Madness Like Never Before

James Livingstone '24, Contributor

“BREAKING NEWS: Kansas defeats North Carolina 72-69 in men’s national championship game…” If you are like me, you are one of the thousands of people wwho received this notification from ESPN at nearly midnight on a Monday in April. Perhaps you saw this notification and brushed it off, thinking, “Oh well, yet another year when a Blue Blood wins the championship, nothing too special.” However, this notification is so much more than merely a bearer of routine news. In fact, its content is frankly the perfect finish to a March Madness tournament like no other.
I get it. We say this every year: “Oh wow, what a great tournament! That’s one we will never forget.” At this point, it’s a routine. But, not acknowledging quite how special this tournament was would not be fair to the players, coaches, and organizers whose efforts made it stand out from the rest.
Like many other college basketball fans, March is the greatest time of year for me. No matter what time of day I turn on the TV, a game between a perennial powerhouse and a school I’ve never heard of is coming down to the last seconds with the possibility of thousands of brackets being busted and torn to shreds. As a fan, these are the moments we live for. In fact, according to Joseph Stromberg’s article for Vox titled “The Science of Why we Love to Root for Underdogs,” a series of studies have been conducted on our natural inclination to pull for the lower seeded teams: “In one study, people who read descriptions of two fictional basketball teams playing each other in a seven-game series rooted for the team described as the underdog 88.1 percent of the time,” Stromberg wrote.
This love of underdogs that we all share is perhaps what made this March so special, as this year, even more so than last, was the year of the underdog. While games like the eleventh-seeded Notre Dame Fighting Irish’s win over the sixth-seeded Alabama Crimson Tide and the twelfth-seeded Richmond Spiders’ win over the fifth-seeded Iowa Hawkeyes stood out, they were not the most encapsulating storylines of the tournament. Those titles go to the Saint Peter’s Peacocks and the North Carolina Tar Heels.
Beginning with Saint Peter’s, which were clearly the most surprising team in the tournament. Before March, I doubt even the most avid college basketball fans could have named a player on the Saint Peter’s roster. Yet, despite being an unheard-of Catholic school from New Jersey, who spent less than $1.6 million on their basketball program in 2018-2019 (the last season unaffected by COVID-19), the Peacocks defeated the second-seeded Kentucky Wildcats in the first round of the tournament. This unimaginable upset becomes all the more difficult to believe when considering that Kentucky spent over $18 million on men’s basketball that same year.
While this single win is inconceivable in its own right, the Peacocks followed it up with another victory over the seventh-seeded Murray State Racers, making them just the third 15 seed to ever make it to the Sweet 16, joining the 2013 Florida Gulf Coast Eagles and the 2021 Oral Roberts Golden Eagles. What separates the Peacocks from these other teams, however, is that they added yet another victory to their unbelievable run as they upset the third-seeded Purdue
Boilermakers. A mere 0.87% of brackets chose the Peacocks to make it to the Elite 8, according to the NCAA website, yet despite these unimaginable odds, they did.
Sadly, the Peacocks’ run was eventually cut short by the eighth-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels in this Elite 8 matchup. However, this unideal ending did not take away from their substantial impact on fans everywhere.
As for the Tar Heels, they were also an underdog who captured media attention and made the tournament so fun to watch. Now, I know what you are thinking, “How is an eighth-seeded blue blood an underdog?” Well, while the Tar Heels have a rich basketball history with former players such as Michael Jordan and Vince Carter, they have not been their same dominant selves as of late. After an early exit from last year’s tournament and the retirement of legendary coach Roy Williams, there were serious questions as to how far the Heels would go under new coach Hubert Davis.
In fact, as of February, North Carolina were seen as a bubble team, barely squeaking their way into this year’s tournament. Despite these setbacks, they ended up as an 8 seed and defeated the reigning national champion and first-seeded Baylor Bears in the Sweet 16, as well as their archrival and second-seeded Duke Blue Devils in the Final Four. This storyline, a lower-seeded team led by a first-year head coach and without a true superstar, made North Carolina such an enjoyable team to watch succeed.
Given how historic the tournament truly was, it was only fitting that its finale was just as memorable. While the Tar Heels came out to an unbelievable start in the championship game against the Kansas Jayhawks, it was Kansas’s incredible 16-point comeback, the largest in a championship game in tournament history, that made the final so outstanding.
Beyond the games themselves, this tournament also accomplished a feat that it had not been able to since the start of the Pandemic: a sense of normalcy. Seeing thousands of fans, no social distancing or masking, and varying game locations and venues marked the first time in years where the tournament felt like its usual self.
Overall, this tournament was one that will truly live on for ages. The incredible basketball play paired with a normal-feeling atmosphere is unmatched by any tournaments in recent history. This year brought back the magic of March, and it was sorely missed.