The annual American ritual of March Madness, the popular name for the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament, is in full swing, and I am once again caught up in the fray.As a child of …
The annual American ritual of March Madness, the popular name for the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament, is in full swing, and I am once again caught up in the fray.
As a child of Kansas and the son of a proud University of Kansas alum, it was preordained that March Madness blood would course through my veins. I grew up idolizing Kansas Jayhawk basketball and its rich tradition. The inventor of the game, Dr. James Naismith, was KU’s first basketball coach (and the only one with a losing record), and in the 125 years since the Jayhawks first put a team on the court, KU has six national championships, a current record 32 consecutive appearances in the NCAA tourney, the most winning seasons in NCAA history, has the most wins all-time of any Division I schools, and is responsible through its former players Dean Smith and Adolph Rupp for the basketball dynasties at North Carolina and Kentucky (currently coached by former KU assistant coach John Calipari).
As a student there from 1976 to 1985 I was fully immersed in Crimson and Blue hoops mania. It had been decades since the Jayhawks’ last national championship in 1952, but that had little effect on the mayhem inside Allen Fieldhouse, dubbed by ESPN in 2017 as the loudest college basketball arena in the country. Students didn’t have assigned seats, so we’d go early to get in line for games and I’d rush with my frat brothers to claim our preferred seats in the southwest corner of the upper level, a spot with equally good views of the court and the KU cheerleaders performing beside it. I watched the Hawks claim six Big 8 conference championships and saw head coach Ted Owens get fired after two losing seasons, and remember all of the hype when Larry Brown was brought in from the New Jersey Nets pro team to right the ship, which he did, winning the national championship with Danny Manning. Brown represents my closest brush with KU hoops royalty. Through the invitation of a team manager, I was present the night the team took over a local pub for an evening and Brown was manning the grill in the kitchen. I’ll never ever forget what he said to me – “Do you want cheese with that?” as he passed a burger through the window to me. Of course I responded “Yes, sir! Thank you!” I’m sure he must remember the moment as well as I do – it was priceless.
Another equally memorable moment came a few years earlier when I was playing pick-up basketball games at the university’s student gymnasium. Folks began to buzz when Lynette Woodard, star of the women’s team and still the all-time collegiate scoring leader, walked in. My team won our game, and Woodard’s was up next. We turned the ball over and Woodard headed down court on a fast break, with me being the only one between her and the goal. I set up in perfect position to draw a charge, and to this day I have no earthly idea how she shifted in mid-air and glided around me for the easy score. She was incredible.
That college hoops fervor ingrained in my soul doesn’t appear to be part of the culture here in Minnesota, and I must admit that I miss it a bit. It’s understandable, as there’s no outstanding record of success by the Minnesota Gophers to fuel much excitement. Not surprisingly, there’s no NCAA office pool at the Timberjay, and I was the only one there looking forward to the release of the tournament brackets.
But I’ll admit the intensity of my interest has somewhat waned as money and the era of “one-and-done” players has taken over the game, even for my alma mater, whose coach makes over $6 million a year telling young men dressed in skimpy clothes how to put a ball through a metal hoop. Once upon a time, I was Mr. Analytic when it came to dissecting bracket matchups. I dug into statistics and ratings like I was prepping for a big test and developed my own formulas for picking winners and losers. It became clear my lust for such analysis had dimmed a few years ago when I picked my bracket using the “which mascot would beat the other one in a fight” method. I’ll still check out the KenPom ratings for a game that looks interesting, but I haven’t filled out a bracket since I moved here three years ago.
I looked at KenPom after KU won it’s first round game last week and scored a matchup against Arkansas, and wasn’t encouraged by what I saw. So I was prepped when the Razorbacks pulled off the upset on Saturday, sending my defending national champion Jayhawks home without even reaching the Sweet 16, and I wasn’t all that upset about it.
Instead, I just reveled in the competition, and the hope that some small school underdogs would pull off some big upsets. Didn’t have to wait long to witness the biggest upset in tournament history, #16 Fairleigh Dickinson toppling #1 Purdue. FDU only qualified for the tournament because the champion of their conference was ineligible and had to play its way in to the field of 64. This is the stuff that makes the tournament fun, when a group of unheralded players puts together an out-of-this-world team effort to take down one of the “big boys.”
And also a sign of my changing views is the fact that I can eagerly embrace the success of KU’s cross-state rival, Kansas State University, in this year’s tourney. The Wildcats, picked last in the Big 12, had an unexpectedly terrific year under new coach Jerome Tang, who should be a shoo-in for national coach of the year honors for what he’s done. There was a time I loved hating on K-State, but obviously I’ve mellowed. They’re one of the best stories in college hoops this year, and I love that they’re doing it with a point guard who at 5’8” is only an inch taller than I am. Another underdog scores big story.
I can’t say I’ve banished all of my rivalry demons. I’ll admit I took an undue amount of pleasure when North Carolina failed to qualify for the tournament, I was happy to see Duke and Kentucky exit the tourney, and I’m hoping UCLA will do likewise. I like claiming to be the best of the college hoops blue bloods, even when that claim is tarnished a bit by this year’s performance. But the spectacle of competition at the highest level is still something I revel in, and March Madness always seems to deliver. Rock, chalk, Jayhawk!