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.

2009 BCS Nat’l Championship Game Live Blog

8:55 pm Getting a bit of a late start on this, on account of, you know, work and whatnot. What, you didn’t know I moonlight as a sportswriter?! Probably because I don’t, but I talk enough trash to. (Hey, at least I make sense when I open my mouth. Shut up.) Where was I? Oh, so this is sort of my lighthearted attempt at being a sports blog writer, so you can go along for the ride with me as I riff on the BCS title game between the Florida Gators and Oklahoma Sooners. And man, let me tell you, I told my boy Fred that I can’t remember the last time I was this hyped-up for a bowl game! Since the first quarter’s now up, let me get on with it.

Shouts go out to Ron Cherry for having the honor of being the first black referee to work a BCS title game. Both squads had alumni captains join their slate of team captains for this game – I got a kick out of seeing Billy Sims and Danny Wuerffel (still love that dude for handing FSU their ass in the ’96 Sugar Bowl).

9:04 pm TOUCHDOWN FLORIDA!!!!! Excellent play made by Louis Murphy to put the ball over the goal line. In an emotional game like this one, it’s important to capitalize on opportunities as they’re presented, because they can vanish just as quickly. Good that the Gators were able to go ahead and punch it in, especially after a hard-fought, scoreless first quarter. They’re no doubt pleased to draw first blood. These teams both look prepared and have brought it thus far. As expected, the athleticism and offensive savvy of both UF and OU have shown up big-time, however the coaching staffs are also playing a helluva chess game trying to match each other tit-for-tat. Right on cue, the Sooners are wasting no time and seem intent on answering the Gators’ early 2nd quarter score.

9:12 pm TOUCHDOWN SOONERS!!! What a methodical drive by Sam Bradford and the OU offense. He is as smooth as silk and totally in command in the pocket. Excellent job keeping the Gators’ D off-balance using draws and screens out of the shotgun. Chris Brown was excellent during that sequence, really picking up the slack for the absence of RB DeMarco Murray. They didn’t appear to miss a beat at all, marching down the field at will.

9:22 pm INTERCEPTION!!! No, I’m not trying to start every entry in ALL CAPS, but the action is coming fast and furious. Florida seemed to be moving the ball at a decent clip on that drive with Tebow finding modest success running the option, but Gerald McCoy just made an excellent play on that ball. You have to be super impressed by this good young D-lineman, obviously for his stellar play, however also for persevering after losing his best friend and mother Patricia McCoy, OU football’s No. 1 fan. You have to root for him.

9:35 pm What a slugfest. Don’t be misled by the 7-7 score, this game is a classic in the making. Percy Harvin is nothing but a beast. He has looked his normal, blazing self tonight, which is good to see. He’s been hobbled by that high ankle sprain since the FSU game. Man-sized goal line stand by UF on that last Oklahoma drive – I was a little surprised Stoops didn’t go for the sure 3 after getting stuffed on 3rd down by Florida’s stout D-line. Had it worked, of course, he’d have been a genius.

9:50 pm WHAT-A-FIRST-HALF-OF-FOOTBALL!!! Simply outstanding. That was a true football fan’s wet dream. I’m loving the frenetic pace of the action, and the fight both teams are showing. This game is for all the marbles, the crystal (foot)ball, and both sides have played every bit their part to a T. As I said, the halftime score totally flies in the face of the consensus opinion going into the game, which was that it would be a shootout. The Gators’ D has held firm as expected, however the oft-maligned Sooners defense has shown surprising mettle. With this game occurring so late on the docket (a full week after the New Year’s smorgasbord of bowl matchups), both schools’ coaching staffs have had ample time to scheme and prepare for the opposing side, and it is showing tonight.

That first half sort of felt like a heavyweight contest, each side cautiously probing where they could and unleashing a flurry whenever possible. The Gators’ team speed is so astonishing, especially at the skill positions obviously, that I’m surprised the Sooners have recorded so many tackles for losses and thwarted so many of Florida’s drives. Likewise, Oklahoma’s spread offense is so dynamic, having averaged 54 points a game this season while setting an NCAA FBS record of 702 points scored, that I’m stunned Florida has held them to a single touchdown. The Gators have bent but not broken, and did an excellent job on that last drive of the half of not only keeping the Sooners out of the end zone, but holding them to ZERO POINTS no less! Should be a tremendous second half. I have just enough time to run to the bathroom and grab a brew before they kick it off. 🙂

10:20 pm After some ho-hum halftime performances (Shouts out to the Marching 100, the baddest GD band in the land), both teams pick right up where they left off. Tebow just missed by a fingertip’s length of connecting with Percy Harvin on a big gainer. After a booming punt by UF’s Chas Henry, Oklahoma’s offense fails to one-up the Gators and are forced to kick it away. OHHHHHHHHHHH A NEAR BLOCKED PUNT!!! WOW, I thought that was a ‘questionable’ call at best on the personal foul (I could just as easily call it a BS one): they were going hard after the kick, that’s just good, hard-nosed football. At least it didn’t cost Florida much, other than maybe a few yards of field position.

