments, but this is the one that everyone remembers.”
Wofford, with a No. 7 seed that ranks as the best seeding any Southern Conference team has ever gotten, tips off against Seton Hall at 9:40 p.m. Thursday. The Terriers boast a three-point specialist in Fletcher Magee who is about to break the all-time three-pointer record in college basketball.
Then on Friday night, we get No. 1 seeds Duke and North Carolina, playing games they should easily win (at least you would think). By then, N.C. Central will already have played its game in the “First Four” in Ohio, trying to win its way into a matchup with Duke and the effervescent Zion Williamson at 7:10 p.m. Friday in Columbia.
And there are dozens of other teams playing, too.
The UC Irvine Anteaters and the Montana Grizzlies. The St. Louis Billikens and the Northern Kentucky Norse. Two sets of Gaels. Four sets of Wildcats.
It’s great fun, a time to lay aside the recurrent thorny problems of big-time college sports and to enjoy the actual games.
And if the game you are surreptitiously watching at work is a 25-point blowout, no problem. Switch to another one.
That’s the great part about the early part of the NCAA tournament. Somewhere, there’s always a chance.