OLEAN, N.Y. — This is the good part of March, always, at places like St. Bonaventure that don’t make an annual habit of visiting the NCAA Tournament. Here, in a small corner of Western New York, you see the emotions spill on a floor when the name of the school appears on TV, when the players huddle and hug and savor a moment that will stay with them forever.
“The Bonnies are going to the dance!” Mark Schmidt, the Bonnies coach, said to explosive cheers and plenty of tears, joy filling their gym, the Reilly Center, a scene recreated at 67 other campuses Sunday night.
But there is another part, too. Especially now. Especially this year. And the dichotomy is striking this March, more than it’s ever been before. There is still that part of our sporting soul that wants to believe that these scenes are what carry the day at this time of the calendar, the celebrations on campuses across the country, the instant analysis of who was snubbed and who got lucky and who-ya-got in your Final Four?
There is that part of our brain that, for the next few days, will be devoted to filling out brackets, to figuring out which 12 seeds are going to knock out the 5s, to trying to be the smartest folks in whatever room you happen to be in, whatever pools you happen to be in.
And then the games will start, the 12-hour marathons on Thursday and Friday, and there will be those who will pretend to work while sneaking peeks at TBS and TNT and others who will simply stay away altogether, go to your den or your favorite sports bar or, if you’re especially ambitious, the sports book at your preferred Vegas hotel. All of that will lend a sense of normalcy.
And yet, there is nothing normal about the madness this March, lowercase “m,” no trademark or copyright necessary. The games may look pure but the game is not — never has been, of course, and intellectually we always knew that. But now there are FBI men with subpoenas looking into the attics and basements of so many college basketball programs.
There has already been real damage at Louisville — which, for almost five years, was known as the 2013 national champions but for the last three weeks has toiled under the ever-ominous tag of “vacated.” And ever since, there has been rampant speculation — with some genuine terror thrown into the mix — that the same fate may befall whoever cuts down the nets in San Antonio three weeks from Monday.
And that that team might have some company.
These past two weekends in New York City, we were mostly spared from having to ponder the dark underbelly of what’s to come. In an unprecedented glut of college basketball that even the glory days of the city’s and the sport’s marriage never saw — the brief window after World War II and before the point-shaving scandals of 1951 that ruined college basketball at Madison Square Garden for a generation.
The Big Ten, Big East and Atlantic Coast Conferences all visited the city these past two weeks — the first two at the Garden, the latter across the river, at Barclays Center. The three champions who emerged — Michigan’s Wolverines, Villanova’s Wildcats and Virginia’s Cavaliers — all happen to be programs thus far spared from the early previews leaked by the FBI to various news outlets.
While it’s just as dangerous to ever assume any program is lily-pure as it is to presume it dirty and rotten, all three of those teams are generally viewed as doing things the right way. And two of the area’s local entrants — New Rochelle’s Iona College and Brooklyn’s LIU — are also tremendous stories in their own right, the Gaels as close to a basketball dynasty as the city presently boasts (three straight NCAA trips), the Blackbirds an eternal tie to its glorious past (when Clair Bee ruled the strongest basketball power in the country).
Again, these snippets are nice. And they are important. But they don’t cast away the darker clouds looming. Seton Hall, after all, is the third local entrant in the NCAA, and its name appeared in one of those leaked stories; the school will have its day to defend itself, and has already decried the leak, but for now the allegations stick like lint, as allegations will. Just this weekend, another program the city has regularly adopted in past years, Connecticut, fired Kevin Ollie, a coach with a national championship on his résumé, citing “just cause,” as the whiff of scandal snakes its way around Storrs.
“Our goal, above all, is to ensure we have a program that UConn Nation can be proud of, including our students, alumni, fans and all our committed supporters,” Susan Herbst, the university president, said after the termination.
You’ll be hearing similar declarations over the coming weeks and months. That’s the other part of the fun coming across the next three weeks. Maybe “One Shining Moment” can obscure it for a little while. The echoing joys of 68 college gymnasiums can do the same. But not forever. Not this time.
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