This is the break at the midpoint of the annual American basketball bacchanalia March Madness, the pause that allows your brackets to breathe — always assuming your brackets have any life left and have not been ripped to confetti in frustration by now.
The men’s NCAA Tournament resumes Thursday night with the original 68 teams pared now to the Sweet 16 survivors, and what remains of the bracket has almost everything left on it that you’d want (except perhaps your favorite team).
It has kings, champions, legends, blue bloods and pedigrees.
It has everything but a Chair-man.
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I miss that chair, man.
So does this tournament.
Embodied in that chair-on-casters that Georgia State coach Ron Hunter rode courtside was the last true Cinderella. Her glass slipper had wheels.
Hunter had torn his Achilles’ celebrating his team’s unlikely Sun Belt Conference championship the week before, leaving him to coach off his feet in the NCAA Tournament on a rolling chair. That was until his son hit a game-winning 3-point shot to stun heavily favored Baylor, which sent the coach spilling from his seat in sheer joy, cheering prone on his side.
It was a bizarre, delightful snapshot — the most memorable of the Madness thus far.
One more win and he’d have rolled into this Sweet 16 tall as John Wayne on a saddle. (As it was, his chair already had its own Twitter site.)
In two weeks this event’s crowning moment might very well be Kentucky coach John Calipari, on a ladder, snipping pieces of the net to mark what would be college hoops’ first unbeaten national champion since Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers of 1976.
I’d propose though that Calipari up on a ladder won’t stick in your mind like Hunter down on the floor.
What’s expected seldom is as interesting as what isn’t.
There is ample greatness in this Sweet 16, and in Kentucky there is even an ultimate favorite to root against if you are so inclined.
What there ISN’T is a warm ‘n fuzzy underdog left like No. 14-seed Georgia State and its rolling coach would have been.
Or like 15th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast was in getting to this round in 2013.
The fascination in March Madness isn’t found in Kentucky’s perfection or in the office-pool payout you’re playing for. The fascination is that, every year, there are double-digit-seeded teams whose nicknames you don’t know, from conferences you’ve barely heard of, and this is their Powerball.
This is one big shot.
“This was the greatest week of my life,” Chair-man Hunter called what he’d just been through. The postgame press conference after his team was eliminated moved him to tears. And that emotion was just from surviving to play a second game.
Just like you never win the lottery, the Georgia States never hit the ultimate prize, either. A double-digit seed has never won the NCAA championship let alone reached the title game. Only three (all No. 11s) have reached the Final Four: Louisiana State in 1986, George Mason in 2006 and Virginia Commonwealth in 2011. George Mason’s surreal ride was the résumé-maker and career-maker, of course, for current Miami Hurricanes coach Jim Larrañaga.
This year, no Cinderella left. No little team aiming a slingshot high.
What’s left is big, storied programs like Kentucky, Duke, Louisville and Michigan State. Ten of the 16 schools left have won a combined 38 national championships. Coaches still in it include legends like Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Calipari, Rick Pitino, Tom Izzo, Bob Huggins and Lon Kruger.
(Favorite Sweet 16 matchup: Duke vs. Utah in the battle of Coach K’s: Krzyzewski vs. Larry Krystkowiak. Must spell both surnames correctly to gain admittance.)
The ultimate proof that Cinderella has left the building? The only double-digit seed left in the Sweet 16 is only the most successful college basketball program ever: UCLA. I don’t care if the Bruins’ at-large invitation to the tournament was dubious and controversial and I don’t care what the point spread says. UCLA is the New York Yankees — nobody’s root-for-the-lil’-guy underdog.
The other worst-seeded teams still in it are No. 8 North Carolina State, which ousted No. 1-seeded Villanova; No. 7 Michigan State, playing in its 13th Sweet 16 in 20 seasons under Izzo; and No. 7 Wichita State, which reached the Final Four two years ago and arrived here 35-0 last year.
Oh, and, by the way, when North Carolina is described as a “sleeper,” your bracket officially has no sleepers. It is wide awake. The UNC Tar Heels sneak up on nobody.
The giants are all over this Sweet 16. If only a little guy had been able to sneak in.
No Florida Gulf Coasts here, alas.
No Dayton or LaSalle.
No Richmond, Cornell or St. Mary’s.
And no coaches left who rolled into our lives on magic wheels and make us think, for just a minute, that anything was possible.