By BILL O’REAR
Tribune-Herald sports editor
For many basketball fans, there’s no greater fun than March Madness. It’s a crazy run of the haves and the have-nots competing for national attention and chasing the holy grail — the NCAA tournament title.
Of course, the programs with the multi-million dollar budgets and top recruited talent — the Louisvilles, Dukes, Kentuckys, North Carolinas and Indianas of the world — are supposed to win the national championship. But it’s the have-nots — the Florida Gulf Coasts, La Salles, Butlers, VCUs and Valparaisos — that often capture the imagination of the diehard fans with their occasional Cinderella runs, threatening to pull off miracle after miracle to reach that final tournament game and then pocket the victory that will cement them as one of the greatest stories ever told.
But if you look at the odds of a have-not winning six straight games against the top NCAA Division I teams during March Madness to claim the title, the chances are probably 10,000 million to 1 that it’s not going to happen.
Butler, a highly regarded mid-major powerhouse from Indiana, reached the NCAA title game in 2010 and 2011. The Bulldogs lost twice in hard-fought games, but they proved to many of the have-nots across the country that with the right coach, team chemistry and talent, you can make a serious run at the national crown.
For the record, Connecticut beat Butler 53-41 in the 2011 NCAA final. A year earlier, Duke edged the Bulldogs 61-59 to capture the coveted title.
This year, 15th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast, in only its second year of eligibility for the Big Dance, exploded into the national spotlight with upsets over second-seeded Georgetown and seventh-seeded San Diego State. The high-flying Eagles (26-10) advanced to the South Region semifinals against in-state power Florida (28-7), the third seed.
Yes, the same Billy Donovan-coached Gators that turned down the Eagles’ request for a scrimmage early in the year, a direct slap of disrepect from the state’s top program to the before little-known school in Fort Myers, Fla. As with most D-I powerhouses, if 99 percent of the advantage of doing something doesn’t benefit them, it most likely won’t happen.
That’s until the teams get into the NCAA tournament and those big-time programs can’t manipulate the schedule. Just Florida Gulf Coast getting to play mighty Florida is a victory for the hustling Eagles. After all, isn’t the school with the long tradition, two national titles, and by far the most money supposed to crush the little opponent who dares step on the same hardwood with it.
Regardless of falling 62-50 to the Gators on Friday night, Florida Gulf Coast had already raised its school’s profile 1,000 times and joined the map of rising basketball programs that could attract more money and talent in the near future to fuel its newfound pride and joy. With a young coach in Andy Enfield, whose lovely wife is a former model, and a strong returning nucleus — the team has only two seniors this year, 2014 looks like it could be another storybook season for the soaring Eagles.
Still, the NCAA tournament, filled with many inspiring stories as well as a few not-so-positive ones, is the best part of the year for college basketball fans. And with so much interest sparked around the country by people cheering on their favorite teams and filling out tournament brackets for fun or chasing a contest’s prize, this is indeed a frenzied time as team after team is chopped down in the fastbreak for the title.
Former NBA great Bill Russell said in the NBA Finals the best team always wins in a seven-game series. In the NCAA tournament, the team that has the necessary talent and coaching as well as brings its “A game” each night to get through the grueling six-game gauntlet is the one which usually takes home the national crown.
This year, Louisville, with legendary coach Rick Pitino, a handful of potential NBA players, and a budget the size of some small countries, is supposed to win it all. And if the Cardinals don’t, then it should be one of the other high seeds — No. 2 Duke, No. 3 Florida, or No. 4 Michigan or Syracuse. Though the lowest remaining seed, No. 9 Wichita State — not exactly a perennial national contender, but a school with a strong basketball tradition and an athletic team — has made an impressive run this year in the Big Dance.
So, as the tournament winds down, the haves move on and play for the national championship. But a large part of the March Madness fun is cheering on the have-nots, those teams which keep their dreams alive with every upset and excite the masses of fans who love every minute of it.
That’s why the NCAA tournament is special and a major reason why millions of fans can hardly wait until March each year — hoping one of those have-nots become one of the greatest stories ever told.
Email Tribune-Herald sports editor Bill O’Rear at email@example.com.