Madness, yes, but with a purpose

Originally Published: March 1, 2013
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

No one remembers, so goes the adage, who finished second.

Mostly it's true. With the exception of the occasional pageant queen who steps in to fill her scandalized sister's Christian Louboutins, the runner-up and the also-rans are essentially yesterday's news.

[+] EnlargeJoakim Noah
Harry E. Walker/MCT/MCT via Getty ImagesWhich moment from the 2006 NCAA tournament resonates most: George Mason's Final Four run or Florida's national championship?

Which is what makes the NCAA tournament so wonderfully and quirkily unique.

The winners are lauded and celebrated, their names etched into record books and their banners hung in the rafters.

Yet somehow March Madness manages to crown a victor -- very often the right victor -- and still create a place where many among the annual 67 runners-up not only have a spot, they very often steal the show.

In 1998, Tubby Smith led Kentucky to a national championship, a fact few Wildcats fans will forget. But it was not UK's title that lives on as the freeze-frame moment from that tournament. It's Bryce Drew's impossible hook-and-ladder swish for Valparaiso to beat Ole Miss in the first round.

Everyone remembers George Mason crashing the ball in 2006, becoming the first official Cinderella to make it to the Final Four. Does anyone outside the Sunshine State remember that also was the year of Florida's first national title?

And for all of its iconic glory, Christian Laettner's buzzer-beater to stun Kentucky in 1992 came not in the national semifinals but in the Elite Eight.

The NCAA tournament packs a wallop annually, and sometimes it even gloriously and perfectly comes together, the magical moment creating the national title. When you get Lorenzo Charles in 1983 or Keith Smart in 1987 or Mario Chalmers in 2008, you get karmic basketball bliss.

And sometimes the moment ultimately begets the champion. If Tyus Edney doesn't go coast-to-coast to beat Missouri in the second round, UCLA doesn't win the national championship in 1995.

But when it doesn't, or worse, when the title game is a dud (Butler-Connecticut in 2011, for instance), you can forgive the last instance its shininess because of what came before it.

In that 2011 run, you not only had Kemba Walker's ownership of the entire postseason, you also had Cinderella dancing well past midnight, with Butler and VCU in the Final Four.

It makes sense then, as the NCAA celebrates its 75th year of madness, that there is a place to not just debate the best champion (my starting five is better than yours) but also to rank the snapshots in time and the players who created them.

It is that combination that makes March inherently madder and the NCAA tournament thoroughly entertaining.

Of course, if all of this mayhem led to paper champions, we wouldn't love the process so much.

We remain a nation and sports world that like to celebrate not just winners but rightful winners. Upsets are fun and entertaining but they have their place, and it's not in the final game of the season, with the ultimate prize on the line.

Yet somehow the insanity eventually calms down and the authenticity survives. The list of champions proves that more often than not, the NCAA tournament somehow gets it right.

From the rubble and chaos, the best team emerges. In 2008, for instance, four of the Sweet 16 spots went to lower-seeded teams (No. 12 Villanova, No. 10 Davidson, No. 12 Western Kentucky and No. 7 West Virginia). Who went to the Final four? All the No. 1 seeds.

Or just a season ago, when No. 15 seeds Lehigh and Norfolk State conspired to blow up brackets from coast to coast, we still ended up with Kentucky, the team most thought was by far the best in the country, hoisting the hardware.

How does it happen? A few years ago at a mock bracket session, Princeton athletic director Gary Walters referred to the "serendipity" of the tournament. He was referring to the bracket and how what appear to be intentionally planned matchups between rivals actually just sort of happen.

But the whole thing is really a three-week overindulgence of serendipity.

It is the best of both ends of the sports world -- memorable moments and unforgettable champions.

Madness, yes, but mad genius really.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball