NCAA March Madness: The 2011 Season Storybook
Six months ago, 143 schools set forth on a scheduled season of varying paths with identical intentions.
Some garnered glory—earning recognition, adulation and speculation with every step closer to their ultimate goals.
Some found themselves losing more than what they already had—inviting frustration, subordination and ultimately, decimation.
As their schedules progressed, so did the gradual painting of their individual fates.
For all involved, it was to be an adventure which had been taken many times before, but with each time proving to be something altogether unique.
Mixtures of personalities, drives and philosophies radiated from the very composition of the unique collegiate community.
From the freshmen forced to learn the ropes of their new teams while carrying the hopes and excitement of making it big, to the seniors that looked to play the roles of leaders with the silent voice of their last chance to make it at all ringing hauntingly in the back of their minds.
From the coaches who found a new batch of players to guide and work with, to the coaches that have been around the same scenery for longer than some of us have lived.
From the fans that enjoyed beer with their friends, filled out brackets, continually love the game to those that simply stood by their Alma Maters, no matter what.
A symphony of ambition, desire, ability, maturity, countenance, study, dedication, confidence, passion and utmost anticipation burned within every single member of the exquisite collection of athletes, staff and fans.
All teams went in understanding the paradox that before glorious ecstasy must come inescapable pain, and that easy results must first be planted through hard work.
Thus before one is crowned victorious, all must first fight and the rest must consequently suffer defeat.
From coast to coast, 68 were chosen to converge over the span of a month, to use competition against each other as the true measure their own excellence, and do so in the ultimate proving ground of the collegiate world's brightest stars.
March Madness had finally arrived.
March Madness Teams
Ohio State, Texas, San Antonio, George Mason, Villanova, West Virginia, Clemson, Kentucky, Princeton, Marquette, Xavier, Syracuse, Indiana State, Washington, Georgia, North Carolina, Long Island.
Duke, Hampton, Michigan, Tennessee, Memphis, Oakland, Arizona, Texas, Cincinnati, Missouri, Connecticut, Bucknell, Penn State, Temple, San Diego State, Northern Colorado.
Kansas, Boston, UNLV, Illinois, Vanderbilt, Richmond, Louisville, Morehead State, Georgetown, Virginia Commonwealth, Purdue, Saint Peter's, Texas A&M, Florida State, Notre Dame, Akron.
Pittsburgh, UNC, Asheville, Butler, Old Dominion, Kansas State, Utah State, Wisconsin, Belmont, St. John's, Gonzaga, Brigham Young, Wofford, UCLA, Michigan State, Florida, UC Santa Barbara.
Chapter 1: Nobody's Perfect, But Some People Are Pretty Damn Close
It's astonishing how through a sudden twist of fate, a story you're reading could instantly go from romantic to tragic. How a video game could bring from the brink of record break to heart break. How an article you're writing could go from masterpiece to accidentally unsaved computer waste.
It's even more astonishing to see how your brackets would fare after one round of March Madness.
The concept that remains ever so captivating about this particular tournament is its' knack for catching people off guard. This isn't some seven game series where teams will have six chances to go over rights and wrongs, straighten out issues, reconcile disturbances and unravel a mystery that has eluded them for the entirety of the rivalry—this is single elimination.
One and done. Sudden death. Win or go home.
The first round alone consists of 36 games, seeded from 1-16 with each seed facing it's polar opposite.
The concept is pretty simple; study the teams, listen to your gut, pick a winner, keep your bracket alive.
It's been calculated that if you picked a winner for each game by way of coin-flip, your chances of registering a perfect bracket would be 1 in 9 million trillion. If you decided to trust in the path of mathematics and pick the higher seeded team to win each time, your chances would increase drastically to a comfortable 1 in 35 billion.
You'd stand a better chance winning the National Lottery jackpot tomorrow evening.
Those statistics can be interpreted in two ways; pessimists would see it as a hopeless and clear cut waste of time to even participate in light of such statistics while optimists would say proudly that they could be that 1 in 35 billion.
Unfortunately, even the most optimistic person must face the miserable fact that nobody has ever recorded a perfect bracket since the tournament began in 1939.
There are infinite ways to fill out a March Madness bracket. You can go with your gut, play to your bias, take what you've learned in high school statistics, pick the best mascots, choose the better color etc.
It was just last year when a storied autistic teenager from the Chicago area had a perfect bracket through 2 rounds of the tournament; a 1 in 13,460,000 probability. The phenomenal underestimated analyst eventually came down as the tournament entered the Sweet Sixteen, but the boy deserves credit most of us can but hope to achieve.
This year, there were no amazing stories of such occurrences and neither were there any hopes of any, as ESPN reported at the end of the first round that no perfect brackets remained, with a consolation thought that 19 had only a single error to their credibility.
There is no formula to predict the best person qualified to fill out a good bracket, but a description does exist. An up to date college basketball follower that will not be swayed by bias, understands the strengths and weaknesses of each team, has the capability to know when to and not to listen to his gut and fancies himself to have a lot of luck.
But just like a came-out-of-nowhere Virginia Commonwealth team beating a championship caliber Kansas, sometimes the most unexpected can come out on top.
In the Yahoo! Tourney Pick 'Em challenge, an elderly lady librarian was the sole winner of the competition at the tournament's end as she selected a perfect Final Four, including the proper champion.
Sure her bracket wasn't perfect, but she did much better than any of the other die hard fans and analysts out there and her tactic; mascots and favorite numbers.
One round of March Madness served, zero left standing.
But it's not like anyone expected to break the odds this year right? With the emergence of the second round qualifiers, it was still to be one heck of a month.
Second Round Qualifiers
Ohio State, George Mason, West Virginia, Kentucky, Marquette, Syracuse, Washington, North Carolina.
Duke, Michigan, Arizona, Texas, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Temple, San Diego State.
Kansas, Illinois, Richmond, Morehead State, Virginia Commonwealth, Purdue, Florida State, Notre Dame.
Pittsburgh, Butler, Kansas State, Wisconsin, Gonzaga, Brigham Young, UCLA, Florida.
Chapter 2: Shining, Jimmering, Splendor
You got Jimmered!
Such was the phrase that Brigham Young University's loyal following coined in celebration of the prospect that many proclaimed to be the biggest headline name of the year; Jimmer Fredette.
At first glance, Fredette is far from the stereotype superstar baller most people have established in their heads. Standing at 6' 2" and weighing 195 pounds, most fans would likely mistake Fredette for the role player with a good stroke expected to hit stationary jumpshots when the ball is delivered to him. As has been the case for players in the past that fit such a description.
However, such a cover judgment certainly strays far from the story that this book offers.
In what has been for him a season of speculation, amazement and controversy, the young guard has always projected a knack for being an all around collected player that just does his thing—whether it be having to score 30, 40 or even 50 points. Jimmer has affirmed through his play throughout the season that he will do everything within his power to win even the most minuscule of games.
With a total of sixteen 30-point games under his belt—a fourth of which are 40-point games including one 50—the easily defined superstar has without a doubt succeeded John Wall as the most interesting player in college basketball.
If his traits at this stage were to be compared to those that came before him, he would have the appearance of Steve Kerr, the impact of Derrick Rose and the heart of Kobe Bryant.
Under his action-based leadership, the BYU Cougars finished with a regular season record of 30 wins and 4 losses and added to their achievements by going on a two-round run in the post-season.
After consecutive March Madness victories over the Wofford College Terriers and the Gonzaga University Bulldogs, Fredette and his Cougar clan met their match in form of the Florida Gators in the Sweet Sixteen.
Despite the misfortune of having their hopes cut after a splendid chant of "Sweet Sixteen!" and a more dominant "You got Jimmered!", Brigham Young can confidently take pride in what looks to be an illustrious professional career ahead for Fredette.
Whether he can maintain such brilliance in the big leagues we still must wait to see, but having him put on a show for us this season was a spectacle most memorable indeed.
Ohio State, Kentucky, Marquette, North Carolina.
Duke, Arizona,Connecticut, San Diego State.
Kansas, Richmond, Virginia Commonwealth, Florida State.
Butler, Wisconsin, Brigham Young, Florida.
Chapter 3: Cutting Down the Buckeyes and Dealing With the Devils
Two sensationally storied programs, each at the top of their brackets and looked upon by both allies and rivals with much admiration were disappointingly and decisively dispatched in an instant.
