The first round of the NCAA Tournament is 370 days away.
That sentence stings and stinks. It’s a knife twist on our sports reality. We went from standing at the threshold of the greatest multi-week spot on the sports calendar to an absolute void of games in our lives. Withdrawal hasn’t even set in.
NCAA Tournament — along with Michael Jordan and Walter Payton — forged my love for sports. College basketball made me want to be a sportswriter.; I read that sentence and acknowledge its factual nature. But I’m not sure my body and mind really can register, just yet, the magnitude of the one-year vacation of the greatest sporting event on the planet. I’m sitting here writing this column and in a position to do so because the
I have been head over heels for hoops for just about as long as I can remember. Many of you probably feel the same way. Can you go back far enough in your life that you can recall when March didn’t have a significant attachment to college basketball and the Big Dance? I can’t.
Things are about to feel pretty weird in the coming days. The last time the NCAA Tournament didn’t happen was 1938. Color television, the microwave, Velcro, the ballpoint pen and the atomic bomb had not yet been invented. Greg Gumbel, who at this point should be recognized on a federal level as the official voice of Selection Sunday, was eight years from being born.
A day after a date that will live in college sports infamy — March 12, 2020 — it is at once obvious to process and so very hard to accept. The coronavirus gave the NCAA no choice.
The bracket, for the first time in history, has literally been busted. Understandably, not even the Selection Show will happen. The committee won’t put together a verified bracket to comfort a lonely nation (but I agree with you, Bobby Hurley: how awesome it would be if it did). What should have been but could never be has left millions of sports fans in a bit of a fog. The NCAA making the necessary and difficult decision to kill off its moneymaker (the financial impact of this is staggering and feels almost beyond the scope of accurate evaluation) has as a result taken away so much.
What buzzer-beater or five will never come to pass? Vaporized are the unforgettable — and now unknowable — moments. I’m talking about the kind of highlights and visions we can’t even conjure up. See, that’s the thing about sports and the NCAA Tournament: it’s reliable in its unpredictability and we rarely see the most memorable moments coming before they happen. Now they can’t materialize. Life-changing plays and unexpected deep runs — or maybe dominate struts through the bracket from Kansas or Gonzaga — now into the ether.
What could have been, all of it just Thanos-snapped out of this universe.
My brain has played a cruel trick on me. Under no control of my own I actually have “One Shining Moment” playing in my head as I write this column; I’m now passing it along to you. Fair or not, for good or for bad, March is what makes this sport. College basketball relies on its postseason more than any other major American sport, and the upside to that is it’s the only major American sport that truly owns an entire month. March is a synonym for college hoops and a symbol for the ever-redeeming power of college athletics and the always-reliable thrills, shocks and shake-ups it provides.
It’s spooky to wake up to a world not just without college basketball or postseason tournaments, but no sports at all.
“I think the country needs this tournament,” one NCAA source told me Wednesday.
I think that sentiment rings true.
“I was in Indianapolis [this week],” one Big Ten source told me. “So I was in Bankers Life [Wednesday] and all [Thursday]. And it had the feeling of a runaway train that wasn’t getting stopped. No matter how much anybody wanted to stop it.”
The thing I keep coming back to is the two-dozen-or-so teams and their fan bases who were having unusually good seasons. These are the people who had the temptations and anticipations of this month eradicated. First to mind is Dayton. Projected No. 1 seed and viable national title contender. Its season ends at 29-2, Obi Toppin potentially the national player of the year. When does Dayton ever get a season like this again? Will it happen for the Flyers and their fans in the next 40 years?
My heart goes out to Penn State and Rutgers, who seldom make the NCAA Tournament. This was one of the best Penn State teams in history, and Rutgers hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1991! There were an usually high number of schools this season that were having not just above-average campaigns, but either their best seasons ever or their best seasons in more than a decade: San Diego State, Baylor Maryland, Illinois, Creighton, Florida State, Colorado. We talk about Dayton and Obi Toppin: how about Iowa and Luke Garza? No shining moments for any of them.
I wonder how Virginia would have done in the bracket. This season ends with UVA having the No. 1-ranked defense and the No. 234-ranked offense, a disparity that would have made for a fascinating forecast in how far the Wahoos would or would not have gone in the Dance. The Cavaliers now have the unprecedented and bittersweet pleasure of being a two-year-but-one-time reigning national champion.
And of course the seniors. Marquette’s Markus Howard could have been a top-15 all time scorer with another three, four or five games to play (if not more). Instead finishes 21st on the all-time list with 2,761 points, eight behind JJ Redick and just above the late, great Hank Gathers. Howard led 2019-20 in scoring with 27.8 points per game. There’s Howard and Cassius Winston and Myles Powell and Payton Pritchard and Sam Merrill and Lamar Stevens and Anthony Lamb and Nathan Bane.
Yeah, remember Bane? He’s the Stephen F. Austin player. How long ago does that feel? What if Stephen F. Austin made the tournament and got to the Sweet 16? We can never know.
All those players and hundreds more seniors not even getting their chance. We can’t forget about the best senior in college basketball — and certainly the most dominant — Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu. She and so many other women’s players who had their seasons and careers end on Thursday. This is as melancholy for them as anyone else. The same goes for D-II and D-III players. Everything just taken from them — again, rationally, understandably so.
Those small-school players and coaches should not be overlooked. There are freshmen now who would have been in the NCAA Tournament and they’re never getting back because there are no guarantees when you play in a one-bid league.
In the months and years to come there will be books, documentaries and oral histories that will bring wanted details, imagery and perspective on what unfolded across our sports galaxy this week.
Whereas other sports are merely postponed, college basketball was canceled. That cuts deeper and slices longer. Knowing that these are college players who can’t have their chance at an unforgettable, life-changing moment. March — this tournament — is among the best things in sports because it stirs the soul and sparks our imagination. Imagination is all we’re left with until next year.
And if you think we love the tournament now, wait until 2021. We’ve got 366 days until Selection Sunday. It’s going to be the most anticipated, appreciated and celebrated bracket ever.