At the end of every NCAA tournament you’re reminded of one thing.
That is how special the big dance can be.
Even without the great play-by-play man Gus Johnson calling games and screaming at the top of his lungs “RISE AND FIRE” before every three point attempt. March Madness still finds a way to be as memorable as the one before.
(In Case you didn’t have the pleasure of listening to Gus Johnson in his day):
Last year we were able to fall in love with the lovable kids from Florida Gulf Coast who dunked their way to the Sweet 16 as well as the #1 eventual Champions Louisville Cardinals who rallied behind their fallen teammate in Kevin Ware who suffered a near career-ending leg injury.
On this day last year, I was convinced that this years tournament wouldn’t match that years dance. But of course like most of the time, I was completely wrong.
The most Overtime games in the history of the tournament, Duke losing to some team called Mercer and 5 seeds dropping like flies highlighted a wild first weekend. Then all eyes turned toward the game many were looking forward too, a game between an unlikely undefeated powerhouse and team full of first round draft picks who were doubted all year. The 3 seeds were all bounced before the Sweet 16, and Kansas’ stars never got a chance to showcase their potential NBA Superstar talent.
Dayton happened, oh they flew sky high. A 12-man rotation in College Basketball is unprecedented but under the command of upstart Archie Miller ( Arizona’s Sean Miller’s brother) they danced all the way to the Elite 8 where they were finally outmatched by Florida. Arizona vs. San Diego State was one of the most underrated games of the tournament when Pac-12 player of the year Nick Johnson went 0-13 in the first 38 minutes, but then in the final 2 hit the biggest three of his career and then preceded to win the game for the Wildcats, making 10 straight free throws in a defensive slug-fest against the Aztecs.
But maybe most of all, March Madness shines brightest when teams stars shine just as bright. Benet Academy and Lisle alum, Wisconsin center Frank Kaminsky made a name for himself when he dropped 43 early on in November. He then literally turned into an overnight sensation when he scored 19 points and blocked shots in the Badgers comeback against Baylor, two nights later in the Elite 8 he poured in 28 points and grabbed 11 rebounds against maybe the one team that could handle him, Arizona, leading Wisconsin to the Final Four.
Adreian Payne came to Michigan State as raw of a player as you’ll ever see. Just another player Tom Izzo turned into a First-Round draft pick in four years. Payne became a student of the game, worked on his mid-range that turned into a respectable shooting percentage behind the three-point line. He became a dominant rebounding force, a leader and maybe most of all, a hero to one little 8 year-old girl battling cancer. Known as “Princess Lacey” to Payne, she has become his biggest fan and was there almost every step of the way for Payne. It be pretty awesome for her to be there Draft-day too.
Much respect goes out to the entire Kentucky team as well. Julius Randle was a Lottery pick before March, but come tournament time, it was the other guys that really made their names known. Twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison showed how good they are when Aaron or Andrew, or one of them hit three straight three’s against Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin to send Kentucky to the title game. Smooth lefty James Young started scoring at will including a ridiculous jam against UConn that is definitely on a poster somewhere already. Even backup Centers Marcus Lee and Dakari Johnson grew up before all our eyes in the absence of Willie Cauley-Stein. Did I mention they’re all only 18?
Finally there is UConn. The more you learn about this team, the more you fall in love with them. Former NBA journeyman Kevin Ollie who played for 11 teams during his career, living on 10-day contracts and 1 year deals, was handed the job after legend Jim Calhoun called it a career. At the time, Connecticut was banned from postseason play due to Academic violations. Ollie was left with a new group of players, many of which transferred and a couple of juniors who played on the Championship team in 2010-2011. One of them was guard Shabazz Napier. Napier came off the bench that year when it was the Kemba Walker show, he was a guard without a shot and was susceptible to turnovers. Ollie, a guard himself in the NBA, taught Napier to be patient and let the game come to him and in two years Ollie became more of the father Napier never had, than a coach.
On March 8th, Louisville beat the Huskies 81-48. After the game, Napier walked into the locker room and told his teammates his
vision. That they would be champions. They believed him, even if no one outside of the locker room that day did. St. Joe’s was suppose to beat them in their first round match-up, they almost did, UConn ran away in overtime behind Napier’s heroics. Under the leadership of Napier and Ollie, the two got everyone else believing that they could win it. Ryan Boatright is an undersized shooting guard that was reeling from the loss of his cousin, who was more of a brother 2 months before. Napier and Boatright soon became a dynamic duo that caused havoc on defense, and made every shot they took on offense.
But they couldn’t do it alone, teammates DeAndre Daniels, Niels Giffey and Amida Brimah among others emerged as role players behind Napier’s leadership. While everyone was talking about Florida or Kentucky, UConn worried about themselves, they were the hungriest team and no one knew about it. It was only till they played Florida when everyone realized how damn good of team this was and how well coached they were. No one made Florida look as silly on both ends all season, and UConn did it, TWICE.
The National Championship game saw plenty of momentum swings, Kentucky’s up-and-down, dunk-whenever-possible style of play can rattle any team at any moment. Ollie told them to stay the course, that they did. Napier made big shot after big shot, Boatright made both Harrison’s play their age, creating turnovers and turning them into points and role player Lasan Kromah’s sunk a pair of cold-blooded free throws to seal the game. As it ended and the confetti began to fall, Napier pointed into the crowd and repeated,
“I told you so.”
Yes, you did tell us so.