Heavily favored championship contenders, the Duke University Blue Devils and the Ohio State Buckeyes were two of the most discussed teams in the tournament from the very beginning.
Graced by the presence of a phenomenally proficient freshman forward in Jared Sullinger, Ohio State recaptured rejuvenation following the departure of former NCAA Player of the Year, Evan Turner.
A double-double machine, Sullinger recorded 18 of them—and several of the other games one or two rebounds/points shy of them—in the 37 games he participated in.
The 6' 9", 280-pound freshman averaged 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds in his first year with the team and established himself as the program's greatest present prospect—leading them on a 24-game winning streak to start the season.
Entering March Madness, the Buckeyes were on another run of wins as they went undefeated through the last seven games of the regular season. The streak's extension lasted only until the Sweet Sixteen as with the score tied at 60 points apiece, the University of Kentucky's Brandon Knight hit a 2-point jumpshot with nine seconds to play.
The Buckeyes would get a chance to save their promising season, but would see it go out the window after junior guard William Buford missed a potential game-winning 3-point basket in the last two seconds—a moment that probably felt like a stake to the heart of an overall downtrodden fan base.
Sullinger would lighten the blow soon after as he staved off any speculations of going professional and promised to return for his sophomore year.
Duke would experience similar sorrows in their 93-77 loss to the University of Arizona.
The star-studded Blue Devil roster highlighted by Player of the Year candidate Nolan Smith, Top 2 NBA prospect Kyrie Irving, senior forward Kyle Singler and sophomore guard Seth Curry—son of former NBA player Dell Curry and brother of Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry—was no match for the one man show from Arizona named Derrick Williams.
The Arizona sophomore forward scored a whopping 32 points in 35 minutes, making five out of his six 3-point attempts, pulling down 13 rebounds in the process as well.
The Sweet Sixteen would be concluded with both East and West top seeds going home and a battle between two fan favorites and two underdogs being set for the Elite Eight.
Kentucky, North Carolina.
Chapter 4: Somebody Call Tolkien, the Twin Towers Have Fallen
64 slots were made—16 were given to the East, 16 were given to the West, 16 were given to the Southeast and 16 were given to the Southwest.
But high in the mountains of the Final Four, one other slot was forged. A slot more powerful than any of the others, one that can only be attained at the close of the March Madness war.
The one team to rule them all.
Imagine being a prolific, 6' 2" Division-I guard in the midst of playing a tourney game in the middle of March. You cross off your zone defender and you've penetrated the paint for what could be an easy layup line drill basket for two. Just as you are about to take your layup lunge, two towering big men close into the lane—identical in appearance with the consecutive numbers 22 and 21 plated proudly on their chests—which now is all you can see as they hover above your head. You've found yourself in a tight spot, but the passing lanes are far behind you and there is nowhere to go but up.
As you rise in a state of unconscious prayer to score against what seem to be clones of the perfect big man, the moment abruptly ends and you're facing the ceiling of a sold out stadium, the lights donning their glare brightly on your face and the thudding footsteps of big young men head to the other side of the hardwood you lay on.
Your shot has just been blocked by one of the Morris brothers, probably Markieff since he's blocked more than his brother Marcus has this season, but you don't know, you're still on the ground and Kansas is about to finish a breakaway basket courtesy of the Morris brothers' front court.
When filling out a bracket, it's best not to have any prior perceptions before tackling the task itself. Always go the journey one step at a time.
I personally put this into practice as I advanced through my predicted series of events for March Madness, and ended up with the University of Kansas Jayhawks boldly printed in ballpoint pen in the center most box of the paper.
Each time I put them through a round, that image played solemnly in my head and I could not doubt, even for a second that the twins would lead their team to a title.
The Morris twins averaged a combined total of 30.8 points and 16 rebounds per game this season, the pair also sent a total of 67 shots back to where they came from, showing just how big of a paint presence they are.
Intimidation is the feeling I assume can best describe any unit that goes up against a front court spearheaded by two superstar identical twin brothers with consecutive jersey numbers. Perhaps even if they were not that good, the sight alone would already send an unwanted feeling of anxiety to the opposing bench.
