Glorious, glorious exhaustion.
That’s what I’m feeling tonight, and what I feel on the first Sunday evening of the NCAA Tournament every year. My brain is fried, I can’t remember who beat who, it’s all blending together into one glorious tapestry of basketball brilliance.
The first four days of March Madness never, ever disappoints. Some years there are more upsets than others; some years there are more classic games (bizarrely we had zero overtime games this year through the first two rounds).
But there is always so much drama, so much joy, so much anguish … it’s just perfect.
A Tweet from a sportswriter named Myron Medcalf summed up my feelings perfectly: “Please don’t touch this tournament. Don’t expand it. Don’t switch it up. Don’t do anything. Just leave it just like this. Please. — Sincerely, Everybody.”
Oh man, so many thoughts. Where to begin?
— Well of course we have to begin with history, with an epic choke job by a No.1 seed and an incredible victory by a 16 seed. Only once in NCAA Tournament history had a top seed lost to a 16, and that was of course Virginia losing to UMBC five years ago.
Well move over Retrievers of UMBC, a tiny commuter school in Teaneck, N.J., has joined a very small club. Fairleigh Dickinson, who didn’t even win their conference tournament and only got to play in the NCAAs because conference champ Merrimack was ineligible, shocked Purdue on Friday night. It was stunning, it was incomprehensible, and it was glorious.
The heavily-favored Boilermakers played terribly. Their star, 7-foot-4 Zack Edey, was almost a foot taller than all the Knights players, and yet Purdue couldn’t get him the ball in the final 10 minutes. Broadcaster Steve Lappas said it best: No one on Purude wanted to shoot.
But let’s focus on FDU, the glorious story that almost continued for TWO wins, as Sunday night it battled Florida Atlantic to the wire before losing.
FDU is coached by a former Division II coach, Tobin Anderson. He brought three players from his D-II job last year with him to FDU. The Knights won FOUR games last season.
And Friday night they knocked off a perennial powerhouse. Check out the “wild” scene on FDU’s campus after the win 🙂
— Something about New Jersey, man. Last year, it was tiny St. Peter’s that went to the Elite 8, from New Jersey. Maybe it’s the Tony Soprano or Bruce Springsteen effect, or all the jokes from New Yorkers like myself about what a sad place that state is.
But as Nicole Auerbach said on Twitter said, Cinderella is a Jersey Girl.
— Which brings us to Princeton, also in New Jersey!. The No.15 Tigers are maybe as good a story as FDU. Princeton knocked off No. 2 seed Arizona ( a rare upset pick I got right in my bracket, ahem ahem), then followed that up by thrashing Missouri on Saturday. The Tigers play smart, veteran ball and are also crazy athletic, which is not usually a trait of Ivy League teams. Their coach was on the last Princeton team that won a first-round game, which is the kind of thing that always seems to happen in this glorious Tournament. The Tigers play Creighton on Friday and absolutely could win that, too.
— A quick word about Furman, a 13 seed who beat Virginia on Day 1. They gave us one of the few game-winning shots we got in the first round, when Virginia’s Kihei Clark, who’s played about 12 years in Charlottesville, made a horrendous decision to throw the ball way down the court without having any sight of who he was throwing it to.
This play was perfect from the Paladins, and was my favorite single moment of the first round.
— Always a different Cinderella, which makes the tournament so great: Saint Peter’s. Florida Gulf Coast. Norfolk State. North Texas. I could go on and on. The names and faces and jersey colors change, but the main idea, that anyone can beat anyone else on any given day, is what makes this Tournament so special.
— A few words on my Duke team. Ugh. A very disappointing end to the season on Saturday. Tennessee just physically manhandled the Blue Devils, as we saw again what a difference it is in strength when a senior/junior team plays a freshman-dominated team. Duke had awful timing with a last-minute injury to starter Mark Mitchell, it shot the ball poorly, had foul trouble, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. It was such a weird season for Duke: high expectations at the start, then so much poor play that made us think it would be a terrible season, then a fantastic final month, followed by a rough ending.
On to better days next year.
— Most impressive second-round team: Miami. Boy did the Hurricanes destroy a good Indiana team Sunday night.
— Least impressive second-round team: Houston. I don’t believe in this team at all. But they are tough as all get out.
— Sweet 16 games I’m most excited about: Michigan State-Kansas State should be a fantastic game. UConn-Arkansas will be a track meet, first team to 80 points wins. And UCLA vs. Gonzaga, hmmmm, where have we seen that recently?
— Finally, this moment, from Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman and one of his players, Devo Davis, was beautiful, and what this Tournament is all about.
**Finally today, we lost a great actor on Friday, as Lance Reddick, who was Lt. Daniels on “The Wire,” who also starred in movies like “John Wick” and a bunch of other shows, died at the age of 60.
Reddick brought such quiet intensity to his roles, on shows like “Fringe” also. He was so, so good as Daniels on my all-time favorite show, caught between bosses at the Baltimore Police Dept., and at City Hall, while dealing with rule-breakers whose heart was in the right place like McNulty. Just his facial expressions alone could show so much.
He died way, way too young. A couple of my favorite of his scenes from “The Wire.” Rest in peace to a fantastic actor and good man.