Earlier this week, I watched something truly special happen: I watched a team save itself just a bit from possibly ending up disappointed on Selection Sunday. The Xavier Musketeers were once thought to be a Final Four contender early in the season. They had talent, were firing on all cylinders, and were regularly in the Top 25. By January they were considered all but a lock for the tournament, and an upper echelon team of a very competitive Big East conference.
Then there were injuries and transfers. Slowly, Xavier’s promising season spiraled from comfortably in the NCAA Tournament to on the brink of the NIT. The Big East Tournament was considered their last chance to make a case for the Dance, all they had to do was get by DePaul to start. Survive and advance.
College basketball is as much about the chaos of luck and disappointment as it is skill and talent.
If you didn’t watch the game and only saw the comfortable double digit victory they put up you’d assume that they handled their business and were ready to play Butler on Thursday before the game even ended. But that wasn’t the case. In fact, Xavier almost had the final nail in their NCAA coffin slammed in by the DePaul Blue Demons, the cellar dweller of the Big East. DePaul even led at halftime. It wasn’t until about 12 minutes left in the game that Xavier started to look comfortable, thus keeping their hopes alive.
It was absolutely thrilling to watch this game knowing that this really could have been it for Xavier’s chances. Win or go home. Hope for the best if you lose but expect a call from the NIT. You were once a Final Four team, but college basketball is as much about the chaos of luck and disappointment as it is skill and talent.
The best part about this week is Xavier isn’t the only team in that position.
Watch almost any conference tournament this week and you’ll hear the storylines. Many have already been woven. Some have yet to happen. URI will be fighting to make a case for their own NCAA bid by hopefully winning two games in the Atlantic 10 Tournament. K-State is on the verge of getting back into the Dance as well, they need to get through the Baylor Bears first though. Syracuse, a team that is now 18-14, needed a win to help secure a bid for themselves but lost to UMiami. In their loss they’ll spark controversy and conversation as to whether or not they’ve done enough to deserve a bid.
March Madness doesn’t begin when people fill out their brackets, it begins when the teams start fighting to get off the bubble and into the tournament. That fight is this week. Some will win, some will lose, and that’s the joy as a fan of watching this week’s tournaments. It wasn’t too long ago that I was covering my own Providence Friars as they made a run in the Big East Tournament. ‘One more win’ people kept saying, ‘one more win and we’re in.’ The goalposts kept moving, Providence kept winning, and that resulted in their second Big East Tournament Championship in the history of the school.
As a fan I enjoyed every minute of it. The weight that each possession seemed to carry could be felt. The anxiety and excitement in the air around each game was palpable. Knowing that Providence had this one chance to prove why they deserved a bid was unlike anything I’d ever felt before. I still remember the way my skin curled and got goosebumps with anticipation, astonishment, and disbelief in the final minute of the championship game against Creighton, knowing we were going to win and automatically get into the Field of 68. It was a feeling I’d never felt before, and haven’t felt since. It’s a feeling that only comes in March, and it’s one to be cherished.
Fans from these bubble teams will be talking exhaustively about things like RPI, SoS, W/L records, Kenpom rankings, head-to-heads…you’ll hear a lot of it and if you don’t know what it means don’t beat yourself up over it. Here’s what you need to know: if you’re a fan of college basketball, enjoy this. Learn the storylines and appreciate the effort these young men are putting out, because it’s an effort for them to earn their way into the most prestigious collegiate tournament in the world. If you’re a fan of a bubble team, here’s what you need to do: take a deep breath. Take another one. Put on your lucky shirt, favorite jersey, or most comfortable hoodie. Get friends together, preferably ones who root for (or will root for) your team. And at some point when your team is playing, whether you’re up or down, take a moment to recognize the wave of emotions you’re feeling – good or bad.
This is what March Madness is all about. This is what it means to be a true fan. This is your team’s moment. Make sure you enjoy the hell out of it, and good luck.