The NCAA tournament is the most inclusive party in sports. It invites 68 teams now, and it will likely continue to swell because coaches lobby for it. And even if your team isn’t among this Noah’s Ark procession of mascots, there are office pools and all types of gambling opportunities to engage those left out, and the tournament is so unpredictable that it’s possible to thrive at prognostication without even knowing the color or shape of a basketball.
It seems this thing is for everybody. It seems the Big Dance is in a ballroom with no walls to lean against; if you’re there, you have to boogie. You can’t just watch the fun. You are an active participant in the fun.
And sometimes, there’s no greater torture than this experience.
Have you ever attended a party just because everybody was going? Have you ever just had a halfhearted good time because you didn’t want to be the weirdo made conspicuous by absence?
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That’s how die-hard basketball fans in this region are feeling.
Oh, the NCAA tournament will be fine, just not special. It’s the Bittersweet Dance around here.
Washington is amid a three-year tournament drought. Washington State just fired coach Ken Bone. The two Pac-12 schools join USC as the only programs in the conference not playing in a postseason tournament of any kind.
Gonzaga, the most dependable program in the state, is making its 16th straight NCAA tournament appearance, which is quite remarkable. But after earning their first No. 1 seed a year ago, the Zags are a No. 8 seed this season, with little hope of making a deep run. By the end of the first weekend, there likely won’t be a local team to watch.
The last time a local men’s Division I team went to the Sweet 16? It was 2010, when the Huskies advanced that far as a No. 11 seed.
The last time two local teams went to the Sweet 16? It was 2006, when Brandon Roy was leading Washington, and Adam Morrison was leading Gonzaga. How long ago was that? Both players are out of the NBA now.
And to think, there was a period about six years ago when you could dream of a golden era of competitiveness statewide. Washington State was coming off back-to-back tournament appearances under coach Tony Bennett, including a Sweet 16 berth in 2008. Washington had been to the Dance three times under Lorenzo Romar, and though the Huskies didn’t qualify in 2007 and 2008, they were about to return to form with Isaiah Thomas leading the way. And Gonzaga was what it has been for nearly two decades — a sure thing.
Bennett was about to move on to Virginia (where his Cavaliers are a No. 1 seed in this tournament), but his cupboard looked good. The Cougars were set to welcome Klay Thompson, who went on to be a lottery pick in the 2011 NBA draft, into the program. Bone, the former Romar assistant that the Cougs hired from Portland State, looked to be a rising Division I coaching star. And during this period, Seattle University, with its rich basketball tradition, decided to correct an old mistake and transition back to the top division of college athletics.
There was ample momentum, and with the Sonics departing for Oklahoma City in July 2008, local basketball fans needed the fix. It couldn’t make up for the loss of the NBA, but it could prevent the winter from being barren. This state will never be Indiana, Kentucky or North Carolina when it comes to men’s college basketball, but there was legitimate hope for entertaining basketball throughout the state. There was legitimate hope that, with all the high-school talent the state produces, it would finally have multiple college teams making the most of it.
But now, six years later, possibility has fallen victim to an old reality. The Husky program has regressed. The Cougars have descended back to irrelevance. The Zags are still breaking new ground, but they also endure criticism for not advancing to a Final Four. And Seattle U is still in the harsh initiation phase of its transition, suffering losing seasons and playing in front of tiny crowds at KeyArena.
To maximize the fun during this NCAA tournament, you have to look beyond the state and adopt teams such as Western Michigan, where former Garfield star Tucker Haymond is a freshman. Or look to Cal Poly, where former Seattle U coach Joe Callero and former Washington player and assistant Paul Fortier have helped the Mustangs reach the tournament. The success of Callero and Fortier at Cal Poly comes with the twist that they were once doubted and essentially cast aside in a city that will now root for them because, well, it sure beats haggling over the state of the Huskies and Redhawks.
In a region that often stands by itself and reacts by being into itself, it’s no fun to be on the outskirts of the party. The area hates being on the periphery of relevance, included almost as a requirement. It boasts the best football team in the NFL, but in men’s college basketball, there are only two rooting interests right now: Gonzaga, or some team with loose ties to home.
Well, there’s a third: your bracket.
Long live your bracket.
You may not have seen much good basketball this season, but maybe that’ll make it easier to predict which teams will falter.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277
On Twitter @JerryBrewer