But alas, as all great formations are said to have a limit, so do the Morris brothers.
After Kansas unsurprisingly charged their way into the Elite Eight, the Virginia Commonwealth Rams toppled their towers by 10 points to deny them passage into the Final Four.
The Morris brothers combined their efforts for a total of 33 points and 28 rebounds in a losing effort against the underdog Rams, who only won their way into the tournament via a pre-first round elimination game against the University of Southern California.
So right after an upset filled Sweet Sixteen, the Elite Eight did not prove much different.
The Southern conflicts would conclude with the victory of two underdogs in the VCU Rams and Butler Bulldogs over the fan favorites that were the Kansas Jayhawks and the University of Florida Gators.
I am sure that it is safe to believe that multiple brackets lost their very soul upon the sound of this game's buzzer, because mine definitely did.
Chapter 5: Cinderella’s Got Cats and Dogs
It was a Final Four uninviting of too much fanfare.
Two Cinderella teams from the South unwilling to surrender their glass slippers and a classic battle between the East and West in the form of cats versus dogs.
The University of Kentucky Wildcats and their seven-man lineup was beginning to look as if they didn't miss the Shaq-and-Kobe-esque duo of DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall.
With the savvy coordination of their point guard Brandon Knight, the reliable contributions of swing man Terrence Jones and accurate as can be sixth-man Doron Lamb and a supporting cast consistently doing what is expected of them, the cogs in this clock were mashing together in a form well lubricated.
The Wildcats however may have learned as lesson in the importance of depth after a toe-to-toe defeat at the hands of the University of Connecticut Huskies.
After 40 minutes of back and forth, see-saw scoring, the Wildcats found themselves down 56-52 with one second remaining in the ballgame. It was a loss not to be ashamed of as they literally fought for their survival until the very last second with Knight taking and making futile 3-point shot to end the game at the minimum gap of one point—56-55.
Down South, a less amiable battle commenced between two teams that barely any expected business of being there. The Butler Bulldogs and the University of Connecticut Huskies were pitted against one another in a kill or be killed situation.
Seeded at numbers eight and 11 respectively, neither team was anticipated by the majority to have even made it to such a depth in the tournament. Thus making it harder to watch for anyone likely to show sympathy in the ever cruel world of sport—no matter who wins, an underdog goes home.
Consolation perhaps was found in light of the 70-62 Butler victory, as it would then mark the team's return to the NCAA March Madness Finals after their failure to win it against Duke University in the previous year.
The Butler Bulldogs and the Connecticut Huskies.
The stage was set and it all came down to a single dogfight.
Chapter 6: All Hail King Kemba!
The University of Connecticut Huskies and the Butler University Bulldogs put an end to this year's March Madness drama with a convincing victory coming in favor of the former.
After losing by one basket to Duke University in the previous year's NCAA March Madness Finals, Butler once again clawed it's way to the top of tournament in hopes of grasping the satisfaction of redemption.
What they instead got a feel for was Connecticut guard Kemba Walker blasting right through their defense, and the same feeling of coming so close only to lose it all, all over again.
It's a story truly saddening for the losing Bulldogs as they got and dropped what many consider to be one of the greatest privileges and blessings in life—a second chance.
It's been a swiftly spreading opinion that this year's March Madness Finals game was arguably—if not undoubtedly—the most uninteresting and disappointing Finals game in the history of modern college basketball.
It was only the first half when CBS studio analyst Greg Anthony decided to let television and internet spectators from around the world know that honesty is the best policy—even when you are being paid to project and maintain an atmosphere of excitement for a live broadcast of what could be a major network's biggest game of the season; "This is the worst half of basketball I've ever seen in a national championship game." he said, after a first half that consisted of 41 combined points from the entire playing congregation—marking the lowest scoring 1st half in the NCAA title game since 1946.
It's not everyday you hear an official network representative tell you straight up that you're watching something horrible, but the rarity certainly made itself present here.
Upon the game's ultimate conclusion, the flame from this statement was only further fanned by the final statistics—statistics that would fail to impress even at a high school junior varsity level. The demise-ridden Butler recorded a pathetic 18.8% field goal percentage whilst the victorious, yet not so distant Connecticut did not fare much better at a passive 34.5%.
