Sincere congratulations to UMBC, Coppin State and Mount St. Mary’s for earning the right to play in the Field of 65. I watched all three of their championship games from this week, and all three schools are richly deserving of a place in the “Big Dance”. During tonight’s selection show, look for Coppin to be placed in the “play-in game” on Tuesday night in Dayton, Ohio against either the SWAC Champion or Mt. St. Mary’s. If the Mount isn’t involved on Tuesday night, I predict a #16 seed in the South Region and a date with #1 seed Memphis. I believe UMBC could be as high as a #14 seed, but if they’re a #15, they’ll be the best of those seeds. Either way, the Retrievers will be a tough first round opponent for any high seed. Randy Monroe will have his guys ready and believing in the dream.
Congratulations also to Todd Bozeman and the Morgan State Bears. Although I’m certain they’re bitterly disappointed on Hillen Road today, by virtue of their regular season MEAC Championship, the Bears will have an opportunity to continue their season in the NIT. Speaking of which, Gary Williams and the Utterly Disappointing Maryland Terps will be playing in their third NIT in four years, and there’s a scheduling conflict looming at Comcast Center, which is hosting the first two rounds of the women’s NCAA Tournament this coming weekend. Here’s a fitting reward, in my mind, for both Morgan State and Maryland based on the way their seasons played out: a first round NIT matchup on Wednesday night at Hill Field House. That would attract a lot more interest and provide a better atmosphere than having the game played at a three-quarters empty Comcast Center. And I would definitely buy a ticket (and maybe root for the Bears too). Yeah, I suppose it’s safe to say I’m slightly bitter about Gary and his program right now.
Still handing out props, send a few to Oliver Purnell and the Clemson Tigers for handling Duke yesterday in the ACC Tournament Semis and advancing to their first ACC Championship Game today since 1962! I was trying to think of any time in my life I could remember Clemson being there, and it wouldn’t come to me. Then the graphic with that incredible fact appeared and I was truly stunned. I remembered Virginia making a few runs, Georgia Tech doing some damage and N.C. State playing spoiler, but I was blanking on Clemson. No wonder; it’s never happened in my lifetime! Very few things fall into that category when you’re 41! Good luck today to Coach Purnell, a Terp assistant under Bob Wade and Lefty Driesell who wasn’t retained by Gary Williams. Based upon the events that have taken place between Maryland and Clemson over the past three seasons, I’d say it’s fair to give the upper hand to Oliver Purnell. Keep an eye out for Clemson in your brackets as well. They’ve become a legitimate sleeper this March and could go deep if the draw works in their favor. I’d love to see them topple Carolina today and spoil the annual Tar Heels – Blue Devils Invitational.
The undisputed best story of Championship Week belongs to the Georgia Bulldogs. They were dead last in the SEC East and won just four conference games. Yet in a wacky SEC Tournament that has literally been ripped from the Georgia Dome to Alexander Memorial Coliseum on the campus of Georgia Tech due to Friday’s tornado that tore through downtown Atlanta, the Bulldogs have made history. Their Friday night quarterfinal against Kentucky was canceled due to the damage sustained at the Georgia Dome, forcing them to play Saturday morning. Then it took the Bulldogs overtime to bounce UK. Then they got to shower, eat, rest a bit and play a second game six hours later against Mississippi State in the semifinals. The Bulldogs won, of course. Two conference tournament wins in one day. And a chance to live the dream today and make the impossible real with a victory over Arkansas (one of the four wins Georgia had in conference this season was against the Razorbacks, coincidentally). Is it any wonder we call it March Madness? The Bulldogs have certainly contracted a case of it.
The best Championship Game I’ve seen this weekend has to be last night’s triple OT thriller for the WAC title between Boise State and New Mexico State. The game was played in Las Cruces, on the Aggies’ home floor, and the drama and tension was sublime. This was truly an elimination game for both teams, as they entered on the wrong side of the dreaded “bubble”. The energy was terrific from both teams and the crowd, as NMSU rallied from a sixteen point deficit to force all the extra sessions. Ultimately, the Broncos pulled away on some solid three-point shooting and clutch free throws to earn their NCAA bid. Just another example of why March is my favorite time of year.
Keep an eye out today for Illinois, making their own storybook run through the Big Ten Tournament. The Illini face Wisconsin today for the championship, and they are in the same predicament as Georgia in the SEC: win and dance or lose and go home. If both Illinois and Georgia win today, they’ll grab surprise automatic bids and push out teams like Miami, Kentucky and St. Joe’s, to name just a few. It’s an anxious day for all the “bubble” teams.
My projected NCAA Tournament #1 Seeds: East – UNC, South – Memphis, West – UCLA, Midwest – Tennessee.
Potential Bracket Busters in the Field of 65: Temple, George Mason, Pittsburgh, Purdue, Stanford, Virginia Tech, Boise State and Xavier. Keep in mind I’m writing this six hours before the pairings are announced.
One of the overlooked joys of college basketball is Championship Week. Every team in every conference in the nation has an opportunity to surprise the public and make a dream come true. It’s during this week that the true “One Shining Moment” occurs, when you see a scene like yesterday afternoon at the RAC at UMBC. The dream of having a chance to play for a National Championship is alive. The pure joy, passion, energy and school spirit exhibited in arenas all over the land are what, to me, the essence of collegiate athletics is all about. You just cannot find that emotion in a professional sporting event, in my opinion.
As the next two weeks of the NCAA Tournament play out, and we arrive at the Final Four, many of the great stories we’ve just seen authored will come to an end and be forgotten in the national sports mind. But believe me, the players, coaches, staffs and students of all these colleges and universities won’t forget. Neither should we. Because last night in Raleigh, N.C., watching the Coppin State on-court pileup felt good to me to watch. The students storming the floor at the RAC gave me goosebumps. Seeing The Mount hoist that trophy on their vanquished opponents’ court made me tingle. Because those are the epitome of what “One Shining Moment” is all about.
Only one school will win a National Championship.
But every school like UMBC, Coppin State and Mount St. Mary’s can call themselves Champions today, and always.
Congratulations to all of them again.
Now keep doing what you’re doing in The Big Dance!