For many sports fans, March is their favourite month. Why? The Tournament! It is definitely unique and always enthralling. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament tips off on Thursday and as per usual, there will be upsets, buzzer beaters, and magical moments that will bet etched in our memory banks forever. (Also some bad Jim Nantz puns but that’s another story.)
I fell in love with the tournament back in 1990 when Loyola Marymount made a Cinderella run to the Elite 8. Their star player Hank Gathers tragically passed away during a game just weeks before the tourney. The rest of the players decided to play on and dedicated their tournament run to the memory of Gathers, who was touted as a lottery pick in the NBA draft that same year. Bo Kimble, who was Gathers’ roommate shot all of his free throws left-handed in memory of Gathers and made every left-handed free throw. The Lions made it to the Elite 8 before losing to UNLV, the eventual National Champions.
I loved those UNLV teams in the early 90s as well. Yes they were fraught with scandal but man were they fun to watch. The athleticism of Stacey Augmon and Anderson Hunt. The pure power of Larry Johnson. The smarts of Greg Anthony. And Jerry Tarkanian, pacing the sidelines with the ever-present towel in his mouth. They played full court, no holds barred basketball. They way the game was supposed to be played. I was heartbroken when Duke beat the Rebels in 1991. Since then I’ve never cheered for Duke and I never will.
Duke broke my heart again next year when Christian Laettner hit the shot against Kentucky after a perfect full court pass from Grant Hill. Many have suggested that game is the greatest college basketball game ever played.
That same year the Fab 5 from Michigan made their debut. Another fun team to watch. While their attitude was questionable at times, you couldn’t deny the talent of this team. Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson made history as five freshman led the Wolverines to the Final Four.
In 1994, the term 94 feet of hell became the theme for the tournament. Coined by Arkansas head coach Nolan Richardson, the Razorbacks played a style of basketball that was similar to UNLV earlier in the decade and just as successful. With President Bill Clinton cheering them on, the Razorbacks defeated Duke in the title game which made me very happy, and provided Clinton with more bragging rights over the Republicans.
In 1999, Duke was set to break my heart yet again. The Blue Devils went through the entire season undefeated and were aiming for their third National Crown. Standing in their way was Rip Hamilton and the UConn Huskies. Before a packed house at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, the Huskies upset Duke 77-74 in a thrilling game, and making me a happy man. That tournament also saw the rise of Gonzaga. The little school from Spokane Washington, made an amazing run to the Elite 8 before falling to the Huskies in a terrific game.
My pick for the best tournament from top to bottom was 2005. It started in the second round as West Virginia upset Wake Forest in double overtime shootout. It continued in the Sweet Sixteen as Arizona edged Oklahoma State, with Salim Stoudamire hitting the game winning shot with 2.8 seconds left. North Carolina got by Villanova in a one point thriller, and the result that made me happy was Michigan State knocking out Duke. The Elite 8 saw a game that I think ranks up there with the Duke vs Kentucky classic of 1992. Arizona and Illinois played one of the best college basketball games I have ever seen as the Fighting Illini came back from 15 points down to edge the Wildcats 90-89 in overtime. It was a magnificent game full of excitement and tension. If ESPN Classic is showing it, do yourself a favour and watch this classic game. The next day Michigan State and Kentucky embarked themselves in a game which was just as thrilling. With time running out, Patrick Sparks put up a three-point shot that rolled around the rim several times before dropping through, sending the game into overtime. They had to go into double overtime before Michigan State pulled ahead and won 94-88. The National semifinals were anti-climatic but the final produced more magic. North Carolina jumped out to a 15 point lead on Illinois but just like the Arizona game, the Illini fought back and tied the game. But North Carolina had the last answer as Marvin Williams tapped home a rebound, and the Tar Heels made their free throws to win the game 75-70 and win their fourth National title.
In 2006 George Mason wore the glass slipper as this Cinderella story pulled off upset after upset all the way to the Final Four. Midnight struck however in the National Semi-Final as Florida upended the Patriots to end the Cinderella run. In 2010 the Butler did it. Upstart Butler University had its own magic run and made it all the way to the National Championship game. The Bulldogs came up two points short against Duke in the title game as the last second shot bounced off the backboard to the rim and away ending an improbable run. Last year, VCU was the surprise story as the Rams made an amazing run to the Final Four which included a major upset against Kansas in the Elite 8. Ironically it was Butler who ended VCU’s run in the National Semi-Final game proving you can’t have two Cinderellas at the dance.
What will the big story be this year? Who will be the Cinderella team? Which team will be cutting down the nets in New Orleans? The next 3 weeks will be fun to watch.
PS: I have Kentucky, Murray State, North Carolina and Florida State in my Final Four just in case you wanted to know.
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