You know what makes the NCAA Tournament what it is?
Besides your brackets going bust, that is.
It’s the humanity of it, from the highs to the lows and all the feeling it evokes in between.
These 13 things that have helped define and endear us to March Madness over the years.
13. The dynasty of all dynasties ends (1975)
One of the driving ideas behind the NCAA men’s and women’s tournaments is that any team can win. The reality is most can’t. Dominant teams usually can be relied upon to cut a swath deep into March, if not April. None has or will ever match the consistency of John Wooden’s UCLA teams that won 10 titles from 1964-75. At the ’75 Final Four in San Diego, Wooden announced after his Bruins’ 75-74 overtime semifinal victory over Louisville that it would be his last dance. The Wizard of Westwood then went out a winner, with UCLA beating Kentucky, 92-85, for the national championship.
12. The upset of all upsets (2018)
Only one No. 16 seed has toppled a No. 1 seed since the tournament expanded to 64 teams (not counting play-ins) in 1985. That’s the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, which didn’t just beat Virginia. It throttled the Cavaliers, 74-54. Even better than the way UMBC played was its Twitter shade, playfully dissing those who sold its 24-10 record short (“We won 24 games and a conference title, it’s not like we are a YMCA team, dude”) and just having fun (“We’re up 17 with 3:29 to go thanks to a Lamar three, BUT the media dining is out of cookies and this is the worst day ever”). It was worth having your bracket destroyed.
11. Father and son celebration (2015)
Ron Hunter was coaching Georgia State in 2015 and was so excited when the team clinched its NCAA berth, a 14-seed, that he managed to tear his Achilles tendon in the postgame celebration. As a result, he had to coach the Panthers’ first-round game against Baylor from a stool on rollers. Georgia State trailed the Bears by 12 with than three minutes remaining. But son R.J. Hunter scored 12 of the Panthers’ final 13 points en route to the upset victory. When R.J. nailed the go-ahead 3-pointer with 2.6 seconds to go, dad threw his hands in the air and fell off his stool.
10. A 20-year-old makes a mistake (1993)
Everyone makes mistakes when they’re 20. Few do it with millions of people watching on TV. Michigan, in its second successive NCAA title game in 1993, trailed North Carolina by two. Chris Webber got away with traveling, then infamously tried to call a time out with 11 seconds to go, when the Wolverines didn’t have any left. The technical foul enabled the Tar Heels to expand their lead, and they wound up winning by six. The irony is that even if Michigan had won, it would have been for naught. A scandal involving a booster put Webber in trouble with the NCAA and the law and forced the Wolverines to vacate all their 1992-93 victories.
9. Sister Jean rooting for the Ramblers (2018 and ’21)
You know what’s more beloved than an underdog? An underdog with a resilient nun cheering it on. Many fans rallied behind the Loyola Ramblers as they advanced to the Final Four in 2018, but Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt cheering them on was even more endearing. Having been vaccinated and pleading her case, she made an encore appearance at age 101 with Loyola’s return to the tournament this season, and the Ramblers showed her faith in them is well-placed. We know it was Porter Moser and his players doing the work, but it didn't hurt to have all the support available.
T-8. Northwestern kid melts down (2017) and Villanova piccolo player cries (2015)
When a team is about to be bounced from the NCAA Tournament, the TV cameras seek out a representative fan to convey the emotion of the moment. Poor John Phillips, the son of then-Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips and 12 years old, was a puddle of emotion when TV people teed him up to become social media’s #NorthwesternKid as the Wildcats fell to Gonzaga in the second round in 2017. Eighth-seeded North Carolina was closing out a loss to Villanova, No. 1 in the East, when the camera found teary piccolo player Roxanne Chalifoux trying to hold it together. These moments immediately became etched in the national consciousness and later were included in a 2019 pizza commercial.
6. Adam Morrison’s despair (2006)
It’s not just fans who lose it. The players, we sometimes forget, are just kids — or at best, young adults. In the mind’s eye, there is Adam Morrison. You might not remember the name or that he played for Gonzaga, whose come-from-ahead Sweet 16 loss to UCLA in 2006 hit Morrison — and hit him hard. His Bulldogs led by 17 early and 13 at the half. The Bruins didn’t even go ahead until less than 10 second remained. The cameras found Morrison already emotional, trying and failing to rein in the tears. Still, there was time with 1.9 seconds left for one last play, and an announcer talks about how Gonzaga had to get the ball to Morrison. It didn’t. A teammate’s shot missed, and Morrison fell to the court in grief. That was unforgettable.
5. He just wants someone to hug (1983)
What does pure joy look like? One example is North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano running onto the court looking for someone to hug after the Wolfpack’s upset of Houston. It’s a scene that grows even more poignant when cancer claims Valvano just 10 years later at age 47.
4. A left-handed free throw in tribute (1990)
Hank Gathers, a fellow Philadelphian and teammate at USC and then Loyola Marymount, had collapsed on a court during a game and died just 18 days earlier when Bo Kimble went to the foul line in the Lions’ NCAA Tournament opener against New Mexico State. A right-hander, Kimble took his first free throw left-handed as a tribute to his late friend, who also was right-handed but would take left-handed foul shots because he thought it would improve his poor percentage. Kimble continued to do this until LMU’s Cinderella run ended in the Elite Eight, and didn’t miss once.
3. Texas Western (1966)
Loyola’s 1963 national championship team, far more integrated than was common at the time, cracked the barrier. The Texas Western Miners would obliterate it just three years later. Coach Don Haskins’ squad was the first with all-Black lineup in the NCAA title game. Fittingly, they would topple Adolph Rupp’s top-ranked Kentucky, among the college teams still stubbornly all-white in 1966.
2. Magic vs. Bird (1979)
Before Magic Johnson and Larry Bird saved the NBA, their much-anticipated championship helped make the NCAA Tournament the national obsession it is today. Magic’s Michigan State defeated Bird’s previously unbeaten Indiana State, 75-64, but the critical number is that the broadcast with Dick Enberg, Al McGuire and Billy Packer averaged a 24.1 Nielsen rating. That’s 24.1% of all U.S. TV households and the highest-rated basketball game to this day, be it pro, amateur, Olympics or anything else.
1. ‘The ball is tipped …' (1987)
The story is David Barrett was inspired to write his song after seeing Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics on TV, but he initially wrote it for football with the opening line “The gun goes off …” High school friend Armen Keteyian got the demo in the hands of CBS Sports’ creative director, who planned to use it for a montage after the 1987 Super Bowl until the broadcast ran long. The network still thought it might pair well with NCAA basketball highlights after the championship a few months later and a tradition was born. Barrett, who sang the original version, tweaked the opening to “The ball is tipped …” There have been versions by Teddy Pendergrass, Jennifer Hudson and Ne-Yo, but the best rendition is Luther Vandross’, heard from 1994-99 and since 2011. Sure, it’s a little schmaltzy, but you wouldn’t want it any other way.
(c)2021 the Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.