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|With upsets and overtimes, college hoops wasn't waiting for March to go mad.|
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's March 18 One Day One Game issue. Subscribe today!
WE KNOW: College basketball is in crisis.
We've heard your groaning, and we've memorized your arguments: One-and-dones are draining the talent pool; pace and scoring have plummeted (Georgetown and Tennessee's combining for 73 points on Nov. 30 didn't help); and the regular season doesn't matter anyway.
To that we say: What rock have you been living under? This season has been one very Big Dance, filled with one March-worthy white-knuckle moment after another -- and it isn't even over yet. With two weeks left to play, the rankings show absolutely no sign of settling. On Feb. 26, No. 1 Indiana fell to Minnesota; the next night Penn State beat No. 4 Michigan for its first Big Ten win of the season; the next night No. 3 Duke was taken down by Virginia. That opened the door for Gonzaga's first No. 1 ranking, making the Zags the fifth different team to sit atop the AP poll this season, the most since 2008-09 (six).
As for upsets, 19 unranked teams had toppled top-five opponents through Feb. 28, the most in one season over the past five years.
You want overtime games? We've seen plenty. Notre Dame and Louisville started at 9 p.m. on Feb. 9 and didn't call it quits until 12:36 a.m., five OTs later. And on one glorious day -- Feb. 23 -- nine matchups went past regulation, treating college basketball nation to single, double, triple and quadruple OT, a feat that hadn't happened in 11 years.
|Fans have been too busy rushing the court to worry about the dance.|
We even got a taste of what the Sweet 16 might look like: Two top-10 teams had gone head-to-head 15 times through March 3, eight of those in the Big Ten alone, the most the league has seen in 27 years.
So while you were grumbling, we've been glued to this regular season of madness, reveling in the sheer, childlike joy that this year, March came early.
The first signs of hoops revolution appeared in Indianapolis, where the Butler Bulldogs, our once and future NCAA tournament darlings, were matching the top-ranked Hoosiers shot-for-impossible-shot in -- what else? -- overtime. As the clock wound down, Butler's Alex Barlow pirouetted into the lane and lofted what looked like a half-empty balloon. After it floated through the net and the 5'11" walk-on fist- and chest-bumped his way across the court, we had to check our calendars. Yep, it was only Dec. 15.
We were just getting started.
January began with the end of Duke's four-week run at No. 1. The Blue Devils lost amid a Tobacco Road revival in Raleigh, and the Wolfpack faithful erupted, giving us perhaps this season's most lasting image: NC State star forward C.J. Leslie holding tight to Will Privette, a student who'd rushed the court and fallen from his wheelchair.
Two days later, on Jan. 14, Louisville took a turn at No. 1 ... but the Cards folded against Syracuse. The following week, Duke suffered a similar fate in a 27-point loss to Miami, which sent a small army of cargo-shorts-wearing South Florida bros rushing from the stands -- proving once and for all that court storming had reached every corner of the country, not just hoops hotbeds. Heck, the floor rushers in Boulder, Colo., didn't even need a No. 1 takedown to get their hearts racing on Valentine's Day -- No. 9 Arizona was enough. The same went for students from Villanova to Northern Iowa to TCU.
Sure, we'll admit that November to February can be a slog. But that's the point: Loving this game takes work. Each year we're given new material on all 347 teams, and we watch with interest the good, the bad and the UMKC vs. IUPUI. An empty bracket might seem like a test, but for us it's a reward, a chance to prove all we've soaked in.
The fact is, until you've witnessed a top-10 conference showdown, like the one between Ohio State and Michigan chronicled in these pages, you shouldn't -- better yet you can't -- write off college basketball. Not until you've seen Aaron Craft frustrate his man and piss off every opposing fan in Ann Arbor; or a series of shakes and dishes that only Trey Burke could dream up; or Deshaun Thomas drain yet another ridiculous shot; or Maize Ragers brave subfreezing temps for the perfect seat, as if Crisler Center were the Big House in September.
To you, it's just one day and one game in a season of too many. But ask John Beilein how much that win meant, or Thad Matta how many times he's replayed that loss in his mind. Both coaches will tell you that nets don't come down in April without the planning and execution that go into nights like Feb. 5.
Ask the true fans and they'll tell you that the real madness ensues long before March. Ask anyone who's been paying any attention at all and they'll say, What crisis?
From where we're standing, college basketball is doing just fine.
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