Smaller schools are the magic of March Madness

by Gary Shelton on March 18, 2019 · 0 comments

in Basketball, general

Monday, 4 a.m.

Some people pull for the dogs.

I pull for the fleas.

It's my favorite thing about the NCAA basketball tournament. It's all the no-name schools from no-name states that play in no-name conferences. It's Wofford. It's St. Mary's. It's Gardner-Webb, which sort of sounds like a law firm.

It's Liberty (I took them over death). It's North Carolina Central. It's Prairie View, although why someone would want a nice view of a prairie is beyond me.

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Forget One Shining Moment and Duke and cutting down the nets. Forget all-Americans from McDonalds, and the leftovers from Burger King. Forget   rich coaches on shoe contracts and recruiting scandals and diaper dandies. Forget the coaches who own the keys to the gym.

Remember basketball.

Oh, don't fool yourself. None of these guys are going to win the NCAA Tournament. They never do. But among the nobodies, somebody is going to make a nice little run and get a coach a nice contract extension. It's going to keep us entertained for a round or two, and it's going to beat a team that sounds as if it ought to be good (but isn't). Meanwhile, everyone will whine about their bracket as if the rest of us care.

You know who I'm pulling for in this tournament? I'm pulling for Abilene Christian, a school that has been playing with the big boys for only six seasons. But it was 27-6 this year, and it plays fast, and it's more fun than pinball.

I'm pulling for Belmont, and if they were here, I'd pull for the Preakenss. I'm pulling for Iona College, even though I'm kind of young to own a college. I'm pulling for Old Dominion, and I don't care if there is a new Dominion somewhere.

I'm pulling for Colgate. There used to be a show on Sunday evenings called the G.E. College Bowl, an amped up trivia contest where the answer was always something like the square root of 42. Anyway, Colgate was always on that show. The sound of my youth was the host asking "Can you take it, Colgate?"  I still don't know what Colgate's nickname is. The cavities, perhaps.

I'm pulling for Northern Kentucky, and for Buffalo, and for North Dakota State. I'd pull for Harvard, but I don't know if their players got into school because Felicity Huffman rigged the system or not.

I'm pulling for Vermont, and for Murray State, and for St. Bonaventure, just so the announcers can tell us 93 times that that's where Bob Lanier went to school.

Hey, Duke will win the national title, or it's just another year. Same with Kentucky and North Carolina and Kansas. They'll be led by underclassmen who haven't been around long enough to find the library on campus, and then those players will be gone to the NBA where they will demand trades and date Kardashians. Fans will fly in on their own planes.

But the fleas, the programs who level the field by having something called seniors -- the big schools only have seniors who can't play -- they can steal a round or two. And for them, that's confetti time. If someone happens to get to the round of 32 or -- if heaven is paying attention -- 16, then the schools call off classes and everyone dances.

I had a friend who once was an assistant coach at Austin Peay when Fly Williams played there. The fans used to chant "Down comes the fly...go, Peay, go." At the time, I thought it was funny, but I was very young.

I once saw North Carolina eke out a win in the Sweet 16, and I wrote that, as much as the world wanted Roy Williams to win, this wasn't going to be the year. And he did. I underestimated Williams' ability to get his team re-focused, and the team took the title, and Dick Vitale called me out on national TV, and the bile from North Carolina fans began. Seriously, it went on for years, after I picked North Carolina to win another title and they did. I was accused of being a Duke grad, of hating the Tar Heels, of all sorts of sexual misconduct. All because I thought another team would win. Finally, it occurred to me; I had enhanced the enjoyment for the Tar Heel fans. They felt so smart because I was so dumb. Which, I suppose, is cool, too.

I once saw Drake win a big game in the NCAA tournament. Cleveland State won one. Lehigh beat Duke, as did Mercer. Coppin State. Florida Gulf Coast. The list goes on.

To me, that's cool. There is nothing grander than a 5-10 guard for one of the fleas hitting a buzzer-beater to knock a name brand out of the tournament. Forget that the name-brand was sixth in its own conference; it would have whined to high heaven if it didn’t get in.

The best thing about these schools is that most of them have a real sense of where they are. I think Joe Golding of Abilene Christian (I looked it up) probably appreciates being in the NCAA tournament more than John Calipari does. There is a sense of wonder that is special to see.

My favorite coach in the history of ever was John Chaney of Temple, and he never won a title. He would tell his stories, though, and tears would fall down your cheeks they were so funny. I adored Skip Prosser. I thought Billy Donovan was fun. I liked Rick Pitino before he went off the rails.

Then there was Bob Knight. For the life of me, I couldn't understand how a man could forgive no bad behavior from a player but plenty from himself. Mike Krzyzewski had fun at my expense at a Final Four -- I had referred to his team as Martha Reeves and everyone else as the Vandellas -- but I found him far too imperious. The year the Final Four was in St. Petersburg, the Times requested five minutes -- at any time during the regular season -- for a quick question and answer. He declined.

So don't focus on just who is going to win this tournament. Odds are, it'll be one of the usual suspects. But if you think about it, the magic of Cinderella wasn't that she bagged a prince. The magic was that she got to the ball at all.

Oh, and go Wildcats. Abilene is counting on you.

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