Here, as promised on the Tonawanda News Web site, is my column about the many sides of March Madness. If you came across this column first, click here to see my story.
Since I started filling out NCAA tournament brackets in college in the late 1990s, the first thing I would do was pencil Syracuse in for six victories and the national championship.
They made the finals in 1996, the year before I enrolled at SU, and were traditionally among the nation’s top teams. They’d sometimes win a couple games, but by the second weekend of the tournament my bracket’s sole purpose generally was to keep the recycling bucket from floating away.
Then came 2003 and a phenom freshman by the name of Carmelo Anthony. The one-and-done superstar led my beloved Orangemen (now just Orange, as if the nickname couldn’t get any weirder) to the promised land — and me to the office pool co-championship.
I finally stopped this practice a couple years later, not letting my fanhood get in the way of a potential three-figure prize payout. But college basketball’s March Madness remains one of my favorite times of year, both because of the usual dominance of Goliath schools such as my alma mater and the David institutions who slay many a giant just to enter the tournament.
I got a first-hand look at the latter perspective two years ago while I was the education beat reporter for the Niagara Gazette. I followed the Niagara University men’s basketball team for a fantastic week and a half, from after they’d clinched the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title to gain a tourney slot until Selection Sunday — when they were “sentenced” to the play-in game — and to Dayton, Ohio, to cover their victory in said play-in game.
I’d always taken a tournament slot for granted (although after the Orange’s hard luck the previous two seasons, I won’t anymore) so seeing a smaller school such as NU revel in their team’s success was one of my career highlights. Students who couldn’t even define a full-court press waved purple pom-poms and wore permanent smiles, and for about 10 days everyone in the Niagara region was a Purple Eagles fan. The Eagles were crushed by top-ranked Kansas in their subsequent matchup, but by that point it hardly mattered.
NU also gained a tournament slot two years before that, losing to Oklahoma in the first round. My brother-in-law was a senior at the school at that time, and even experiencing his enthusiasm from a peripheral level was a bit thrilling (although I still carried some of my big-school smugness with me). Dozens of Eagles supporters traveled with that team to Arizona (my brother-in-law included) and were not all that saddened by the defeat.
This section went to press before this year’s MAAC tournament finished, so I can’t write whether NU (the No. 2 seed in their conference) will be in the NCAA tourney; coach Joe Mihalich declined my interview request to discuss past Selection Sunday experiences because he didn’t want to jinx anything, and I can’t blame him in the least for that.
Then, as always, coaches — especially at small schools — have to think in the moment. Because as fun as championships are, the honor sometimes truly does lie in being nominated.
Or in getting to see someone else’s pride in being nominated.