This article was concurrently published at NoCoastBias.com on March 11, 2015.
Two years ago, I attended the 2013 Horizon League Tournament upon the recommendation of my college roommate, one of the biggest fans of college basketball that I have ever met. We made the short drive to Valparaiso, IN on a Friday night for two games in the quarterfinal round. Arriving to the campus of Valparaiso University on a quiet March afternoon, we found the basketball court in a gym that could have passed for a large high school, a far cry from the D-I arenas we were used to seeing.
As fans of the sport itself, we were excited to see any basketball game, and certainly a conference tournament. We got there early of course, but hadn’t needed to. The bleachers were empty enough that there were plenty of front-row seats even when the first game started. The game was between Youngstown State and Wright State. Youngstown State’s mascot is the penguin, so there were multiple fully-costumed penguins in attendance for the game. Of course we took pictures with them. We could hear nearly every play call and sound of the game, as if we were right next to the action (because we were). The student band section was fully into the game. For some time, they may have even outnumbered the fans. Needless to say, their cheers resonated during every opposing free throw, giving us some of the most creative (and not tasteless at all) cheers we couldn’t help but find humorous. Something related to a certain 80’s rock song: (“You’re not gonna make it…No! You’re not gonna make it…) And of course they cheered even louder when a free throw did happen to clang off the rim. At half time, they threw T-shirts in the stands; there were nearly as many T-shirts as there were fans so we ended up with a few of them. For the second game, the stands started to fill up for the game between Illinois-Chicago and Green Bay. This exciting game was close the whole way. Green Bay won on a last second three-pointer; and naturally we went crazy; because whether you’re at a fourth-grade CYO game or an NBA playoff game, a game-winning shot is, of course, awesome. (And if we had come back the following night for the semifinals, we would have seen two more game-winners). Who says only the big-school rivalries can be exciting? In that gym, you could tell the teams were playing for something, that the fans cared, that it wasn’t “just another game.” It didn’t matter that it was the quarterfinals of a far-from-major conference tournament with teams we had never seen before. All that mattered was that this was basketball; it was March basketball. Our game was one that only a fraction of basketball fans would see, but was connected to this larger mass-cultural phenomena that we call March Madness. We were watching a part, and not an insignificant one, of this incredible month of basketball, which every year captures the magic for college basketball fans everywhere.
I found myself continuously reminding myself that the teams in that small gym were competing a spot on the same big stage as Duke and Kentucky, as Coach Rick and Coach Roy. Every team is playing for something, which isn’t always the case in other sports. Realistically, teams from the Sun Belt or the Colonial might not be gunning for the Final Four every year, but a conference championship means a lot for any team. And when you watch a celebration after each championship game, you may as well have thought those players had just won the Olympics.
Conference games in college basketball are some of the most competitive match-ups in all of sports. Teams and coaches are familiar; fans invest in the rivalries; rankings and NCAA seeds can shift in the blink of an eye. We don’t need to wait for Selection Sunday for March Madness to start; championship week sets the stage. Teams that lose focus can be upset in a hurry; games on consecutive days mean someone can get hot and make a run to the finals. Already this year, teams have carried momentum to championships and berths into the NCAA tournament. As the major conference games start in full swing, there will be more than a few magic moments between now and Sunday.
So don’t think of this as a preview to March Madness, this is already the beginning. Championship week has given us some of the greatest moments in college basketball: Evan Turner’s long buzzer-beater for Ohio State; Vanderbilt upsetting top-ranked Kentucky in the 2012 SEC final; Kemba Walker’s magical run with UConn; 6 overtimes for Syracuse and Connecticut (and that’s just the past decade). This is the most exciting month in sports, and it has already begun. It’s only going to get better. These unforgettable moments will unite players and fans from all over the country. We’re waiting to see which players will add to their legacies; which team will become the next Cinderella story; which video clips will be replayed for posterity. It does not matter which team is your favorite, just watch and be amazed. It’s Championship Week: let the magic begin. AN