Last year around this time I wrote about the fond memories I have with the NCAA Tournament, how special the tournament is to me, and how great this time of year is. And it’s true this is absolutely one of the best times of the year to be a sports fan. All of the pageantry, competition, and intensity that come with the tourney are second to none in terms of American sporting events. In my opinion, not even the Super Bowl has this level of total intrigue. However, lost in all of the joy of the tournament, the ferocity with which we all fill out our brackets, and the spoils of victory for the winning teams is the heartbreak that ultimately only one college basketball team (and one lucky fan per office pool) will avoid. Ah each year we all strive for greatness, and each year the proverbial agony of defeat rears its head once again. The agony comes while we all sit and watch the games hoping that our complete guesses that we pass off as insightful predictions will somehow come to fruition. We watch games like Nevada v. Cincinnati and Texas A&M v. Providence sweating over which team will win and whether or not we made the right decision. The only thing that matters, is somehow keeping your Final Four teams intact through the first weekend in a tournament format ripe with upsets.
As I sit here today, my bracket already in shambles from the other night when Arizona lost in a huge upset to an impressive Buffalo team, I can’t help but think about the incredibly wide range of emotions that have already been evoked as a result of this tournament. The 2018 version of the competition has been particularly wild compared to recent years, with multiple first and second round upsets including the historic 1 seed upset of Virginia by UMBC. But alas, I filled out only one bracket this year, and spent three long days analyzing it and tinkering with my predictions until I thought I had the perfect bracket, all the while knowing that disaster could strike at any moment and my bracket could be finished. I had Duke, Villanova, Arizona, and UNC in the Final Four with Duke beating Arizona for the championship. I know, I picked Duke, what a total shocker. So as I’m sure you can tell, two of my final four teams have been eliminated after just the first two rounds. As a Duke fan, I can handle the UC loss. Honestly, watching them get smoked in their home state of North Carolina was actually pretty enjoyable. And considering how annoying (and sweaty) Sean Miller is as Arizona’s head coach, I can handle that one too. So with two teams left in it, including my beloved Blue Devils, at least I can still say I have something to root for, which is more than I can say for all the Virginia fans out there.
And this brings me to the more serious kind of heartbreak that comes with this tournament. And that is the heartbreak which is felt by the 67 teams who will not win the National Championship at the end of it. Each year there are buzzer beaters and unbelievable game winning moments, but in those moments when teams are rejoicing, players flocking to their hero teammate, and fans going berserk in the stands, we tend to forget about the other side. As Newton’s Law accurately shows, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. As such, wherever there is the joy of victory we must also find the agony of defeat. This was no more evident than in Saturday Night’s game between Houston and Michigan. The underdog Houston team led by two points with a senior forward going to the line for two free throws with just seconds remaining in the game. The odds of a Michigan victory looked incredibly slim at this point. But shockingly, the Houston player missed BOTH free throw attempts, giving Michigan the ball back down only two points with just enough time to get a decent shot.
On a side note, if you are a coach or even a player… ALWAYS cover the inbounder on last second plays like this. ALWAYS!!!
As luck would have it, Michigan would make the last second heave in miraculous fashion and beat Houston to advance to the next round. But rather than getting caught up in all of the emotion of the incredible finish, my first thought went back to the Houston player who missed the two free throws, just keeping Michigan’s hopes alive. In sports, there is no worse feeling than letting your teammates and coaches down, especially in that fashion. And to end his college career on that note. How could someone not feel bad for that kid? Sure, on a competitive level I have a hard time feeling sorry for someone who can’t make clutch free throws. But as a person and a human being, there is a much larger part of me that feels incredibly sorry for that Houston player. It is a heartbreak I can’t even imagine considering the circumstances and stakes involved (don’t get me wrong, I’ve made my share of bonehead plays, just not in the NCAA tourney!). To illustrate how that particular player felt, I saw a tweet from a reporter that simply showed a picture of the Houston player standing in the arena by himself, hours after the game, just standing at the free throw line. He was no doubt contemplating all of the ifs and could’ve beens. Wondering what his team could’ve accomplished had he been able to convert to easy free throws.
So while we should still enjoy all of the greatness that is the NCAA Tournament, let’s remember that there are two sides to every coin, a defeat for every victory, and pain wherever there is joy. For everyone that wins on a buzzer beater, a team also loses, and somewhere, a bracket is likely destroyed.