Friday, March 28, 2008

A Season on the Brink

Did you see #10 Davidson almost take down #1 Kansas? The last remaining underdog in the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament, down two points, had the ball with just seconds on the clock. Guard Jason Richards, at the top of the key, put the ball up for a 3-point shot to win. The ball seemed to hang in mid-air before it crashed the glass to the left of the rim, the buzzer went and the overdogs won. Davidson would have been only the third double-digit underdog to make the Final Four. Instead this year is the first time all four number one seeds are in the Final Four.
American college basketball? Who cares? In the US the process of filling in a tournament bracket is an established officeplace ritual. Up here - not so much! Basketball in general hasn't really clicked with Canadians as a big spectator sport, even with the MVP heroics of Victoria, BC's Steve Nash. As well, it is a bit of an East v West thing in Canada. Suburban Ontario driveways have kids playing basketball at the hoop Dad installed. Suburban Alberta driveways may have a hoop but the kids will be playing road hockey. And I know more kids who play organized lacrosse than basketball, or baseball for that matter. But some St. Albert kids are certainly playing basketball, for in our own local happy underdog story, Paul Kane High School won their first provincial championship in 45 years in men's basketball earlier this month!

The appeal of March Madness is the underdog story. Everyone loves the archetypical David beats Goliath tale. And the NCAA tournament almost always throws up a Cinderella story of the little team from Unheardof College in Nowhereville USA taking on the Big Rich College. It is even better when the underdog team is literally smaller, a la 5 ft 8 Steve Nash! Davidson is certainly not unheralded, and many have written that they were seeded too low, but it was still exciting to see them defeat #2 Georgetown and #3 Wisconsin.

English soccer's FA Cup has the same appeal, with the possibility of a little team defeating a big team. And this year is a banner year for the underdog, with only one of its final four teams from the top tier of soccer, the Premiership. The closest we have in hockey might be The Memorial Cup tournament, where the winners of the three junior hockey leagues play, but so too does the team from the host city (which may or may not be a competitive team that year).

There are a plethora of books about NCAA basketball, about March Madness, the legendary coaches, the Cinderella stories. How March Became Madness (2006) by Eddie Einhorn promises to tell "How the NCAA Tournament Became the Greatest Sporting Event in America". Many of the big name coaches (John Wooden, Bob Knight, Mike Krzyzewski) speak of their own experiences in the tournament. And a slightly odd bonus - a DVD of the first nationally-televised regular season college basketball game: UCLA vs Houston in 1968!

John Feinstein is a one-man sports book industry, notably with college basketball. His career began with his classic book, Season on the Brink: A Year with Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers (1987). Feinstein had full access to Coach Knight and the Hoosiers' team during the 1985-6 basketball season - practices, team meetings, games. The result was an excellent inside look at big time college sports. The book was a huge bestseller and created a subgenre of sports book - the 'year in the life' tale. And Feinstein keeps going back to the well! - 2006 saw Last Dance: Behind the Scenes at the Final Four, a look at 2005's teams. 2000 saw a look at NCAA basketball in the lower echelons - The Last Amateurs: Playing for Glory and Honor in Division I College Basketball. 1999 saw A March to Madness: A View from the Floor in the Atlantic Coast Conference, a look at the 1996-7 season of the powerhouse ACC (which includes North Carolina, Duke, NC State etc). And in 2005 Feinstein even set his first crack at fiction, a teen mystery, at the Final Four tournament: Last Shot: A Final Four Mystery.

Oh, and by the way, my bracket has Kansas winning!

(Photo of Paul Kane Blues celebrating Provincial Championship courtesy Lyle Aspinall and the St. Albert Gazette)


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