Columnists, Sports

Going For Two: March Madness and Cinderella runs

The top seeds come in with expectations, but it's often the lower ones that create the most buzz. PHOTO COURTESY CHAD COOPER/FLICKR
The top seeds come in with expectations, but it’s often the lower ones that create the most buzz. PHOTO COURTESY CHAD COOPER/FLICKR

Ah, March, a wonderful month. Spring is knocking on the door, St. Patrick’s Day looms like a giant pot of gold in the middle of the month and college basketball will grace us with the greatest tournament in all of sports: March Madness.

Every year, 68 teams are granted access to the NCAA’s premier basketball tournament and always seem to wow us with something no one has ever seen. There are unpredictable upsets, emotional buzzer beaters and the chance for a low-seeded team to become immortalized.

As neutral fans for most of the games in the tournament, people love seeing Cinderella teams, low-seeded squads that somehow play their way deep into the tournament despite going up against the Titans of college hoops.

But why is it that we love Cinderellas so much? Is it that we love seeing the weak triumph over the powerful in an athletic rendition of David and Goliath? Or is it possible that we love seeing the chaos of underestimated and overlooked teams stunning the sports world? The answer lies somewhere in between.

Teams such as the 2013 Wichita State University Shockers live in lore in March Madness history because of how they make us feel. Even when the odds were stacked against them, they knocked off top ranked teams in the mold of Gonzaga University and The Ohio State University. Though our reasoning for liking the underdog may be buried deep within our own psyche, one cannot help to draw a comparison to the viewers themselves.

When a low-seeded team seemingly shocks the world, we are not only reminded that anything is possible, but we are glimpsing a team we see similar to ourselves. These “ragtag” squads, as they are almost always described, invoke a feeling of pride in the viewers because we feel they represent us. Just a group of guys not expected to succeed over seemingly far superior athletes coming together and triumphing in the face of doubt allows us to believe that if they can do it, anyone — even us common folk — can do it.

Some Cinderella teams eventually captured the dream, such as the 2013 University of Connecticut Huskies. The seventh-seeded squad from Storrs, Connecticut rode a wave of momentum all the way to a National Championship victory. They inspired many around the country, not to mention the entirety of New England, with impressive wins over the likes of the University of Florida, Villanova University, Iowa State University and Michigan State University. And most impressively of all, those teams were all top-four seeds in the big dance.

However, the Huskies are also on the bad end of the 2006 George Mason run, which is arguably the greatest of all time. Despite losing in the conference tournament semifinals, an at-large bid kept their hopes alive, as they were poised to be a one-and-done 11th seed. Instead of curling over and dying, the Green and Yellow began a run that lives in the annals of March Madness glory. They began with a 10-point upset win over a sixth-seeded Michigan State side before turning in wins over third-ranked North Carolina and seventh-seeded Wichita State.

However, the ultimate triumph for the Patriots came in the Elite Eight versus UConn. The Huskies, ranked second overall in the nation and a favorite to win the National Championship, were taken to overtime. In the extra frame, the Patriots kept their tournament dreams and the general public’s hopes of basketball anarchy alive with a stunning two-point victory. While their run unfortunately came to an end at the hands of the eventual National Champions, the Florida Gators, many pundits around the sports world see their run as one of the most memorable underdog stretches in the history of collegiate athletics.

Cinderella teams pop up every year, but few of them ever do enough to stick in our minds forever. Recent tournaments have bore us the likes of Florida Gulf Coast University and Mercer University, both of which upset perennial favorites for the title. Last season, we saw Georgia State University, a 14th seed, take down a third-seeded Baylor University side in the same day that another 14th seed, The University of Alabama-Birmingham, upended Iowa State by a mere point.

No one knows what this tournament will bring, though I have Stephen F. Austin State University beating West Virginia University as my Cinderella pick. That’s the true beauty of March Madness, though. We research, we watch, we constantly fret over our decisions before finally filling out our brackets only to see them go up in smokes on the first day. The Cinderellas become our driving force, our inner need to watch the tournament just in case something truly amazing happens.

This year we once again will search for Cinderella and hope that our bracket is the glass slipper that fits.

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