The first two days of the NCAA tournament are the best two days in sports.
The NCAA tournament never disappoints, does it?
Oh, it breaks hearts and causes ulcers and elicits equal parts rage, indignation and jubilation. But it never disappoints.
Check that. Friday was kind of disappointing, in a “Where the heck did all the buzzer-beaters and wild upsets go?” kind of way. But I prefer to think of it as a salve to frayed nerves, an emotional respite, the calm after the storm that was Thursday.
Unexpectedly, I watched all 32 games on those two days, rendered couch-bound by a knee injury that landed me on crutches (long story).
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Every stinking one of them, from upstart Northeastern nearly knocking off Notre Dame at breakfast time on Thursday, to upstart Dayton actually knocking off Providence in the wee hours of Saturday morning on the East Coast.
And, once I figured out what and where TruTV was, it was a blast. I know this is hardly a unique occurrence, but I can’t remember the last time I had the opportunity to soak up the frenzied start of the tourney — the best two days in sports, hands down — in its entirety.
I liken it to a stroll around the neighborhood. Some folks you just say hello to as you walk by, and then move along. Others, you plop yourself down and engage in some serious and intense conversation. And sometimes, after you pass by once with a nod and a wave, you head back hastily when it looks like the fun is starting at their place.
So many stirring moments Thursday, I don’t know where to begin. Yes, I do: With Georgia State coach Ron Hunter, nursing a torn Achilles from a previous celebration, falling off his stool as his son, R.J., sank a coldblooded three-pointer in the waning seconds to cinch a huge upset of Baylor.
I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that is one of the great human moments ever in a tournament that abounds in them (and certainly the source of one of the great Vines of all time; I’ve watched it at least 200 times. But seeing it in real time was still better.).
And, as so often happens in the NCAA tournament, the passion and pathos runneth over, often crossing streams. One of Georgia State’s players was Kevin Ware, who suffered a gruesome broken leg during Louisville’s title run two years ago. Baylor’s coach, watching his team go scoreless in the final 2:29, was Scott Drew, whose dad, Homer, was the coach of Valparaiso when it became the nation’s darling in 1998 on a buzzer-beating three-pointer by his son — Scott’s brother — Bryce Drew. The same Bryce Drew who now coaches Valparaiso and Friday saw his team fail to get off a shot at the end that could have tied the score with Maryland.
Did I mention that Homer Drew attended both games, having flown from one site to the other to support his sons?
The tournament was peppered with moments like that. The coverage was also peppered with commercials that worm their way into your consciousness. I’d like to let you out now, Mark Cuban and Kate Upton and Dancing Shaq and Peaked-in-High-School Rob Lowe and all you weird bearded guys (armpit bearded guy, Hotels.com bearded guy, Duck Dynasty dude) and, especially, those Sonic Drive-In guys who are really starting to creep me out.
Upon further review, Kate, you can stay awhile longer. My consciousness needs someone to protect me from armed marauders.
Back to the pathos, and the passion, how about Steve Alford, the coach of maligned UCLA, watching his maligned son, Bryce, hit 9 of 11 three-pointers? And then see his team win the game on one of Bryce’s worst shots, an off-target three that turned into the decisive points on a controversial goaltending call (it wasn’t, in my humble supine opinion).
The player called for goaltending, Southern Methodist’s Yannick Moreira, covered himself with glory by tearfully taking all the blame for his mistake. I saw lots and lots of tears — of happiness, of sadness, of pure emotion spilling over, as when Octavius Ellis of Cincinnati realized he had been ejected, or UC Irvine’s Luke Nelson after his team was unable to get off a shot to potentially tie or beat Louisville.
So many indelible moments, like walk-on Maryland’s Varun Rom disrupting Valpo’s final possession, or Kevin Pangos’ four-point play as North Dakota State was rallying against Gonzaga, or Ohio State point guard D’Angelo Russell getting a bloody eye but still scoring 28 points with black duct tape protecting it, or the driving layin by Cincinnati’s Troy Caupain that rolled in and out and back in to send their game against Purdue into overtime, or the last-second shot by North Carolina State’s BeeJay Anya to cap an insane comeback over Louisiana State.
So many unforgettable names, like BeeJay Anya and Basil Smotherford and Scoochie Smith and Sir Washington and Sir’Dominic Pointer and Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn.
So many fun players to watch, like Harvard’s Wesley Saunders, Iowa’s Aaron White, North Dakota State’s Dexter Werner, Northern Iowa’s Seth Tuttle. And, of course, UC Irvine’s 7-foot-6 Mamadou Ndiaye, a mesmerizing presence on the court who completely alters the shot patterns of opponents and makes you wonder, fleetingly, if Washington might be part of this party had Robert Upshaw lasted through the season.
So many demonstrative, occasionally maniacal, coaches, but my favorite was Bobby Hurley — another star of past tourneys, another coach’s son with his dad in the stands to watch his kid’s team fall agonizingly short in their upset bid vs. West Virginia. Hurley stalked the sideline with a visage that can only be described as a cross between a sneer and a glare. Let’s call it a snare, the Hurley Snare.
Not to be confused with the Ed Cooley Slam — the Providence coach firing a chair to the ground in what seemed to be an effort to fire up his team late in Friday’s final game. Cooley was somehow charged with a technical, an injustice that outraged me even though I had absolutely no inherent rooting interest in their game with Dayton.
That’s what happens when you’re marooned on the couch. You get sucked in.