The Cruelty of March

Cornell won the Ivy League for a second straight year - and got blown out in the first round both NCAA trips

The Other Side to March’s “Madness”

It’s been raining all day today (Friday) here in Knoxville, so I think it’s perfect time to do this post, one I’ve been conjuring up for the past week. A couple of disclaimers: first, it has little or nothing to do with anything Tennessee-related; secondly, overall it just isn’t going to be a happy post in any sense.

The NCAA Tournament is undoubtedly one of the greatest sporting events in the world. It’s my favorite time of the year, along with the fall of course. We all know why it’s so great – a champion being determined on the court, players rising to the occasion, teams playing their best basketball, schools you’ve never heard of putting a scare into a traditional power – so on and so forth. The office pool phenomenon is second to Super Bowl parties in sports-related hooplas. Everybody loves it and says that’s what makes college basketball so much fun to watch.

However, there’s a bad side to just about everything, and the NCAA Tournament/March Madness. And it’s one I’ve come to realize this past March more than ever before.

Wesley Matthews and Marquette started 9-0 in the Big East - but saw their season end in a second round loss to Missouri

You see, I chose not to fill out a bracket this year. I was in the middle of one on the eve of first round Thursday, but stopped midway and erased what I had done. Why? I wanted to see what watching the tournament and not worrying about if I picked the right team would be like. I wanted to watch it just to watch it for once. Sure, I had my champion (Louisville) and felt confident in the picks I made, but I figured I’d take a break.

Aside from always rooting for the upset, I’ve come to the conclusion that the NCAA Tournament is just as cruel and saddening as it is exciting and fun. To answer your obvious questions: yes, I know this isn’t earth-shattering news (I see all two of you out there reading this going “Duh, moron…”) or anything. And no, it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop watching the event.

But whether or not you’ve really noticed it before, you see it every game: a late game shot of the loser’s star player or players on the bench with towels covering their faces, hiding their emotions from the millions watching. Players getting subbed out, some for the last time – in a 25-point blowout loss to a powerhouse – embracing their coaches and teammates. And sometimes it’s players standing in shock after a last-second loss, hands over the heads or lying on the floor facedown, prostrate with emotions after a close loss.

They say you are judged on what you do in March. But the truth is that for about 98% of every Division I team, the season concludes on the losing end. All but one team loses in March. Seniors graduate after four years, their last memories of college basketball filled with pain from leaving it all on the floor – and coming up short. Hours and hours and years of practice and work to reach the goal of winning a championship come to a cruel and heart-wrenching end – that is inevitable for most.

K.C. Rivers and Clemson saw their comeback against Michigan fall short

Great, successful accomplishments of being one of 65 teams competing for a championship end in heartbreak and despair – even for small-conference teams who consider reaching the big stage the ultimate goal. From first-time tournament participants to major conference champions, a loss is almost the guaranteed ending. The slight beauty to all of this is the wide variety of stories for each of these different losers. For example:

Wake Forest reached the top of the polls in late January and you heard “Final Four” and “championships” mentioned in the same breath. The Deacons lost their next game at home to NIT-bound Virginia Tech, played .500 ball down the stretch, and saw Friday flameouts in double-digits losses to Maryland and Cleveland State in the ACC and NCAA Tournaments.

Clemson looked poised to shake off its label as a fast-starter/poor-finisher after pounding Duke at home. The Tigers then proceeded to finish just 9-7 in the ACC, and went 0-2 in the postseason with losses to Georgia Tech and a desperate comeback come up short against Michigan.

Florida State made its first tournament in 11 years and got a reasonable draw against a bubbly Wisconsin team. The Noles then watched as Badger guard Trevon Hughes completed a circus three-point play to end FSU’s breakthrough year in a single play.

After his first round heroics stunned Ohio State, Ronald Moore and Siena ran out of gas against Louisville, falling short of the Sweet 16 for a second consecutive year

Ohio State had Siena beat on a couple occasions, only to watch as Ronald Moore drilled his only two threes of the game at the end of the first and second OTs. Boom, see ya, Buckeyes. Likewise, the Saints looked like they were going to shock Louisville in the second round – only to see the Cards close the game on a 20-9 run. It’s midnight, Cinderella.

