One Shining (Annual) Moment
We have reached this sports fan's absolute favorite time of the year. Yes, it is NCAA basketball tournament time.
Like much of my sports fandom, it started with my father. I was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, home of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons. I spent the early years of my life in the heart of Atlantic Coast Conference basketball country, and Dad instilled my appreciation for the teams therein early. Although I moved away just before turning seven, the imprint had been made, and we continued to watch those ACC games from afar on ESPN.
Perhaps it is a bit of a cheat for me to support an entire conference, even if I do have a rooting order for the teams it includes. However, I would never attend a big Division I school, and I did not grow up in a big college town once in Texas. The 80s were an exciting time for the ACC and what became its arch-rival conference, the Big East, as exacerbated by the "ACC-Big East Challenge," an early-season event (now defunct) pitting all the conferences' teams against each other. I was so inspired that I eventually devoted my high school senior statistics project to the task of definitively proving the superiority of ACC basketball over the Big East, a task in which this former statistician succeeded in his not-so-humble opinion.
Yes, I am quite aware that this year's tournament features a tournament-record eleven teams from the Big East. From top to bottom, it is beyond debate that this was the Big East's year. It of course remains to be seen if a Big East representative will be cutting the nets down in Houston, Texas, this season, and that is one of the beauties of this basketball tournament.
What makes this the best sporting event around? That single-elimination unpredictability is the biggest plus. Higher seeds usually shake out of the shuffle by the end, but along the way those last-second buzzer-beater upsets that define March Madness do happen, and every once in a while Cinderella does advance all the way to the Final Four. It is not the best team on paper that necessarily wins; the team that happens to be the best for six consecutive games is the champion. The team needs only to seize opportunity. In any given game, a player can find "the zone" or a team can put together a barrage of shots from beyond the three-point arc, and these are the exceptional performances that can dash hopes, propel dreams, and defy expectations.
More than that, though, it is the players that compose these teams, from universities both prominent and obscure. NBA-bound superstars might drive the best teams, but each team consists mostly of players that will never have the chance to further a basketball career. They all convene for this one event that represents the end of this game that has represented years of passion and camaraderie. When such stakes are commanded by the most capricious bounce of a ball in the waning seconds of a one-point game, the highest drama can result.
That is not to say that the NCAA and its athletic programs represent the paragon of virtue and integrity in amateur athletics. We have more than enough rules violations over the years to illustrate otherwise, and even within the rules we have seen an increasing number of top underclassmen jump ship for the NBA such that the quality of Division I basketball seems watered down like never before to the point of viewer disillusionment. The level of competition and desire in the tournament, though, remains as great as ever.
There is extra resonance for me personally in the timing of the tournament as well. Back in the old days when I was an athlete, this basketball tournament coincided with the annual end of my own season. My own satisfaction and disappointment from those years past is inextricably tied to television images in post-meet restaurant backgrounds and radio broadcasts that accompanied the long drive home on night-shrouded Texas highways. Whether I won or lost, there was always a player, a team, or a particular game that had something in common. March saw the end for them, and March saw the end for me.
To borrow a motif from an earlier column that I wrote, if you had access to a time machine and wanted to witness the most egregious display of emotion ever exhibited in the life of usually reserved C. Robert Dimitri, you need only find him on the evening of March 28, 1992, when he went berserk in response to the conclusion of the greatest basketball game ever played. He ran laps around the house, as he yelled and banged on the walls. (His father was the only witness to this outburst.) That was the tournament at its best, and each year this tournament offers us countless other moments that are almost as gripping.
It all culminates in CBS's "One Shining Moment" montage after the final game. Many people might find that song and the accompanying montage of emotive basketball players hokey beyond compare, but it never fails to send chills up my spine. Yes, I was the guy that angrily called his local CBS affiliate one year when they had cut off the broadcast prior to "One Shining Moment." Then I was the guy that called them back the next year prior to the final game to be certain that they would not rob me of it again.
You probably care much more about putting together a successful bracket and winning a pool than hearing my ruminations on why I love college basketball. Hence, I offer this advice as someone who is probably in at least the ninety-fifth percentile of raw number of brackets completed for someone his age and may or may not (as far as the IRS is concerned) have seen some measure of success. This is a complete crapshoot, so enter as many different pools with as many different entries as you can afford. Conjure different permutations of the one and two seeds, and throw in a three or a four seed into one or two of your entries if one of those teams has a superstar that could potentially carry the load. As far as predictions go, that is the best you can do, and all the expert analysis in the world usually does not perform much better.
C. Robert Dimitri thinks that adding teams numbers 67 and 68 to this tournament as play-in 11 and 12 seeds is outright stupid and a bad direction for the tournament. It particularly looks bad in a year with an unprecedented number of teams with losses numbering in the teens.