Bracket Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Upset

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The snippet is as iconic as the event itself: anyone even casually familiar with the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament through the years probably looks forward to “One Shining Moment” – the sappy tear-jerking montage of highs and lows that runs following the Championship Game – almost as much as the games themselves. Call it nostalgia, or even a thirst for melodrama, but there is an unmistakable affinity that people have for the NCAAs, one that transcends gender, geography or one’s gambling tolerance. During March weekends, if there’s a flat-screen in sight, chances are it’s tuned to the tournament. So after three weeks consumed by brackets, blowouts and barnburners, what’s so compelling about three-and-a-half minutes of fluff that makes us wait with such bated breath? In a word, it’s the upsets.

How many times have you filled out your NCAA bracket thinking “This is THE YEAR!” – having done all your “homework,” earning a crack degree in Bracketology in the process – only to have said bracket look like your 9th grade math quiz by the first Friday of the tournament? (Or Internet Explorer circa 2003: Red X). Trust me, you’re not alone: there are almost 6 million entrants to the ESPN Bracket Challenge each year, and lord knows how many finish disappointed, ever in pursuit of the mythical ‘perfect bracket.’ No matter how promising a mid-major looks, or how hot a so-so power conference team is come tourney time, it’s just so hard to ignore the chalk and account for party crashers, yet every year these upstarts wreck our printouts and wreak havoc on our sleep cycles. Logically then, isn’t it high time we at least make it to the ball, by finally embracing Cinderella?

Take Norfolk State: it was this tiny liberal arts HBCU’s first appearance in The Big Dance, and even after steamrolling through the regular season and MEAC tournament, America gave the Spartans exactly a snowball’s chance in hell of upending the 2nd-seeded Missouri Tigers in the Round of 64 last Friday. So naturally they did. Led by outstanding big man and MEAC Player of the Year Kyle O’Quinn, Norfolk did what only three teams had done prior to this game – solve Mizzou’s vaunted four-guard starting rotation. Almost as miraculous as the outcome was this: Norfolk actually looked like they’d been there before! Throughout the waning minutes of Friday’s hectic 2nd half, Spartans coach Anthony Evans was astoundingly calm as he perched in front of his bench, absorbing the ebb and flow of a tense contest along with millions watching on CBS. Of course there was an attendant storm: Evans was authoritative and convincing in his pregame speech, as every command was met by the disciplined “Yes, Sir!” of his charges. So impressive were Norfolk’s grit and guile down the stretch that any feelings of sorrow for the untimely end to Missouri’s dream season were instantly trumped by pure giddiness – at the sight of the Spartan pep band dancing with delight at what ten men had accomplished. Now THAT, my friends, was a moment.

As fate would have it, Friday night’s Duke/Lehigh tilt was not for the faint of heart either. Sure, the Devils didn’t enter this year’s tourney as the strongest No. 2 seed in memory, but the spectre of Coach K (and the satchel that super-frosh Austin Rivers presumably needs to tote his giant stones) loomed large for the Mountain Hawks (now there’s a mascot for ya). Entering as Patriot League tournament champs, Lehigh didn’t exactly strike fear into the heart of perennial power Duke, but the Hawks sure took the floor like they meant business. While the game was never quite on upset alert during the 1st half, Lehigh hung around just close enough to make you wonder if Duke’s spotty defense and over-reliance on the three-pointer might be its undoing. Sadly for Blue Devil Nation, intermission did nothing to dispel those concerns as the Hawks, behind the heady play (and volume shooting) of CJ McCollum, broke Duke’s resolve before imposing their own will. After Lehigh went ahead 38-37 four minutes into the 2nd half, the sides traded haymakers as the enormity of the stakes grew with the passing of the game clock. On a cold-shooting night for the Devils, Rivers tried valiantly to keep them in the game, but Duke’s lack of timely playmaking and Lehigh’s dogged persistence were the Devils’ downfall. In the aftermath, Mountain Hawks coach Brett Reed played it cool, yet you know somewhere deep down he had a remarkable sense of satisfaction that just screamed, “What Can Brown Do For You?”

Suffice it to say the first weekend of the tournament was peppered with other upsets of varying degree:

  • Scrappy Pac-12 entrant Colorado withstood a 2nd half charge to hold off UNLV in the South Region’s 6 vs. 11 game
  • No. 11 was charmed in the Midwest as well, with NC State dismantling 6th-seeded San Diego State: the Wolfpack are now on to the Sweet 16
  • No. 12 also prevailed in the Midwest Region, as South Florida rolled Temple behind former Kent State darling Stan Heath
  • Not to be outdone, Virginia Commonwealth validated last year’s run to the Final Four, toppling Missouri Valley Conference champs Wichita St. in the South’s 5 vs. 12 matchup with the incomparable Shaka Smart leading the way
  • Finally, this Ohio struck a blow for the Buckeye State, closing the book on Tim Hardaway Jr. and the Michigan Wolverines in the process: the Bobcats are likewise thru to the Sweet 16, where the UNC Tarheels await

No matter your favorite team (or bracket ‘lock’), it’s inevitable to experience disappointment this time of year, be it sooner or later. After years of agonizing over poor picks, I’ve finally learned to bury the disappointment found in brackets gone bust and root for these Cinderellas and the simple joy of the game they exude. It sure beats wondering what might have been, because if there’s one thing I know about the NCAA Tournament, it’s this: Nobody knows anything.

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