The NCAA men's tournament, or 'March Madness,' is a yearly ritual for me. I don't always have the opportunity to sneak out during lunch hour to watch the first week of Thursday and Friday afternoon matchups. But I'm always fascinated by the sheer volume of games and always manage to catch some of them somehow - whether on computer or TV. And what keeps me coming back for more each season is the ever-present possibility of an upset, sometimes several.
This year’s tournament had some significant upsets – starting with Morehead State’s stunning second-round victory over Louisville. Butler stunned top seed Pittsburgh in the second round, Wisconsin in the third and Florida in the Elite Eight. But how about the much-maligned, bracket-busting Virginia Commonwealth, who in succession managed to defeat Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas enroute to the Final Four? There were many acknowledged experts who declared before the tournament began that VCU wasn’t as deserving of a shot at the tournament over teams like Colorado and Virginia Tech. So much for punditry, it would seem.
Over the course of nearly a month, teams from the so-called “mid-major” conferences took it to the big conference powerhouses and earned much respect (and presumably envy) in the process. Butler in particular was breaking down barriers – obliterating Cinderella stereotypes with their second championship appearance in as many years. Brigham Young University, led by the spectacular play of star guard and Naismith Award-winner Jimmer Fredette, made it to the Sweet Sixteen but just couldn’t get past Florida’s advantage in both height and athleticism.
But it wasn’t all about the “little guys.” Kentucky made it back to the Final Four for the first time since 1998, and the University of Connecticut Huskies won their last ten games of the year to get back to the championship game. Along the way, UConn stymied a regional favorite, the Aztecs of San Diego State University – who quietly built an impressive 34-2 season record going into the Sweet Sixteen. But the larger conferences also had some major disappointments, with perennial NCAA tournament regulars Purdue, Louisville, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Villanova all exiting early.
A few weeks ago, the tournament started out with 68 teams. But Monday night, at the conclusion of this war of attrition, it was UConn’s Jim Calhoun hoisting his third NCAA championship trophy – to go with his other victories in 1999 and 2004 (all coming, interestingly, out of the West Region). A friend of mine remarked earlier today that he was so greatly impressed by just how hard all of these young men played, because for several, it will be the last time they ever suit up for competition. But even though one team has to win in the end, all of their inspired efforts over these past several weeks have given us something to enjoy and be very proud of.