North Carolina A&T forward Adrian Powell shoots during practice on Wednesday in Lexington, Ky. / James Crisp, AP
These are the days that try a college basketball fan's heart and head. Days of once-in-a-lifetime dreams, where epic wins seem not only possible, but even likely.
This is especially true of fans of Cinderellas-in-waiting. For us, the dance can't start soon enough.
"It is always that thought that even when everyone else is counting you out, there is still always that hope," said Precious Bradley, 22, a senior at North Carolina A&T. Her school's men's team Thursday faces Louisville, the No. 1 overall seed, as the longest of long shots in this year's tournament: The Cardinals are a daunting 26-point favorite over the No. 16 seed Aggies. Nonetheless, Bradley said her campus was abuzz over the Aggies' Tuesday night win, in a play-in game that propelled them onto the big stage.
Fans of A&T, which was last in the tournament in 1995, are accustomed to watching from afar as nearby perennial powers Duke and North Carolina regularly fill their dance cards.
"My dad just called me, and he said, 'Precious, you don't know how big ... this is. I said, 'Dad, we are really trying.' ... He told me that he is going to sleep in his Aggie apparel tonight."
Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, a No. 1 seed has never lost to a No. 16 seed. Never. The Aggies are facing if not actual certainty, statistical reality.
"You know, right now we are just trying to keep the faith," Bradley said.
This is part of the inner conflict of Cinderella fans at office-pool time: Do you try to win the pot with smart picks and a cool analysis of your team's chances? Or do you follow your heart? Cinderella or Sagarin?
As the men's field of 64 begins its first full day of action Thursday, office pools will collect brackets littered with picks not divined by sober analysis or statistical probabilities, but by hope, prayer and a sort of irrational exuberance that envelops fans across the USA.
The Cinderellas of North Carolina AT&T, Iona (No. 15 seed), Western Kentucky (another No. 16 seed) and the South Dakota State (a No. 13 seed; more on them later) will either preserve brackets or destroy them.
A SPORTS 'REALITY SHOW'
NCAA Division I basketball tournaments reacquaint us with our inner thespian. Fortunes rise and fall in seconds, underdogs and underachievers come together in a collage of competition that stretches into April. March Madness creates virtual nations out of followers of a few good jump-shooters.
Young athletes transform into movements of grace on the big screen, an art form that even Michelangelo might appreciate.
No wonder they call it a dance.
But there is always a calculated side to the NCAA Tournament. Predictors and handicappers thrive and, sadly, problem gamblers suffer even more. The season's madness even prompts economists to try to gauge its impact on commerce, as offices brimming with productivity in February suddenly lose focus in March.
It's the Lotto and Survivor and the Cinderella complex uniquely rolled into one mega-event.
"Americans like crazy improbability," said Orin Starn, chair and professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University, which, depending on which side you are on, is either the Mother Ship or Evil Empire of college basketball.
"March Madness is in a way America's most-watched reality show, and in the same way as on a reality show, you don't know if one contestant is going to pull the others' eyes out," he said. "What we love about March Madness is it seems as if anything can happen. ... Americans are betting billions of dollars on it. And when you are rooting for Cinderella, you are also rolling the dice and hoping that your number will come up in the lottery - bracket-wise."
Don't talk luck or hope on the Duke campus, though. The No. 2 seed Blue Devils play No. 15 Albany on Friday, and while the atmosphere in Durham is not ho-hum, Duke fans carry the quiet confidence that comes with experience and, well, championships.
"There is a pretty high expectation," said Starn, who is preparing to teach an online class on Sports and Society for Coursera in April, in which 13,000 have already enrolled. "To be frank, I don't think people get very excited about the first- or second-round games. Really, the sad truth is that Duke has maintained such a high standard of excellence (with its basketball team) that not making the Final Four is a failed season."
Just the opposite for many others. Getting there is a success; a tournament win or two or three later, Cinderella appears.
Even the casual observer can appreciate the meaning of an upset, like when No. 15 seed Lehigh last year beat Duke, a No. 2 seed.
Because that Cinderella story is DNA-deep in all of us.
SOUTH DAKOTA HOOPS DREAMS
Disclaimer: I am a virtual resident of Jackrabbit Nation, which is made up of followers of a relatively new kid at the Big Dance from Brookings, S.D.
South Dakota State University is home to renowned rodeo and plant and animal science, and, as of late, some pretty decent basketball players. South Dakota State University's women have qualified for the NCAA Tournament every year (five) they have been eligible since moving up from Division II. The Jackrabbit men are on their second consecutive trip, and they drew Michigan in prime-time Thursday.
In my home state, every small town is Hoosierville, and in any season you can see girls and boys shooting hoops outdoors, just as you can see in Brooklyn or Albuquerque or Lansing or Lexington. In Brookings, basketball is a hometown story. Three of the five Jackrabbit men starters grew up within a half-hour drive from campus; the other two are from neighboring Iowa and Minnesota. Players on the 13th-seeded South Dakota State women, who play South Carolina on Saturday, mostly grew up within a half-day's drive, or less, of Frost Arena.
The South Dakota State University Jackrabbit men, also a No. 13 seed, have a point guard, Nate Wolters, who likes to pass as much as score, and some lanky three-point marksmen around him. The state motto could be: "Only three electoral votes, but we can sure shoot the three."
Jack fans are so excited to be back at the Big Dance that they shrugged off a hayseed reference when the satirical Onion claimed that SDSU was most excited to learn that seeds were involved in the Big Dance.
Yet in an exercise that fans across the country will recognize, that all-important office bracket presents itself, and you have a choice: your team, or the other guy?
'A REAL SHOT'
This Cinderella dilemma devolves into rationalization. You grasp at straws, comb the stats, you'd even invoke the phases of the moon if it would help your cause. I can tell myself that I've found enough "experts" convinced that my Jackrabbits could knock off Big Blue, whose basketball pedigree is rivaled only by its football history. Michigan is favored by 11.5 points. But Kels Dayton at Sheridanhoops.com wrote the Jacks have "a real shot at pulling off an upset." Yahoo Sports' Brad Evans blogged that the Jacks are a "true threat to eliminate the favorite" Wolverines.
People really believe this, I convince myself.
The head says Michigan, a No. 4 seed, is too quick, too deep, too battle-tested in the rugged Big 10 conference. If the two teams played 10 times, Michigan might win eight or nine - or all 10. That's for one bracket entry.
But the heart skips a beat over that one chance. That's for another.
Cinderella lived most recently in George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth, two schools that few had heard of until they made improbable runs to the Final Four in 2006 and 2011, respectively. Both knocked off the top seed in the tournament.
So why not for Jackrabbit Nation?
Brackets are made to be broken.
And an epic win is just a buzzer-beater away.
Chuck Raasch is a 1976 graduate of South Dakota State.
Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com
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