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Keith Strudler: March Sadness

It goes without saying that this NCAA basketball tournament has been, shall we say, complicated. I’ll refrain from using works like historic or unprecedented, because in sports analysis, we often suffer from recency effect. But if your brackets still look good, you’re either extremely lucky or living in denial.

In March Madness, we put a lot of emphasis on the winners. I suppose that’s true about most everything in life. Sports fans remember Richmond beating Syracuse in 1991, or George Mason making the Final Four in 2006. Even casual sports fans might remember NC State winning the 1983 Tournament in a game ending layup.

We’ve definitely had those moments already in the first four days of this year’s event. The most memorable came last Friday when the University of Maryland Baltimore County, or UMBC, beat the University of Virginia in a first round game. Virginia, the number one team in the country, was one of four “one” seeds. UMBC was a 16 seed, the lowest seeding in this single elimination event. Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, creating four 16 team brackets, no 16 seed had ever beaten a one. That marked 135 straight for Goliath before Friday’s late tip off. Usually those wins were lopsided, a lot like mismatched rec league games. UMBC didn’t just win, they won by 20 in one of the most inexplicable contests since the last presidential election.

Virginia isn’t the only team that was upset – although they were the worst – but other teams lost with more dramatic flair. For example, the University of Houston had a two point lead over higher seeded Michigan in the second round with under four seconds left and two free throws to seal the win. Houston missed both, Michigan scored a miracle three pointer at the buzzer, and curtains for the Cougars. Earlier in the tournament, Arizona – a trendy champion pick – lost to Buffalo, a school that had never been to the tournament before 2015 and had never won a game. That’s just a taste of this year’s tournament mayhem.

There will be considerable spoils for these and other surprise victors. Florida Gulf Coast University had a 27% spike in applications after its 2014 surprise tournament run. Other schools like Wichita State and even academic juggernaut Lehigh saw more students looking their way after tournament success. To the victors do go the spoils.

But what about the losers? What about Virginia, and Houston, and Arizona, and all the other teams throughout tournament history that see someone’s shining moment as a point of deep despair. If UMBC can forever bask in the afterglow, what happens to the Cavaliers in their shadow?

Obviously, that’s not a simple question and likely requires a complex answer. The psychology of grasping defeat from the jaws of certain or expected victory likely depends on individual self-concept and perspective. I say that as someone who grew up in Houston and still gets flashbacks of then Akeem Olajuwon losing track of Lorenzo Charles just long enough to hit the winning shot. U of H did go to the finals again the next year and lost to Georgetown. And the University itself didn’t implode. But the players still talk about it like it was yesterday. And if Houston had won, it would have forever changed the perception of their coach Guy Lewis, who carries the misguided and unfair descriptor of a guy who couldn’t win the big one. Appalachian State beat Michigan in a 2007 college football game that’s perhaps the greatest upset in sports memory – or at least of the TV era. Michigan rebounded to go 9-4 on the year and beat Florida in a bowl game, but their coach did retire at the end of the season. They went 3-9 the next year.

So how might Virginia’s footnote in history – the only one seed to ever lose to a 16 – how might it mark the basketball program, the players, the coaches? They’ll always be the answer to a trivia question. Coach Tony Bennett – who regularly coaches lesser talent to top finishes in the ACC and is unquestionably one of the best in the business – he’ll always be the coach of that team. I’m certain he’ll be just fine, but the players? Who knows. It’s the other side of March Madness. Not the big highs, but the tragic lows, all on display on bracket sheets across America.

Oddly enough, Virginia has a model to look at, another game commonly known as the biggest upset in college basketball history. In 1982, tiny NAIA division Chaminade beat the then number one ranked Virginia Cavaliers in a tournament in Hawaii. The Cavs didn’t return to number one until February of this year, over 25 years later. So yes, I suppose the agony of defeat can leave an enduring mark.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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