By Alex Bullock
March is now upon us, and for college basketball fans around the country one phrase comes to mind this time of year: March Madness. A lot of times the March Madness name is thought to relate to simply the NCAA basketball tournament, but the madness begins much before the opening game of the conference tournaments.
NCAA Division I basketball is made up of 347 schools organized into 32 conferences. Each conference champion (except for the champion of the newly formed Great West Conference) receives an automatic bid to the 68-team field that is the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Championship.
All but one of these conferences holds a conference championship tournament to determine who will receive their conference’s automatic bid to the “Big Dance.”
For smaller schools without a realistic chance of winning the entire tournament, winning the conference tournament and getting a chance to play on the biggest stage their sport has to offer is success enough to justify their hard work over the season.
Occasionally, one of these mid-major schools will enjoy a miraculous streak of unexpected victories that would not have been possible without earning a bid to the tournament through their conference championship.
The USD men’s basketball team fit this bill in 2008. After winning the West Coast Conference Championship that was hosted at the Jenny Craig Pavilion, the Toreros were given the No. 13 seed in the West Region. This ranking matched the Toreros against the University of Connecticut Huskies, the No. 4 seed in the region and a top 20 ranked team overall. The Toreros upset the Huskies 70-69 in overtime in the only NCAA tournament victory in the history of the program.
Even though their 2008 campaign was ended by the Toreros, the 2011 edition of that Huskies team provided us with one of the most impressive reminders of just how mad March can become.
Led by guard Kemba Walker, now a member of the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats, the Huskies reached as high as No. 4 in the national rankings before ending their regular season on a 4-7 stretch and falling to the No. 21 spot in the rankings. The Huskies seemed to be reeling heading into the Big East Men’s Basketball Tournament and many people discounted their chances of finding their early-season success. That’s when the madness began.
Every year, the Big East tournament is held at Madison Square Garden in New York City, one of the world’s most famous sports arenas, especially when it comes to basketball. The Big East tournament has provided some of the most spectacular stories the arena has seen, including a six-overtime thriller in 2009 between the Huskies and the Syracuse University Orange.
In 2011, the Huskies entered the tournament as the No. 9 seed out of 16 teams. They went on to win five games in five nights, four of those coming against teams ranked in the top 25 nationally, to earn the Big East’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. These games were hotly competed, one of which even required a buzzer beater from Walker to allow the Huskies to advance.
Without winning the Big East tournament, the Huskies may not have even been invited to play in the NCAA tournament due to their late-season struggles.
The madness didn’t stop there, however. The Huskies entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 3 seed where they won six more games, including the national championship against the Butler University Bulldogs.
The Huskies ended their mad March on an 11-game win streak and earned the right to call themselves national champions, a title that seemed far from reasonable in February.
With conference tournament season upon us now, we should prepare ourselves for the impending madness that comes with the possibility of the end of your team’s season with their next loss.
The Torero’s men’s basketball team may not have the pedigree of the University of Connecticut’s basketball program, but that doesn’t mean they cannot go on a run in their own conference tournament.
Matching the Huskies’ run of 2011 may be improbable, but it is certainly not impossible. If we’ve learned anything from March Madness in the past, it is to expect the unexpected.