NCAA Basketball: March Madness & the Underdogs

by Hayden Alfano*
Special to iVoryTowerz

In a day full of signature NCAA mens' tournament moments, I was reminded what I like the most about the Big Dance by a game that will barely register a mention in Saturday's recaps of the action.

I sat at Buffalo Billiards in Dupont Circle in D.C. and watched as my alma mater, American University, made the most of its first-ever tournament bid. The Eagles played Tennessee nearly even for 34 minutes in their first round matchup. That the Eagles ultimately lost this basketball contest by the score of 72-57 is immaterial. (The final margin is a bit deceiving, as the Volunteers capitalized on free throw attempts when AU resorted to desperation fouls until the final buzzer.) American was playing with house money, their season already a success simply by virtue of playing a game in the NCAA Tournament.

As Davidson’s Stephen Curry was in the process of dropping 40 points on Gonzaga in a virtuoso performance and Miami’s Jack McClinton scored 38 to lead his team to victory over St. Mary’s, American’s Garrison Carr was trying his damnedest to do the same thing. He tied the game at 40 on back-to-back three pointers with 11 minutes and change remaining. He finished with a heroic 26 points, single-handedly keeping his team in the game, giving two hours of memories to a school and a fan base that had never tasted March hope before.

While Tennessee – one of a handful of teams with realistic national title aspirations – began its season with aims of cutting down the nets next month in San Antonio, American’s goal at the start of practice in October was to win the Patriot League tournament and earn an automatic bid to the Big Dance. They did that, and nothing could have happened Friday in Birmingham that would have made them feel like they had fallen short of their goals.

The same was true of Portland State on Thursday. The Vikings lost 85-61 to top-seeded Kansas, but all you had to do was listen to coach Ken Bone’s voice break up after the game to know that their season was a success.

It was also true of Belmont – like American, a 15th seed – that lost 71-70 to Duke on Thursday. That the Bruins threw away an opportunity to pull a historic upset on the game’s final possession certainly hurts, but it won’t be long before those kids recognize that leading one of the game’s true powers in the final 20 seconds is a tremendous accomplishment.

It was even true of Mississippi Valley State. The Delta Devils set a record for futility on the offensive end in a 70-29 loss to UCLA on Thursday. Scoring the fewest points in a first-round tournament game in the shot clock era surely isn’t what the team had in mind heading into the game, but there are nine other Southwestern Athletic Conference teams who desperately wish they had earned the opportunity to hold such a dubious mark.

That’s the great thing about the NCAA Tournament: There is no universal measure of success. The Eagles would surely like to be like Tennessee or Kansas, or UCLA or North Carolina or Memphis, teams that surely feel incomplete without a trip to the Final Four. They’d like to be like fellow underdogs Western Kentucky – who got a 26-footer from Ty Rogers at the overtime horn to stun Drake on Friday – or San Diego, which upset Connecticut by one in overtime on a last-second shot by De’Jon Jackson. But ultimately, they know there’s nothing wrong with being American.

Thanks for the ride, fellas.

And congratulations.

(The Tennessee Volunteers take on the Butler Bulldogs in the next round of the NCAA mens' tournament on Sunday, March 23.)

*Hayden Alfano is the author of the blog 19'9" which is mostly about basketball.

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