Brick, after brick, after brick, after brick.
If one were asked to describe this game in a single word, one might opt to select that which has already been so abundantly spouted through the thoughts and words of fans, analysts and sportswriters aplenty: Ugly—and all the synonyms applicable to its' irreverent association.
Say to it's breed of lusterless all you will, but critics will be critics and doers will be doers.
It is a truth that must be well acknowledged at this point of innovation that criticism will forever be a constant in our fallible human society. Though this may be the case, it must also be consequently acknowledged that no amount of it can change the fact that those being critiqued will still remain in possession of that which they are being critiqued about, whatever the circumstances.
Case in point, Kemba Walker and his collegiate team of Huskies are now the deans of college basketball, like it or not.
After all, the scoreboard did not display an LED text saying exciting game-terrible game, it simply showed the 00.00 amount of time left on the clock, and a final score of UConn 53 and Butler 41.
Besides the so very chastised Finals game, it's been an otherwise spectacular season for the Huskies,winning 32 of their 41 contests, coasting past bracket expectations into the title game and most intriguing of all, seeing what could possibly have been the pinnacle of their superstar point guard's college career.
Walker averaged 23.4 points, 4.3 assists and 5.2 rebounds in 33 games this season and showed remarkable prowess and analytically defying performances in the post-season—including 16 points and 9 rebounds in the aforementioned "disappointment" of a Finals berth.
Walker recorded an impressive array of eleven 30-point games and proved the depth of his game with two triple-double outings.
Among all the potential draft prospects that have emerged from their respective Alma Maters this season, saying that Walker would be the most likely to succeed in the professional ranks would be for anyone, a strong and accurate statement.
Any NBA team would be a franchised blessed to have such a potential filled leader on the floor for them—from the decaying and desperate Cleveland Cavaliers to the World Champion Los Angeles Lakers.
So much so, that to show a true gratitude to Walker's unmatched efforts, the University decided not to let a decision so easy go any longer without being acted upon. In the Huskies' championship rally Tuesday, the school surprised Walker with his jersey being hung among the University's legendary "Huskies of Honor", alongside sporting figures such as Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Emeka Okafor Clifford Robinson and now, himself.
Beauty as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. To many, this resurgence of Husky Nation may be boring and confounding, but to the loyal Husky fans, the supportive students and the squad lead by Kemba Walker himself, its' beauty is one unparalleled.
All hail King Kemba!
NCAA Champions: Connecticut
Epilogue: The Crossroads
As another NCAA season sets for the decorated, content and scarred school programs alike, some of its student athletes arrive at a crossroads.
Where to from here?
While a good number of these collegiate athletes may very well end up in the professional ranks—not necessarily the NBA—most of them will be coasting through this period of competition and find other occupations outside of the sport.
It is a personal preference and philosophy as to the importance of an education.
Most would see themselves needing it in their journeys through life, and some regrettably end up desiring it as certain fields of study require such courses.
There are also the blessed and gifted few that may deem it unessential and brand it as a mere hindrance to their personal growth.
It is true that degrees and diplomas are not necessarily guarantees of anything. One can be the most decorated and rewarded student but later in life would find difficulty in thriving for a stable lifestyle. One can be a complete drop-out and later be in a situation some can only ever dream of.
Whether it be a doctorate, a four-year course, a two-year course, a one and done or no college at all; benefit will always depend on the talents, mindset, aggression and drive of the person.
As it is in the age old Latin mantra so often used by Kobe Bryant, "Carpe Diem"—seize the day.
Take whatever opportunities that are presented to you, choose the one in your best interest and make it something better.
Happiness and personal betterment must always be the front runner in any occupational, educational or vocational decision.
From Ohio State's Jared Sullinger giving up a potential Top five NBA selection for his sophomore year in college to Kyrie Irving deciding that a one and done tenure is in his best interest, it is beautiful to see the different views and beliefs expressed and demonstrated by the athletes involved in this past season of March Madness.
Whatever awaits these players, the coaches, the fans and even us writers I do not have the slightest exact idea of, but here's to hoping the best for everyone and in the words of superstar boxing icon Floyd Mayweather Jr., "It is what it is, it's gonna be what it's gonna be."
Til' next season.
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