Thursday, March 17, 2011

Going Mad -- Part 1

The 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament is now underway, ready to captivate the nation once again. In this upcoming series of blog entries, I reflect upon last year's trip to the Big Dance...

The phenomenon of March Madness continues to grow.

Every year, fans and non-fans alike are drawn to the NCAA Basketball Tournament for various reasons. For some, it's the spectacle of the games themselves. For others, the lure of gambling brings a vested interest. For a third group of people, it's the cameraderie involved -- as "bracket," "Cinderella" and "Final Four" become regular parts of the American lexicon.

For college basketball lovers, the tournament's early round games are a dream come true. The drama of "win-or-go home" takes full teams compete throughout the day, bidding for their chance at glory. The favorites are faced with fulfilling their expectations, while the underdogs look to become a household name overnight.

Certainly, television coverage adds to the tournament's CBS jumps from game-to-game, keeping track of the nation's most exciting matchups. But what is it like to actually be a part of the Madness...watching the events unfold in front of your very eyes?


It was almost exactly one year ago -- March 18th, 2010 -- when I ventured to Providence, Rhode Island to experience a full day of the NCAA Tournament. From the first tipoff at noon until the final buzzer at sometime around midnight, only college basketball would be on my mind.

Welcome to March Madness!

The Dunkin' Donuts Center served as the epicenter for this inherently unique fan experience. Roughly 11,000 people from all walks of life gathered to watch eight teams take the court in four separate 1st round games. Some were there to watch their current school or alma mater take part in the tournament, while others simply arrived to be a part of the action.

Basketball fans from around the country converge on Providence for the weekend

In-and-around the arena, a wide array of colors and logos catch the eye. On this day, fans of the Villanova Wildcats, Robert Morris Colonials, Richmond Spiders, Saint Mary's Gaels, Georgetown Hoyas, Ohio Bobcats, Tennessee Volunteers and San Diego State Aztecs mingled together in the concourse and seating area.

Fans arriving at the Dunkin' Donuts Center

As fans still filed into the building on an unseasonably warm and pleasant New England day, the first game of the afternoon was about to start. On paper, it was a decided Villanova, the South Region's #2 seed, faced off against Robert Morris, the #15 seed.

Not many expected a close contest between Villanova and Robert Morris

The Wildcats, a stalwart in the mighty Big East Conference, sported a 24-7 record for the season...and appeared in the Final Four during the previous year. For Villanova fans, a national championship was a realistic proposition.

The Wildcats carried some lofty expectations into the tournament

Robert Morris, on the other hand, went 23-11 in the Northeast Conference, winning the NEC Tournament to qualify for the Big Dance. For Colonials' fans, the goal was simply to not get embarrassed by a more-talented Villanova squad.

The Robert Morris Colonials were just happy to be there

Right off the bat, the beauty of the NCAA Tournament was on full display. The underdogs from Robert Morris came to play, and held a 28-22 halftime lead. A buzz was starting to develop throughout the Dunkin' Donuts Center. Could the Colonials become only the fifth #15 seed to win a tourney game?

The upset-minded Colonials outhustled Villanova to a 28-22 halftime lead

Some fans in the arena knew little-to-nothing about Robert Morris University, but that didn't prevent them from joining in the cheers of the red-clad RMU supporters for every made basket and defensive stop. As the 2nd half progressed, not only was Villanova competing against a feisty Colonials team...but they would also have to overcome the underdog-loving crowd.

Robert Morris' play was winning over the sold-out crowd in Providence

Trailing 55-47 with 4:19 remaining in the 2nd half, Villanova made its run...tying the game at 58 and forcing overtime! There was already high drama in Providence, and the first game hadn't even concluded yet!

Scottie Reynolds sank some clutch free throws during Villanova's comeback

Despite their superior talent, however, the Wildcats couldn't pull away from the NEC Champions. With Villanova holding a 73-70 advantage, Robert Morris still had a chance to tie it in the final 10 seconds.

Robert Morris still has a chance in overtime

The entire arena stood as the ball was brought in-bounds for the final play. Colonials' senior guard Mezie Nwigwe dribbled near the three-point line. Tightly defended, he goes up for the game-tying shot as the clock is about to expire...and the ball bounces off the back of the rim. The Villanova fans in attendance breathe a sigh of relief, while everyone else lets loose a loud "Ahhhhhh!!!" The upset bid was so close, but yet so far.

Heartbreak for the Colonials

For Robert Morris and its fans, a moral victory and some name recognition would have to do. The team from suburban Pittsburgh left the court to a standing ovation from the sold-out crowd.

Robert Morris lost the game, but won respect

During the half-hour break between contests, a game-within-the-game ensues on the Dunkin' Donuts Center concourse. Like vultures preying upon a dying body in the desert, fans of the winning team traditionally descend upon the losing team's seating area...looking to buy tickets for the next round's game. It is generally an unspoken transaction at first...with people's fingers extended in the air, indicating the number of ducats they're seeking.

The Madness was already underway in Providence, but there were still three games yet to play!

To be continued...

'Nova survives...what a way to begin March Madness in Providence!


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