Some thoughts as the Madness leaves March and we’re left with the best of the rest in the NCAA Tournament:
I’m admittedly a longtime Duke basketball fan. But I also admit I was pulling for Mercer to knock off the Blue Devils last week.
I have no connection to the Macon, Ga., school and the only Wilson County tie I know of is former Mt. Juliet High basketball star Susie Gardner is the women’s coach.
But as a graduate of a mid-major university, I’ve [and I suspect most of America] long pulled for the underdog and when the Bears knocked off the Blue Devils [and not Mt. Juliet beating Lebanon again] I felt the emotion when the Mercer player started dancing in the midst of his teammates.
That’s what makes the Big Dance different from all of our other major sporting events. The first weekend of the tournament is when the smaller-budgeted teams get a chance to beat the rich [not to mention bigger name and generally bigger and more talented players] teams from the TV money-rich conferences and shine in the spotlight themselves.
In recent years, Butler has gone to the finals twice and George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth have advanced to the Final Four. Florida Gulf Coast, which beat Mercer in the Atlantic Sun tournament last year and lost to the Bears this season, reached the Sweet 16 in 2013. As of this morning, Dayton is preparing for an Elite Eight game.
But as a rule, the Cinderellas have broken their glass slippers and returned home and we’re left with the teams from the power conferences who avoided the opening weekend upsets. Great and compelling basketball? Sure. But it’s just another championship tournament.
In other sports, who wins the big trophy is the thing. In March Madness, it’s the journey along the way which holds the most appeal.
Leaving the NCAA Tournament and stepping down to the NIT, Belmont was squeezed out of a trip to Madison Square Garden when the Bruins lost at Clemson earlier this week.
Belmont coach Rick Byrd has become one of the game’s most respected coaches. Before his school moved to the Ohio Valley Conference last year, his Bruins preceded Mercer and Florida Gulf Coast as kings of the A-Sun.
He has persevered as the Bruins, once known as the Rebels, transitioned from NAIA power to NCAA Cinderella-wannabe.
In his early years at Belmont, his teams regularly faced Cumberland, which had to play in high school gyms because the old Dawghouse was too small even by NAIA standards. Most of the Bulldogs’ games were played in the old Lebanon High School when Campbell Brandon and Hester Gibbs were the Devilette and Blue Devil coaches, not the names on the wall. That gym was probably too small as well, which tells you how tight the facility which was inside what is now Labry Hall must have been.
I can remember legendary coaches like Lipscomb’s Don Meyer and a future one in Byrd bring their teams to LHS to face the Bulldogs.
Byrd, who also visited LHS on recruiting trips, might well have become the first person to coach in both the future Brandon Gym/Gibbs Court and Madison Square Garden.
From the Blue Devil Den to the World’s Most Famous Arena – what might have been if Belmont could have held the lead at Clemson.
That’s what March Madness is all about.