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March Madness reaching a new level this year

For any college hoops fan — heck, for most fans in general — the first weekend of the men’s NCAA Tournament is almost a four-day holiday in hoops. Beginning on Thursday afternoon and going until Sunday evening, fans around the country and even the world are treated to some of the best basketball on the planet.

Terms such as “bracket buster,” “the big dance” and “tournament underdog” become the lexicon for these four days as top NCAA teams fight to advance toward a championship with teams that many fans have no idea existed on a map fight to have their “one shining moment” caught on national television at their bigger brother team’s expense.

And as for this year, maybe since the tournament expanded to 68 teams, that last thought has became reality right before our very eyes. Many top college basketball teams are no longer in the field because of one single word — parity.

Oh, the word parity. By definition, the word parity simply means “the state or condition of being equal, especially regarding status or pay.” I venture to say that parity is the perfect word to describe this tournament.

One example is the fact that Loyola-Chicago not only made the field of teams for the first time since 1985 but has defeated Miami and Tennessee on consecutive last second field goals to march into the Sweet 16 for the first time in a long, long time. The Ramblers (love that name) haven’t been this deep in the tournament since 1985 when high scoring guard Alfredrick “The Great” Hughes led them to the Sweet 16. In fact, those still alive in this year’s tournament include double-digit seeds Loyola (11) and Syracuse (11).

Do you one better. Ever heard of a team called, um, Kentucky? I know what you’re thinking. Kentucky?? They’re one of the blue bloods of college basketball. They SHOULD be playing in the Sweet 16. I agree, but to fully understand the term March Madness is to understand the Cats in general. Consider the following. As recent as late February, the Cats were mired in a four-game losing streak that had UK fans drinking copious amounts of Kentucky bourbon and thinking the Cats may miss the tournament entirely. Then, out of nowhere to BBN (except to coach John Calipari) the Cats caught fire, winning four of their five remaining regular season games, blasting their way to an SEC Tournament championship and defeating Davidson and Buffalo to advance to the South Regional semis. Madness indeed.

Side note on Buffalo. The 13th seeded Bulls wiped out four seed Arizona in a game that wasn’t even close to earn the match up with the Cats from Kentucky. In fact, Buffalo was one of seven schools ranked as a nine seed or lower to win their first round games. Parity indeed.

My last example and probably the finest example of March Madness in tournament history comes to you in the form of a small school named Maryland-Baltimore County. UMBC came to the dance with the unenviable task of facing overall No. 1 seed Virginia in the first round. The Cavaliers were coming into the tournament a 30-game winner, ACC regular season and tourney champs, and many college basketball prognosticators’ choice to cuts the nets as national champs. Needless to say, hardly anyone thought the Retrievers (another great name) had much more than a puncher’s chance to defeat UVA.

No 16 seed had EVER won a NCAA tournament game.

But someone forgot to tell the Retrievers. The American East champions not only upset the mighty Cavs to make history, they beat them soundly by 20 points in a game that was never really in question. That’s not an upset, that’s a beating. Parity and madness indeed.

So college hoop fans, savor this NCAA Tournament. Enjoy the games and teams. Forget your messed up brackets. And above all, root for your team. If they’re not still playing, I’m sure one of the underdogs has room on their bandwagon for you.

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Shane Shackleford is a sports columnist who writes for several regional media outlets. You can reach him by email at coachshack50@gmail.com, Twitter @shack_daddy_1, and Facebook.