ESPN.com’s Dana O’Neil — a fellow Penn State alumnus and former Philadelphia Daily News writer, by the way — encapsulated the spirit of the NCAA tournament and filling out your bracket perfectly yesterday. She made a great point about how damn near everyone has a rooting interest, whether that person knows anything about college basketball or not, and another about how the old woman picking teams solely on the color of the their uniforms has as much of a shot at winning her pool as the rabid fan who watches hours of college basketball every night.
As a member of the latter category, I can attest to that. I watch more college basketball than roughly 90 percent of the U.S. population — though less than some of the writers on this very site, and far less than some of the others out there. I feel like I know the game pretty well and usually get a good grasp on a large portion of teams. Yet, I’ve never won a single NCAA tournament in my entire life. Not a one.
I’ve watched as others around me have raked in the winnings and gloated for an entire year. I’ve seen someone who has never watched an entire basketball game at any level win the whole damn thing, seen friends who don’t know what a double dribble is do better than me, and it drives me crazy. No matter how much basketball I watch or how many brackets I fill out, I’m never the one metaphorically cutting down the nets along with the National Champions.
I’m the guy who couldn’t resist picking Cincinnati to make a few Elite Eight runs under Bob Huggins, despite the fact the Bearcats never could make it that far. I’m the guy who had Temple upsetting Duke, when, in fact, Seton Hall was the one who upset the Owls. I’m the guy who loses a Final Four team before the first weekend is done at worst, an Elite Eight team or two at best. I just never seem to get it right, even the one time it looked like I finally, mercifully had my first NCAA tournament pool victory in the bag some 21 years after my birth.
If you remember, 2005 was the year in which Roy Williams finally broke through and won a National Championship, this coming in his second year after returning to his alma mater and taking over a talented (but underachieving) team that Matt Doherty had assembled at UNC. In year two, Williams molded a team led by juniors Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants, Sean May and freshman Marvin Williams into a number one seed and an odds-on favorite to win the NCAA Tournament.
That season, joining Carolina in the national discussions was Illinois, a team that earned the number one ranking behind the strength of its three-headed monster at guard of Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head. The Illini were the darlings of that season, with Brown drawing comparisons to Allen Iverson as far as his speed was concerned, and Williams and Head playing with ice water in their veins.
Yet I was enamored with another team that wound up the same region as one-seed Illinois: the Arizona Wildcats. The three seed in the Chicago Regional, Zona was led by the smooth-shooting Salim Stoudamire, big man Channing Frye, point guard Mustafa Shakur and the high-flying Hassan Adams.
Damn near everyone and their mother had picked a UNC-Illinois final, at least in my pools. Not a soul had Arizona in the final … except me. So when the Illini and Wildcats faced off in the Elite Eight with a trip to Final Four at stake, all I needed was for Arizona to finish off what it started to finally break through and pop my proverbial NCAA Tournament Title cherry.
As the game played out, it looked like a sure thing. With less than four minutes left, Arizona was up 15 points. Finally, I’d be dancing on my winnings and earning my bragging rights. Even with Salim Stoudamire struggling, the Cats were up big on the strength of Frye and Adams, who were killing the Illini inside.
Then, in a blink of an eye, the unthinkable happened. Deron Williams hit a three, then Luther Head hit two more, and it was on. As Stoudamire continued to slump and look like a deer caught in headlights, Deron and the Illini took over. Next thing you know, that 15-point lead had vanished, Illinois somehow tied it, and the game went to overtime.
The Wildcats continued to battle in OT, but they were clearly shellshocked. So was I. I saw my potential winnings get flushed down the drain with every Stoudamire miss, every Deron make, and finally, Luther Head getting the deciding basket in the 90-89 overtime thriller.
In less than nine minutes of game action, I went from a lock to win my first-ever NCAA Tournament pool to just another loser, like any other year. Had Arizona simply held on to a seemingly insurmountable lead with less than four minutes to play, I wouldn’t be writing this. My quest would be done, and any more wins would be icing on the cake. Nothing can top your first time.
Instead, I was left walking away with my tail between my legs once again, and I haven’t come close to winning since.
Odds are it won’t happen this year either, but I have my bracket filled out and ready to go, hoping for a miracle but preparing for disappointment, the same way 68 teams are hoping to cut down the nets, even though 67 of them will walk away disappointed.