In just three short weeks, the NBA will commence its first round of playoff basketball. The regular season has been slowly winding down, and so has fans’ interest. It is tough to watch reserves play the majority of minutes in meaningless games Although the first-round will be refreshing, it’s not expected bring too much newfound excitement.
There is no debate, no need to compare matchups—we all know what is going to happen. LeBron will lock his Twitter account and turn it up a notch, easily bullying an Eastern Conference bottom-feeder. The Warriors will rest their stars and dismantle an opponent using primarily their bench. Future MVP James Harden will trot up and down the court in a blissful daze, staring down a defender after casually hitting a step-back jumper.
Every year, the NBA playoffs follow a clean and concise script. For low-seeded teams, it is just a nearly impossible task to outplay one of the world’s best players four separate times. To see real competition, fans must patiently wait until the semi-final and championship round.
But take look at the NCAA tournament, and there is a striking inverse effect. Outside of the hype of the Final Four, the first round has become the tournament’s marquee event. From perennial powerhouses down to obscure teams with non-intimidating mascots, the parity is almost shocking.
This year, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Retrievers (Yes, as in golden retrievers) became the first 16-seed to win a tournament game, using a ferocious attack to take down an offensively challenged Virginia team. Every tournament seems to mark a new first, a new unbelievable outcome that reaches a higher degree. Come March, the improbable becomes the inevitable.
There is simply no better breeding ground for upsets. College basketball’s slow style of play allows any team to stick around in any game. Add in a one-game elimination, and competitiveness and hustle have the potential to outpace talent.
Retrievers can stand even against big dogs. The NCAA tournament stands alone as basketball’s most beautiful democracy.
It’s easy to defy the odds in the first round, but few underdogs have the talent necessary for longevity. Yet, every year there is one team that survives and advances, capturing a nation-wide fanbase along the journey. Everyone cheered for Shaka Smart’s VCU team, high-flying Florida Gulf Coast, and the Gordon Hayward led Butler Bulldogs. Now up next, cue the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers.
With compelling wins over Miami, Tennessee, Nevada and Kansas State, the Ramblers have become the newest mid-major program to reach the Final Four—And the wins are no fluke.
The Ramblers feature high-level guard play with an explosive player in Marques Townes, a guy capable of creating his own space. Aundre Jackson adds to a balanced attack as an offensive spark plug off the bench. Big men Donte Ingram and Cameron Krutwig assert an inside presence and clear driving lanes. Finally, at the forefront of Ramblers offense are Clayton Custer and Ben Richardson, two highly skilled guards with great instincts. Richardson and Custer feature a strong chemistry, likely due to the fact that they’ve been playing together since the third grade.
“People used to laugh at us when we thought we were going to play Division I basketball, nobody thought we could do this,” said Custer in a on-court interview after the Rambler’s Final Four birth.
“Let me tell you a story,” interrupted Richardson, standing alongside his best friend. “A girl came up yesterday and said ‘Can I take a picture with guys?’ and she hands the phone to him.” (Twitter, (a)ForPetesSakeKC, 03.25.2018).
Custer harbors no ill will for the incident, and instead has basked in the story, retweeting it multiple times and bringing it up again at his press conferences. It is clear that the Ramblers take great pride in adopting the Cinderella image, in being just the humbled regular guys, full of hope and heart.
Alongside their telegenic team chaplain, 98-year-old Sister Jean, Loyola-Chicago has all the makings of a public darling. They have storied history, winning the 1963 National Championship as the first team to break the “gentlemen’s agreement” and play more than two Black players. They hail from a major sports city that has not reached college basketball’s pinnacle in a long time.
“Incredible to have a Chicago team in the Final Four. I’ll take that over an intact bracket any day,” tweeted popular social media man Barack Obama (Twitter, (a)BarackObama, 03.25.2018).
However, not everyone has bought in on Loyola-Chicago. Of course, infamous pessimist Stephen A. Smith had a unique opinion. “When it comes to the national championship game, I want to see the two best teams in the nation,” asserted Smith. “If I had to see Loyola-Chicago or Michigan up against Kansas or Villanova, I’d take Michigan” (ESPN, “Stephen A. doesn’t want to see Loyola in national championship,” 03.26.2018).
It is hard to root against a team as likeable and compelling as Loyola-Chicago, but Smith does make an important point about the tournament. Given the format, the best team does not always come out on top. Each upset is accompanied by a bittersweet feeling. Everyone loves an underdog story, but on the other hand, we want to watch the highest level of competition and see the best players move on. March Madness can be weirdly frustrating, and ironically unfair.
Every year I used to print out a bracket on my mother’s finest cardstock, and carefully make my picks in fine-point Sharpie, after hours of meticulous research. I’d daydream about what I would do with the $200-some odd dollars from my friend’s pool. But every year, another Cinderella would come along and crush my first-place hopes. This year was the first I decided not to fill out a bracket. No matter how much I believed I could, there was no predicting the improbable.
Not too many had foresight (not even Sister Jean) to see that a team that lost to Boise State by over 30 points would be two games away from a national championship. So this year, I decided to put my Sharpie down, and just sit back and enjoy March’s ride. Just like a glass slipper, Cinderella teams are fragile, one wrong step or calculation away from defeat. So maybe just like a Disney movie, if we believe hard enough, the regular guys can come out on top.