By John Fanta
CLEVELAND, OH — I remember it like it was yesterday. Thursday, March 21, 2013.
I just had to sneak out of Mr. Nolan’s physics class at 12:14 PM ET. Luckily, his classroom was just steps away from the Saint Ignatius High School Senior Lounge. That’s where the flatscreen TV was. All eyes were on CBS Broadcast Network. All eyes were on Michigan State and Valparaiso in a 3-14 matchup to kick it off. It could have been any two schools playing. That was insignificant. Why? Because it was bigger than that. This was the NCAA Tournament opener. No, I don’t count the First Four. This was the first game on Thursday, one of the best sports days of the year.
In 2020, we don’t have that. And like many of you, it breaks my heart. We don’t get to see Obi Toppin and Dayton try to fulfill what seemed like destiny. Cassius Winston, Payton Pritchard, Myles Powell and Markus Howard can’t show us greatness one final time. We don’t get to see if Cinderella’s slipper fits.
Some are trying to simulate the tournament. I get it, but that doesn’t even feel right. By the same token, though, I’m not here to proclaim this as a doomsday.
I’ve heard in the past week that sports is often used as a resort, and right now we are even without that resort. But you know what? We don’t have to be. Typically, this time of year, we define a team’s season by what they do in the NCAA Tournament. Narratives drive the debate machine, like how a blue blood ends up or whether a team can validate its seed or the mid-major can show it belongs.
But how about this: How about we take a step back? Instead of simulating, how about we appreciate the process? Okay, it may not be dramatic because you know what happened, but think about Toppin taking the nation by storm and charging Dayton to rich heights. Think about Udoka Azubuike’s remarkable ride, proving a true center can still thrive in college basketball. Think about Rutgers, who hadn’t been to the tournament since 1991 and was heading there. How about Hofstra? The Pride had not appeared since 2001. They still have memories to last a lifetime, and cut down a net after winning the CAA Tournament.
“It feels surreal, and still kind of is.”
Those were the words of college basketball leading scorer Markus Howard to me earlier this week.
“We were playing our best basketball heading into the NCAA Tournament and I thought we had a real run in us this time,” a coach texted me.
But that coach followed with this.
“Couldn’t be prouder of our kids and the way they handled it.”
Processing everything right now seems impossible. But here’s what is possible – relishing the moments this college hoops season delivered, from the depth of the Big Ten and Big East to the emergence of San Diego State, BYU and others. From UCLA being back on the map, something we’ve seen before, to the rise of Seton Hall back into the major national spotlight and their best season in decades.
If you appreciated one moment, or player, send something to that team or player on social media if you are able to do so. They don’t get their chance to deliver that One Shining Moment, but they also don’t get that opportunity unless they provided so many shining moments before it to reach the big dance floor. Today’s a time to remember those moments, and that process. It’s one that starts in the summer and transitions into fall workouts when no one is watching college basketball, and everyone’s locked in on football weekends. It’s a marathon, and while this season comes off like a great book that you were reading before the final three chapters were ripped out, that marathon deserves to be appreciated.
And when the lights go on that dance floor again a year from now — and they will go on — we’ll be ready as ever.
And those shining moments will return.
For now, relish in the process, and the journey, that it took for teams to get there.
Have a favorite team, player or moment from this college basketball season? Tweet me at @John_Fanta and @NCAAHoopsDigest with yours and we’ll retweet it to get the ball rolling on honoring the memories that the 2019-20 campaign produced. God Bless, and stay safe everyone.