So now it’s orange-and-black-hued Mercer, from Macon, Ga., where they are making whoopee now that a school formerly known for producing conspiracy theorist Nancy Grace suddenly is better known for slaying Duke in the NCAA basketball tournament. Think about this: A program few knew existed has knocked off a superpower with the best college coach ever — sorry, John Wooden, but Mike Krzyzewski has excelled in a more difficult era and won two Olympic gold medals — and a player, Jabari Parker, who might become a perennial NBA All-Star.
“They sliced us up,’’ Duke’s Rodney Hood said. “There’s no other way to put it.”
What possibly will happen next in the mind game that is March Madness?
“Beating Duke will always be in the history books,’’ junior Darious Moten said after Mercer’s 78-71 victory.“Anytime you watch March Madness, there will be clips of us beating Duke.’’
Yes, there will be. But maybe not as many as you think.
So much of sports carries over in systematic repetition, like the same drive to work each day, year after year. Thankfully, the NCAA tournament never fails to pump new faces, twists, storytelling, game scenarios — and life — into the routine. If the college game isn’t as skillful or potent as it was, its quality stripped by the NBA’s one-and-done thievery, I’m also very pleased to report that March Madness hasn’t lost its thrill quotient.
In fact, these damned brackets are more fun than ever.
Turns out parity isn’t a naughty word. It’s a wonderful thing, allowing for all possibilities and purging dusty terms such as “mid-major’’ and “upset’’ from the vocabulary. Yes, this three-week blur is a gambling Bacchanalia that appeals to every demographic, a rage fueled by Warren Buffett’s promise of a $1 billion payoff for a perfect bracket. But by the end of the tournament’s first full day, more than 99 of the brackets submitted to ESPN and CBS websites already had at least one line slashed through a loser’s name. Those of us who don’t gamble — we watch the tournament for, you know, pure fun — have to giggle at the neurotics who play the game within a game. They have no idea what they’re missing.
Don’t you get it? The joy of filling out a bracket is walking on the wild side. Anyone who doesn’t pick a Dayton to beat Ohio State, or a North Dakota State to beat Oklahoma, doesn’t grasp the essence of the tournament. ESPN is paying a numbers cruncher named Nate Silver a boatload of money — and trying to turn a bespectacled nerd into a rock star — to supposedly out-think the rest of us, yet he’s playing his Final Four as safely as Barack Obama, picking Florida (yawn), Michigan State (snore), Louisville (sleep apnea) and Arizona (snooze button). Silver is afraid to be wrong. I’m not — Gonzaga is my selection out of the West Regional, which he estimates as a 4 percent likelihood.
I’m not sure how the tournament will top its opening two days. Thursday, there were four overtime games, two more victories in the now-legendary No. 12-over-No. 5 seeding line, a buzzer-beater, a 41-point performance from Michigan State’s Adreian Payne (his name was dropped during the Barack-etology session), a post-midnight scare of Louisville by one of Rick Pitino’s coaching disciples and, best of all, Carlin Dupree. The North Dakota State freshman rarely plays, and when he does, it often isn’t pretty. But when senior star Taylor Braun fouled out in overtime, it was the unlikely freshman who broke through, banking in a wildly tossed layup over multiple Oklahoma bodies to lead the Bison to an 80-75 win. The other victorious 12 seed, Harvard, was a shock to no one who follows the sport. North Dakota State was the story of the day, some achievement given the relentless, 13-hour drama.
“They’re unbelievably coached!’’ said the Bison coach, a character named Saul Phillips.
This came a day after Saul said at a press conference that he sleeps with the media, adding that his wife, Nicole, is an author and former television anchor in Fargo. Oh, if only this man could stick around for next weekend. Who knew anyone in North Dakota could be so funny?
“When Carlin plays basketball, somebody’s band is going to be playing,” Phillips said. “Sometimes it’s yours, sometimes it’s theirs, but somebody’s is going to be playing. Tonight it was ours.’’
The band also was playing for Dayton’s Vee Sanford, who trumped a would-be winning shot by Ohio State’s Aaron Craft and struck a blow for every in-the-shadows program shunned in scheduling by an in-state behemoth. And the band was playing for Payne, of whom Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said, “He was playing in another zone, not even in the ozone. He was in Pluto and beyond.’’ And the band was playing for Louisville’s Luke Hancock, who made two monstrous 3-pointers in the final 79 seconds to help Louisville avoid an all-time stunner against Manhattan and coach Steve Masiello, the former student whom Pitino didn’t want to play. And the band was playing for Texas big man Cameron Ridley, who retrieved a loose ball and converted a putback at the final buzzer to beat Arizona State. And the band was playing for Pittsburgh’s Talib Zanna, who played like his idol, Tim Duncan, in a romp over Colorado and might scare the zig-zagging hair off the scalp of Florida coach Billy Donovan.
The band played all day, all night, and into Friday morning.
“I’ve heard this before where there really aren’t upsets anymore,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “There may be some surprises, but I just think when you’re looking at seeds and if you’re playing this time of year, you’re probably a pretty good basketball team.”
I should point out that the NCAA tournament is just getting started. Warren Buffett won’t be giving up his $1 billion, but somehow, we’re richer without it.