First and foremost, I am a college football writer. To me, there’s nothing better than game day on Saturdays during the fall.
But for three weeks in March, my favorite sport takes a backseat to perhaps the greatest postseason in all of sports: the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
Call it what you want—March Madness or the Big Dance—the magic of these three weeks captivates the nation more than any other sporting event.
On any given day, anyone can be a hero. On any given day, Northern Iowa’s Ali Farokhmanesh and Murray State’s Danero Thomas can become household names.
For three weeks in March, even the most casual fans fall in love with the underdog who steals the heart of the nation. During those three weeks, an unknown from Cedar Falls, Iowa; Ithaca, N.Y.; Athens, Ohio; or Murray, Ky.; can become America’s team in a heartbeat.
I’ll save you from the playoff debate. But seriously, how can college football not want this? Because for three weeks in March, it takes a backseat to the greatest spectacle in all of sports.
The Big Dance. March Madness. Or simply, the NCAA tournament.
With such an even field, most people expected an upset or two in the first round. But the underdogs exceeded expectations.
No. 11 Old Dominion started the tournament off with a bang, beating No. 6 Notre Dame in a 51-50 nail-biter. And No. 15 Robert Morris followed up with a valiant effort in an overtime loss to No. 2 Villanova.
But America seems to have adopted four other teams.
No offense to Old Dominion or any other underdogs, but America has found its teams. And this year, each team—Murray State, Northern Iowa, Ohio, and Cornell—has a chance to play deep into March.
Murray State started the string of miraculous upsets. After leading Vanderbilt for much of the game, the Racers allowed the Commodores back into the game and trailed 65-64.
With four seconds left, Murray State inbounded the ball, stayed calm, and found Danero Thomas—the third choice for the winning shot. Thomas went through his motion and let the game-winning shot go with .7 seconds left, as the 13th-seeded Racers stunned Vanderbilt, 66-65.
Looking forward, Murray State has a legitimate chance to go to the Sweet Sixteen. The Racers get Butler in the round of 32, and the Bulldogs struggled to get moving against UTEP in Round One. That may work against UTEP, but not against Murray State—and another upset may be on the horizon come Saturday.
Northern Iowa was the second team to win in the final seconds on Thursday in a 69-66 “upset” of UNLV.
UNI was never able to control the tempo in the fast-paced contest, but it stayed in the game with a win—thanks to outstanding defense and free-throw shooting.
And in the final seconds, the Panthers found Farokhmanesh, who hit a perfect three-pointer to give Northern Iowa the win—its first in the NCAA tournament since 1990.
While a three-point win against UNLV may not be overly impressive, UNI showcased its strength Thursday night. If Northern Iowa had been able to control the tempo, it would have won the game with relative ease.
Next up is Kansas, who didn’t look like the No. 1 overall seed in a 16-point win against Lehigh. If Kansas plays the same way against the Panthers, it may find itself home early, as Northern Iowa’s veteran team won’t be scared for the biggest game of their lives.
If the Panthers are able to control the game, play their usual fundamental basketball, and have their big-time players step up, they could wind up beating the best team in the country and rival George Mason’s win over UConn as the upset of the decade.
Murray State and Northern Iowa certainly made their upsets exciting from start to finish—but Ohio and Cornell blew out their first-round opponents.
The Big East tournament runner-up, Georgetown, was handed a No. 3 seed by the selection committee—but it drew a dangerous Ohio team that had just won the MAC tournament.
As the nation expected, this game was a blowout—but it was the Bobcats topping the mighty Hoyas in a 97-83 rout.
Heck, this game was over by halftime—and Ohio was showing off with alley-oop dunks halfway through the second half.
In Round Two, the Bobcats draw Tennessee, which barely escaped No. 11 San Diego State, 62-59. And from a momentum standpoint, Ohio also has a legitimate shot to upset the Volunteers and advance to the Sweet Sixteen.
The last of the four new “America’s Teams” is now a sleeper to reach the Final Four. The Cornell Big Red—a 12th seed—handily beat No. 5 Temple 78-65.
The best three-point shooting team in the country, Cornell struggled from beyond the arc on Friday. But the senior-dominated team found a way to penetrate inside and still won with ease. If the Big Red’s outside shooting were on, this game would have been even more lopsided.
Next, Cornell draws Wisconsin, which had to hold on Friday to beat Wofford, 53-49. If the Badgers have another off game, they won’t even come close to beating the Big Red. But if Cornell shoots well from three and inside, Wisconsin will have a tough time advancing to the Sweet Sixteen—even if it’s at its best.
So there’s the rundown—now pick your new favorite team. Because that team from Cedar Falls, Murray, Athens, or Ithaca might have what it takes to make a Cinderella run and capture the nation’s heart deep into March.