NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Ultimately, when March is over and bracket-pool managers pay out the pot, there are 67 losers.
It’s funny, really. When you think of the NCAA Tournament, you immediately call to mind the jubilant winners. For me, it’s Vermont’s overtime upset of Syracuse in the first round of the 2005 tournament. I remember where I was, who I was watching with. I remember Gus Johnson’s call of T.J. Sorrentine’s shot “from the parking lot” to hammer the nail in Syracuse’s coffin.
The game had a David-and-Goliath feel to it — a bunch of under-recruited nobodies at a hippie school taking down a basketball giant in March. Vermont fan or not, it was a powerful moment.
Two days later, the Catamounts ran into Michigan State in the next round and lost handily. I couldn’t tell you where I was or what I was doing that day. I got over it pretty darn quickly.
Such is the beast of March Madness. So rarely do the cameras effectively capture the painful images of those who don’t make it to the end of the month. The chances of any one team surviving to that point are absurdly marginal, yet they all hang their hopes on making it because believing otherwise would be sacrilege.
For 67 programs, March is the cruelest month of the year.
On Friday night, Ohio upset Michigan in Nashville, and the Wolverines became a footnote. Co-workers will gather round the water cooler on Monday and complain that the Wolverines screwed their brackets. They’ll grumble over Michigan’s shortcomings and muse that the Bobcats are rather well-coached for a team out of the Mid-American Conference.
And that’s that. Life moves on pretty quickly. After a weekend that saw a pair of two-seeds in Missouri and Duke fall on the same day as Michigan, the Wolverines’ massive failure was a mere blip on the radar of the casual college basketball fan. By the end of the month, only the winner matters.
Perhaps it’s some kind of neural mechanism. Your brain remembers the good, forgets the bitterness. But on Friday night, after Michigan fell to an Ohio team that just wanted it more all game long, the images of a heartbreaking loss were forever sealed in my memory.
I’ll never forget watching sophomore forward Evan Smotrycz stand on the court and pull his jersey over his head as the buzzer sounded. The kid had the most efficient shooting performance of his career and kept Michigan in the game throughout. But his turnover to seal the Wolverines’ fate in the final seconds would be the clip shown on SportsCenter on Saturday morning and what the office workers remember come Monday — and he knew it.
Senior guard Stu Douglass untucked his jersey and looked up at the basket. His last chance for postseason glory had been squandered, and he needed a moment to reflect. But Douglass and his teammates were hurried off the court so Temple could begin warming up for its second-round matchup with South Florida. March doesn’t wait around for losers.
I won’t forget walking into the locker room afterward, seeing the blank stares, the teary eyes. There was a powerful silence, broken only by the muffled Bobcat cheers from the locker room next door. When I walked in, senior Corey Person strategically turned his chair in toward the locker and put his head in his hands to avoid the media onslaught for the next 15 minutes.
Then, with just a few minutes left in the locker room, sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr. came out of the showers to address the media. Unlike his teammates, he held his head up and spoke with clarity, with confidence. He didn’t feel sorry for himself or his teammates, and he credited Ohio for playing a superb 40 minutes of basketball.
Though it’s too early to make promises, he announced that he is “definitely” coming back to Michigan for a junior season. Make what you will of that, but his tone was genuine. And as senior co-captains Zack Novak and Stu Douglass fought tears in front of the cameras, Hardaway Jr. looked forward to next March, when he’ll be the veteran leader of this squad.
I left Bridgestone Arena on Friday night with a new perspective on March Madness. From the 2012 Tournament, I’ll remember the faces of a group of kids whose season ended on March 16 instead of April 2.
And should Tim Hardaway Jr. lead them to better fortune in March of 2013 — should they find glory and cut down the nets — I’ll remember that their journey started with that gut-wrenching loss on Friday night.
— Pasch is grateful for the two amazing years he had covering Michigan hoops. This is his last column as a basketball beat writer, but he will forever express his opinions on Twitter: @lucaspasch