Western Kentucky appeared to have risen from dead against Gonzaga late, and tied the game on a tip-in by Steffphon Pettigrew with 7.2 seconds. Problem is, the Zags’ Demetri Goodson needed just 6.5 to race down the other way and send the Toppers home.

Like Morgan State, many small-conference champs had an brief stay in the spotlight - and now return to relative obscurity

• League champions Washington (Pac-10) and LSU (SEC) saw unlikely conference title seasons come up short of the Tournament’s second weekend in valiant efforts that came up short against Purdue and North Carolina.

VCU senior Eric Maynor’s last shot as a college player? A missed game-winner against UCLA, similar to the one he made against Duke two years before that etched his name in March lore.

• Quite possibly the most devastating: mid-major conference champions who play guarantee games in November and December (aka, 30-point losses in exchange for money) and go unheard from for the entire season. Their seasons basically come down to three or four days at conference tournament neutral sites, for that one and only shot to reach your brackets. Most get there and are humbled, as was predominantly the case this year. After just one game, one shot at becoming the next Davidson, George Mason, or Valparaiso, they return to the abyss of obscurity.

For some teams, just reaching the field of 65 qualifies as a great season. For others, a first-round exit crushes hopes of a longer stay, leaving bitter tastes into the offseason and summer doldrums. As you go to the second weekend of the Tournament, dreams of reaching the Final stage become more real – only to be crushed by an untimely poor performance.

When I saw Memphis junior Shawn Taggart crying into his towel in the final moments of the Tigers’ loss to Missouri, my initial thought was one of ridicule – I wanted to laugh, because honestly seeing Memphis fail makes me happy. But I caught myself, and I can honestly, sincerely say I felt for him. It’s like that nearly every one of the Tournament’s 64 games.

March can be so cruel...

So as you’re watching Saturday’s and Sunday’s Elite 8 games – what promises to be two days of excellent basketball – keep in mind this cruel, darker side of the wonder that is March Madness.

About Home Sweet Home... … to me.

Images Courtesy of: AP / Paul SakumaAP / Paul SakumaAP / Ed ZurgaAP / Al BehrmanAP / Orlin WagnerAP / Mark J. Terrill

About the Author: I'm from Memphis but I'm now entering my third year at the University of Tennessee here in Knoxville. I am majoring in Journalism/Electronic Media and hope to go into sports broadcasting/writing/something like that. I'm a huge Vol fan and have been going to games for as long as I can remember. I started my on blog called "The View From The Hill" but moved here to Gate 21 for bigger and better things. In addition to my passion for Tennessee football and basketball, I enjoy watching the NFL and the NBA as well. Basically, sports are a big part of my life. >> Read more from this author

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4 Responses to “The Cruelty of March”

  • lawvolNo Gravatar says:

    I just hope somebody pounds those self-righteous smurfs from Chapel Hill soon. I may have attended trade-school there, but nothing makes me happier than watching Tar Heel fans cry…

    Can Villanova win it all?

  • Home Sweet HomeNo Gravatar says:

    I know how you feel, being from Memphis and all…

    fortunately Mizzou took care of all that. you the biggest bandwagon Villanova fan this week?

  • jimvolsNo Gravatar says:

    Good read, I always enjoy your stuff. I went through the same thought process regarding Memphis too…if it had been a tiger fan crying on camera I definitely would have pointed and laughed, but after seeing a player who has put so much time and effort into achieving his goal and to come out of his shell to show his emotions like that I reconsidered. Then again I didn’t have the same empathy for Adam Morrison when the Zags came up short against UCLA a few years back ( ). Funny how that works…it must have been the “trash stash.”

  • Home Sweet HomeNo Gravatar says:

    you know Jim, while I was conjuring up this post in my mind and trying to think of examples, that Morrison shot came to mind. I laughed at it too – probably because I had UCLA winning that game and they came back from a ridiculous deficit late to steal that.

    had I watched it this year, may not have thought it so funny.

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