FAIRLEIGH DICKINSON AND THE JOYS OF MARCH SAVE US FROM REAL LIFE
The Madness continues to soothe the human soul, with colossal upsets the norm but no less exhilarating — and the powers-that-be and networks would be foolish to expand to 90 teams and dilute the magic
These are bigger than feel-good stories now. These are feel-better stories, more potent and exhilarating than any mood drug or amusement park ride. The bad banks still might shut down, as the Ukraine war rages and homeless encampments grow amid suspicions the coronavirus was caused by raccoon dogs in a Wuhan market. But this March, like every March, college basketball provides an injection of something often inaccessible in the world at-large.
Hope. Belief. Light.
A real chance for the little guy in a life of behemoths and billionaires.
Practically speaking, the latest slew of stunners in the NCAA tournament is a natural product of parity. It’s more about the transfer portal, NBA one-and-done-ism, the G League and Victor Wembanyama being in Paris than the work of any magical god. But let’s go with it anyway, because it feels like heaven. Let’s squeeze the adorable conceivability that a commuter school known as Fairleigh Dickinson can intrude from New Jersey as a 23.5-point underdog — with the shortest of the division’s 363 teams, averaging 6 feet 1 per player, a season after finishing 4-22 and qualifying this week only because a bizarre technicality eliminated Merrimack — and reduce 7-4 Zach Edey and a would-be Purdue contender to an unwatchable slog.
Let’s replace the dark news headlines with the story of Tobin Anderson, the coach who stood in a locker room two nights earlier, unaware of a network TV camera that always lurks in the big time. “The more I watch Purdue,” he told his players, “the more I think we can beat them. … Let’s go shock the world.”
Not only did FDU make us all shriek — howl, scream, wail, shiver and quiver — the team from the other side of the Hudson River made the kind of history once thought impossible. The Knights joined the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, which toppled Virginia in 2018, as the only No. 16 seeds to knock off a No. 1 seed. It has happened twice in 151 tries, the sports version of winning the Powerball, and it leads to a new reality: Anything is possible in this tournament, including FDU advancing to play FAU, which would be Florida Atlantic, meaning Teaneck is facing Boca Raton in the Round of 32.
“I wanted our guys to believe. As a coach or a leader, you try to get them to believe in what we’re doing, how we’re doing it,” Anderson said after breaking down in front of more cameras, this time broadcasting a 63-58 upset — if we even can consider these upsets anymore — to a nation of of drop-in viewers. “Now, I would have preferred there wasn’t a camera in there. It was the right message, wrong audience, that’s what I would say. I would have said that with no camera in there. I didn’t mean to get Purdue upset. That was not the idea at all. But that’s got to be the message. We’re trying to win the next game. We just can’t be happy to be here.
“I think people see now that we do belong.”
All while tears of anguish are spilled again in West Lafayette, where the Boilermakers wear old-school uniforms and looked stale and reluctant to shoot when Edey was boxed in by defenders Friday. The day before, forward Mason Gillis had said, “We can win it all. We have the pieces.” Instead, their dream was left shattered in familiar pieces. Last March, Purdue crashed in the Sweet 16 against another obscure Jersey darling, Saint Peter’s, and seeing how losses to double-digit seeds are becoming the norm, coach Matt Painter should consider another plan or another profession. “If we played them 100 times, they’d probably beat us 99 times,” Anderson said. But the 100th time was another soul-crusher for the Big Ten Conference, which negotiated $7 billion in football-based media rights fees but continues to be a basketball stinker, without a national championship since 2000. The Midwest might be a cradle of hoops, and Indiana the home of the “Hoosiers” cinematic romance, but a gambler would be crazy to bet on a Big Ten team in what has become the ultimate sports crapshoot.
“You’ll get ridiculed. You’ll get shamed,” Painter said. “It’s basketball.”
The new ripples of chaos, which include 15th-seed Princeton emerging from the Ivy League to school the Arizona athletic factory and 13th-seed Furman handing Virginia another embarrassment, will fuel the impetus to expand the tournament field. It’s absurd to disrupt a great thing — 68 teams, starting with the First Four warm-up games — but Big Sports never leaves well enough alone. An increase to 90 teams was recommended by the NCAA’s “Transformation Committee” to “grant greater access to championships for well-qualified teams.” Look closer and you’ll recognize the agenda as a typical money grab, requiring CBS and Warner Bros. Discovery Sports (formerly Turner) to pay more than the current $1.1 billion per year in rights deals currently ending in 2032.
Adding 22 teams waters down the brackets and significantly cheapens the quality of competition. Sure, there might be more stunners. But there also will be more blowouts in a longer tournament timespan, disrupting the perfect rhythm of an event that immediately tantalizes us on the opening Thursday and Friday. To touch March Madness truly would be madness.
We should be allowed to appreciate Princeton, which helped launch this giant-killing business in 1996, when coach Pete Carril slowed the pace to a crawl and stole a 43-41 victory from defending champion UCLA. One of his best players that day, Mitch Henderson, is the head coach who knocked out Arizona on Thursday. “It feels a million times better as a coach,” he said. “I’ve been the beneficiary of that game, along with my teammates, for a long time. But I’m the coach here. My charge, and I’m very present about this, is I want that for them. That’s very, very simple. They did that today. They made so many people proud and happy today. They deserve it.”
While Arizona’s players generally major in NBA Preparation, Princeton’s players are writing their senior theses. “No extensions,” Henderson said. “They’ve got to get to work.” Virginia, meanwhile, is the poster program for wild spring fluctuations. Before blowing a 12-point lead and losing to Furman, of the Southern Conference, the Cavaliers fell to two other double-digit seeds in recent NCAA appearances: Maryland-Baltimore County five years ago and Ohio University — “Stand up and cheer, cheer loud and long for old Ohio,” I recall singing in a sloshy blur once — two years ago. Yet, Virginia also wedged in a national championship in 2019.
Who are you, Tony Bennett? This time, he left his heart in Orlando. “It doesn’t take away from what these guys have done and what we’ve experienced over the years,” the coach said after the latest setback. “Grateful to coach them, and keep building, keep trusting. And you’ve got a choice how you respond, and I will choose to respond the right way.”
By Saturday afternoon, Furman had returned to Planet Earth, a victim of a blowout by San Diego State. But we’ll never forget the Thursday quote from coach Bob Richey, who said, “This is one of the few things in life where they told me how good it was — and somehow, it’s better.”
Such are the sweet sounds of March. “I can’t even explain it. I’m just still in shock right now," said FDU forward Sean Moore, who hit the winning three-pointer in his hometown arena in Columbus. “With a moment like this, not knowing you'd be here and then you're here ... maybe tomorrow I'll feel normal again.”
So please don’t mess with this tournament, this gift from a celestial place far from daily reality. Our mental health depends on it.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.