10:33 pm Nice run there by Tebow, he’s finally starting to come alive. As his coaches will quickly tell you, he has the will of a brahma bull – not to mention the body of one. He’s built like a linebacker but runs like a halfback, and has that nose for the sticks that you just can’t coach. Tebow just showed you that he also puts a deft touch on the football, and that skill set makes him and this team so tough to contend with. Again, Tim just misses Lou Murphy. This has been a GAME of near-misses thus far, and it looks like whichever team can make that one definitive play might prevail.

10:39 pm WILLPOWER. Sheer willpower.

10:43 pm Excellent drive capped off by that Harvin TD run. One of the beauties of Urban Meyer’s spread is that you never know where the knockout blow is coming from. That score was set up by a nice catch-and-run from Jeff Demps, another flat-out speedster. The Gators have some certifiably lethal weapons, and Meyer deploys them with the conscience of a sniper.

10:55 pm This is about Round 10 of that heavyweight bout. Both sides are giving it their all, and now you start to see fatigue set in. OU’s training staff having to tend to their downed lineman seemed to provide a much-needed breather, especially for the Sooners’ defense, which stuffed Tebow on a roll-out to force a huge 4th down. They desperately need to tilt the momentum back in their favor going into the homestretch.

11:01 pm Is it me, or is this about the most half-assed announcing team you’ve ever heard in a game of this magnitude?! Bill Simmons is right: Gus Johnson has us all spoiled, and justifiably so. You certainly don’t have to sound like a maniac every other play, but show a little genuine enthusiasm for the contest that’s unfolding – the same enthusiasm Joe Six Pack, and hockey moms everywhere, no doubt are showing at home.

11:06 pm My god, Sam Bradford is beyond impressive. He is so still he’s almost preternaturally composed in the pocket, and threads the ball in to his receivers with touch that would put your grandma to shame. On this biggest of stages, the 2008 Heisman Trophy winner is rising to the occasion, scoring a desperately needed knockdown to even things up on the judges’ card.

11:21 pm After holding Florida to just a trey, OU had to be feeling good about their chances. That is, until that Bradford pick. I hope I didn’t jinx him by singing his praises just a minute ago. Looked like that pass sailed a bit on him, and that was just enough for Gator ballhawk Ahmad Black to do his best Ed Reed impersonation. There’s still plenty of time left on the clock, but it’s looking like UF has the fresher legs right now.

11:30 pm Harvin was sidelined for the bulk of Florida’s last drive after a rather dirty move by Sooner DB Nic Harris following his tackle. After that last run it looked like it’s not slowing Percy.

11:33 pm See what I mean?!?! You needed John Madden making the call on that nice catch-and-run on 3rd down by Hernandez. ‘BOOM!!!’

11:35 pm Speaking of BOOM, there went the dynamite…

11:37 pm I think I just saw Superman changing into his Tim Tebow pajamas.

11:50 pm WOW. Just WOW. What a performance turned in by the Florida Gators, worthy of the true champions they are. You have to tip your cap to Oklahoma for bringing the fight to them, but in the end, UF’s preponderance of weapons and Tim Tebow’s indomitable will proved to be too much. On First Take this morning, Skip Bayless intimated that Bob Stoops does less with more than any big-name coach in America, and while I would not characterize him that harshly, you have to admit his teams have a certain knack for turning into pumpkins as the clock approaches midnight.

Ultimately, and this of course has been debated ad nauseum, I have to chalk this one up to the sheer superiority of the SEC as a football conference in this country. It was a banner year for the Big XII as a whole, and you also saw outstanding performances sprinkled throughout the rest of the nation’s conferences (USC in the Pac-10, Penn State in the Big Ten, etc.), however three consecutive BCS National Champions (and four in six years) simply ends the discussion. Congrats to Gator Nation on a much-deserved title, and godspeed to whomever plans to upend the inevitable SEC entrant in this game next year.

Originally published on The Armchair QB blog

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