March Madness can mean a variety of things to a lot of different people.
For some, it echoes opportunity. A chance for any idiot with a Bic ball-point and a PDF bracket to take down the office pool. It means half-days, sick days, made-up family illnesses and an assortment of other excuses for the male contingent of America's workforce.
The NCAA tournament is our country's most captivating sports spectacle. As Jay Bilas tweeted yesterday, "The NCAA tournament is idiot proof." There will always be upsets, Cinderellas and underused Gus Johnson soundboard websites.
With all of that being said about this highly touted spring staple, does Illinois deserve to be in the field based on their body of work this season? In my own humble and entirely worthless opinion, no. As an Illinois fan, I'm almost ashamed that they did sneak in. Harvard probably has a better team with a quarter of the talent and Virginia Tech has now had their bubble popped for four consecutive years (that just sounds filthy). Illinois' "Big Dance" experience in 2011 brings me back to my own experiences cuttin' it up.
Now, I was never in the NCAA tournament, or pirouetted across my middle school stage like Billy Elliot. But the more you think about it, the NCAA tournament selection process is strikingly similar to the Turnabout/Spring Fling/Winter Formal dance date selection process in most high school social circles.
I had some great dance dates in high school—but like everyone does—I had to wrap my arms around a few questionable characters and muster a morose smile at the customary picture party. If you had to cast a Hollywood C-lister to capture my high school essence, it wouldn't be Paul Walker or Freddie Prinze, but I wasn't the nerd downloading calculator games in the C-lab with a USB cord either. I was a middle-of-the-road guy; constantly toting the dotted stripe during dance season. My only hope was that I put together a decent enough body of work to keep myself in contention, and then hope that a few cases of high school infidelity and AIM break-ups would land me in the hands of a babe who could boost my stock. Relax, it's not superficial if it happened five-plus years ago. At least, that's what I'm telling myself.
My freshman year was entirely forgettable. Based on my date, I didn't make the tourney, got snubbed by the NIT, snuck into the CBI and tried to hide my face enough so that nobody realized I was even there. Just for the record, there is no concrete evidence that this night actually happened; no pictures were taken on my behalf. So if you want to know who my date was, you either have to really shell out some coin, or somehow be friends with the female. As unlikely as the first of those two situations sounds, it still has the higher odds in comparison to the latter. Trust me.
As for my sophomore year, tons of hype (high seed/cute crush) but very little substance. In her defense, I didn't know her that well, so I was set up for a trap game (similar to a 12-5) and came up shorthanded. Junior year was a fun time, but our team chemistry kept us incapable of making a serious run at tournament immortality (Final 4/grinding to "Tip Drill" by Nelly). But 2006 is when the similarities between this year's Illinois team and myself truly blossomed into fruition...senior year.
Much like Illinois, I found myself on the brink of not being selected at all. I hadn't exactly stated my case as a prominent bachelor in the halls of my high school (no senior superlatives, no vanity license plate, average haircut, abysmal body, limited personality). Those sleepless nights in mid-February found me contemplating if I would ever get another shot to bust the people's brackets by busting a move during my senior campaign. Luckily, the fortune favors the foolish, and I somehow reeled in a more than formidable partner (who will remain nameless and faceless).
Like any NCAA tournament game, the dance is divided into three parts: preparation (pictures/dinner), gametime (dance) and postgame (after party).
Similar to my brothers in Orange and Blue, I had no business being there with the date I had in hand, so I had to answer countless questions about my credibility in the tournament, i.e. "Why the hell did she ask you?" or "Doesn't she know that (some Mr. LZ candidate/bubble team) is still dateless?" In all honesty, I couldn't answer, and neither can Bruce Weber. They lost to four non-tournament teams in the regular season, including a UIC team that finished close to last in the Horizon league (equivalent to being caught passing wind in a core class with close seating proximity).
And, like my physical appearance during 12th grade, Illinois' (9-9) record in the Big 10 was pretty average, which didn't turn many heads in the right direction. So, I put a smile on my face and was just happy to be there. I piled on the pomade, took in the sights and sounds, opened a few car doors and tried not to screw up.
In the end, my tightly-wound approach is what did me in, and the same will go for Illinois on Thursday.
Not to say that I didn't enjoy myself, or that I don't have a 5x7 wallet pic of that night just in case if anyone ever asks if I was cool in high school—because I did, and I do. But I made no attempt at bringing down the house and just having a good time. I was so busy playing everything off and mean-mugging the dance chaperons that I couldn't thoroughly enjoy the experience I had at my disposal.
If anybody is still reading this—and if you are I commend you—my lesson to Illinois is this: "Play with a looseness like you've never been there before, because you don't know if you'll ever be back."
As for Pick of the Day, the Pulse Man dropped his most recent bet, but what better time of the year than this to right the ship. For his next pick, the Pulse Man likes Richmond to cover the two-point cushion they're getting against Vandy in the opening round. Everyone's afraid of spiders. Rich what?
Pick of the Day: #10 Richmond (+2) @ #7 Vanderbilt- RICHMOND
Now I'm done. Rack me.