For the third consecutive year, Villanova University will enter March Madness with a legitimate claim at winning the national collegiate basketball championship — the Cats won it all in 2016. Ranked No. 1 in the polls for most of the season, I wouldn't bet against them.
This present Villanova bunch is irrepressible, never giving in, never giving up, and always playing with a heart and will as strong as steel. Coach Jay Wright absolutely knows how to coach this game, and his players absolutely know how to win, how to close out games in the crucible of the moment. Wright and his players have pinned tunnel-like preparation on every practice before each game, never wandering from what should be done to separate Villanova from its opponent — indeed, Villanova's separation was in the preparation. So, yes, absolutely, Villanova can win this cultural phenomenon known as "March Madness."
March Madness reigns, arguably, as the most exciting sports event of the year. In many respects, it has moved far beyond simply a sports event, what with the splashing, swamping, unrepentant marketing hype; the hundreds of millions of dollars underpinning the event and giving it the feel of a high-profit business venture more so than a sports experience; the supernal skills of so many players; and the breadth of broadcast of the games — the NCAA is in the middle of a $11 billion, 14-year contract with TV networks to televise every game of March Madness.
As well, the tournament forges a consuming, visceral fan following that spreads like a virus. Any dissonance in a hoophead's life seemingly finds consonance in March Madness. Indeed, all other agendas are seemingly jettisoned during this monthlong tournament.
However, March Madness wasn't always this "mad." I played in March Madness years ago, and even in its younger iteration, it was a big deal: the premiere hoop event, unmatched national recognition, the prestige — and difficulty — getting in since only 25 schools earned entrance then compared to 68 now. But it was a paler shade of the tournament of today. There was no cable TV, so no ESPN; no social media; no direct TV; no, infinite sums of money underwriting the tournament; and not many players with the breathtaking skills of today's athletes.
Surely, though, I have never forgotten the experience.
It was March 9, 1964, and my Temple team was going up against the University of Connecticut in the first round of the tournament at the famed Palestra before nearly 10,000 fans. The locker room was unusually quiet; uneasiness seemed to sift through it. Still, when the game began we played well enough to lead at halftime, then went up by seven with 5:24 left in the game — it appeared as if victory would be ours.
But just like today's tournament, March Madness games always spring unpredictable surprises.
UConn went on a scoring rip; we went cold. And lost. When the horn honked ending the game, I walked off the court with my head hanging to my ankles — dreams dashed — the final score sticking to my face like a scar. It was the most disappointing game I had ever played — or would ever play. There would be no more games this season. The one-and-done format brings a certain and distinct finality, a feeling tantamount to poet Percy Bysshe Shelley's moon: "dismal and pitiless."
Villanova's players felt that finality last year when the Cats, one of the favorites and seemingly ready to repeat as champion, were unceremoniously upset in the second round. Philly fandom felt Shelley's moon fall dismally on the Cats. Hopefully, Jay Wright and his skill-is-in-the-will players will be at their unfailing best this March.
Let the madness begin.