I love this time of year.
Not because we came out of the winter unscathed (maybe I shouldn’t speak so soon). Not because this year St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Saturday. Not because hope springs eternal and the Orioles aren’t in fifth place — yet.
Not even because we watch in disappointment as some of our favorite football players leave Charm City for greener pastures only to have their spots filled by new players that will quickly become part of our “family.”
No I love this time of year because of the Giant Killers that invade the month of March. I’ve been to a lot of different sporting events, including a Ravens’ Super Bowl victory, but one of the top events I’ve been to was the first two rounds of March Madness when they were played at Cole Field House at University of Maryland in 1991.
When my friend Mark and I got tickets to the games that weekend, we couldn’t resist the tournament being so close to home and we hoped to see some good games. What we didn’t know is that we would be a part of history. That year the Richmond Spiders defeated Syracuse making them the first No. 15 seed to knock off a No. 2 seed.
A few years ago, history repeated itself — twice on the same weekend. First, Norfolk State became only the fifth No. 15 to win its first round, knocking off what many (including the writer) had as a Final Four participant in Missouri, making Norfolk State the first team to do it since their fellow conference member Hampton did it in 2001.
And lightning struck again, with apologies to my mother and sister who are huge fans, when Lehigh notched its first NCAA tournament victory over perennial basketball powerhouse and March Madness board member Duke in a stunning victory that sent the Blue Devils home early.
Things are a little different this year.
The games are for the most part very competitive. So far this year, the 2 seeds have held their own, not giving way to the dreaded 15. There have been quite a few upsets — and not as many “buzzer-beaters” — with several games going in to overtime.
Buffalo not just beating, but crushing heavily favored Arizona — they of the FBI pay-for-play scandal participants (another question, why are they even allowed to participate?) — was just one example of how things were going this year.
But nothing, and I mean nothing, could have prepared any of us for what happened on Friday night in Charlotte.
Never in the illustrious history of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, aka “March Madness,” has a 16 seed ever beaten a 1 seed. That is, until Friday night.
There have been many scares where the 16 took the 1 down to the wire, but none had ever walked off the court a winner in 135 previous games.
But there was the Retrievers’ Jairus Lyles throwing up a wing and a prayer and being rewarded with two and three points on the scoreboard, keeping the No. 1 overall seed, the so-called “best team in basketball,” well in to his rear-view mirror.
There was Virginia coach Tony Bennett on the sidelines, with plenty of time to go, yet with a look of exasperation probably pondering thoughts of what it would be like to be the first top-seeded coach to lose this game instead of figuring out a way his team could be the team that scored the incredible comeback.
There were the Cavaliers players with about four minutes to go, looking desperately for a change of momentum that would never come.
And then there was UMBC president Freeman Hrabowski hugging his players and congratulating his coach, Ryan Odom, on not just their first NCAA tournament win, but the greatest upset in tournament history.
When this time of year comes around, all of the “experienced” bracketologists try to be the one that picks the major upsets of the tournament and act like it was their intense research that helped them choose the winners and not a bit of the Luck of the Irish.
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But with Final Four “locks” Arizona and Virginia out of the picture, at this point there can’t be a single “perfect” bracket.
Why do we revel so much in the victory of the underdog?
Besides the fact that we are so surprised the basketball team representing the Old Line State comes from Catonsville and not College Park, it’s because our culture makes us feel we are all underdogs at some point as we fight against “The Man.”
As Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates said, “If there’s one cultural quality we have, it’s that we all see ourselves as the underdog.”
For one night, the Retrievers of University of Maryland Baltimore County, showed us how it’s done.