This past weekend we experienced what I like to refer to as “the best two days of the year.” No, with all due respect to CAB, I am not referencing Spring Formal and the surrounding hoopla. I’m of course talking about the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament (okay, technically it’s the second round, but everybody knows it’s really the first round). There is something special about the first Thursday and Friday of the tournament every year. It’s a time when the normal rules governing college basketball are magically suspended for two days and quite literally anything can happen. Aptly named, March Madness is the most electrifying American sporting event. The unique combination of the win or go home format, the wide variety of styles of play, the huge field of teams involved, and the overall unpredictability of the outcomes makes the college basketball tournament the most entertaining sporting event of the year. It was estimated by the American Gaming Association that over seventy million tournament brackets were filled out this year and that there was over nine billion dollars gambled on tournament games. To put that in perspective, the amount of money bet on the Super Bowl each year is less than four billion. Every year we are treated to amazing plays, unbelievable upsets, and memorable storylines. At some point this year as I was filling out my brackets I began to wonder how it was even possible for this year’s tournament to live up to all of the hype and expectations. It is as if close games and exciting finishes are some kind of drug and we have to keep looking for another high that is more extreme than the last. As the tournament gains more and more attention each year, there eventually has to be a tipping point where the reality of the tournament can’t possibly fulfill everything that people are expecting from it, right?
Well, there’s no need to worry. Never underestimate the Madness. This year did not disappoint in the slightest. The first three games alone entertained viewers with dramatic finishes! Coming off a strong season and an AAC conference tournament title, third-seeded Notre Dame was the favorite against fourteen-seeded Northeastern University; however, the Fighting Irish barely managed to hang on and eke out a four point win. Within minutes, viewers had turned their attention to the next game where the University of Alabama Birmingham shocked Big 12 conference champion Iowa State and the rest of the country with a thrilling one point victory. While still riding high on this wave of enthusiasm, basketball fans quickly switched over to a matchup between the heavily favored Baylor Bears and the Panthers of Georgia State. The stakes of the game were raised dramatically as fans realized the backstory behind this particular game. This was only Georgia State’s third time ever appearing in the NCAA tournament. Georgia State leading scorer Ryan Harrow was out with a hamstring injury. Former Louisville player Kevin Ware who suffered a major leg injury in the NCAA tournament several years ago had recovered and was making his return to the tournament, albeit now as an underdog with the Panthers. The coach of Georgia State, Ron Hunter, tore his Achilles celebrating his team’s conference championship victory and had to coach the game from a rolling chair. All of this culminated in one of the most incredible comebacks in recent memory as Hunter’s son R.J. almost singlehandedly led the Panthers back from down ten points with just a few minutes remaining. With an ending that would be considered unrealistic if it were fiction, RJ Hunter hit an impossibly deep, game-winning three as time expired while his father and coach fell out of his chair and onto to the floor in a burst of excitement and emotion. You couldn’t script these sorts of endings and yet they happen, year after year. Incredible.
Georgia State and UAB both went on to lose their third round games on Saturday, but those moments of glory on Thursday will always be remembered by basketball fans. For those two programs, the 2014-2015 season will be honored and celebrated for years to come. Illustrating the remarkable nature of these events is the fact that only 1.9 percent of the eleven million brackets filled out on ESPN.com predicted wins by both Georgia State and UAB. I will watch the tournament through till its conclusion, but I will always enjoy those first two days the most. The best two days of the year are behind us, but don’t worry because next year they will only be better. March is a beautiful thing.