Jones on March Madness: Some Cinderella stories

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim (Frank Franklin II/AP)

If you are a basketball fan I think I know where I’ll be able to find you at some point over the next four days. You will sidle up to a TV set, a computer or any other place that allows you to watch the start of the NCAA tournament. You will watch part of, or see highlights of, 16 games Thursday, then 16 more Fridayand then take your perch on Saturday to check out 8 games involving the teams you watched on Thursday. But wait, there’s more, as you will continue to get “square butt” and do it all again on Sunday. Yep that’s 48 games in four days learning about teams, players and coaches you previously didn’t know.

The first weekend of the tournament is one of the best parts of the dance. Snap your fingers and you have gone from 64 to a Sweet 16 like that. Don’t get me wrong, every year Final Four Saturday is one of the greatest days in sports, but there is a charm about those auditioning for the role of Cinderella early in the process. It’s great to watch a crowded dance floor with your princely eyes scanning all the pairings over the first and second rounds in search of The One, only to be disappointed.

You know the teams I’m talking about, the squads that show up wearing the dress on the first or second day and look like Cinderella by trying on the shoe as they pull off an upset. Yes there was No. 13 Princeton defeating No. 4 UCLA in 1996, or how about 14th-ranked Bucknell surprising No. 3 Kansas in 2005. And then there is the ever popular No. 12 upset of a No. 5 every year in Round One.

But something happens to those squads on the way to the Final Four Ball. It seems like the shoe is too tight. It squeezes them and chokes off their chances or it’s too big and trips them up long before all eyes can see them on stage as they get close to the final dance. In essence they move gracefully on the dance floor looking like Arthur Murray graduates for only a game or two before having their dance partner step on their foot and put them on the ground. If you’re not familiar with Arthur Murray and the connection with dancing, you may want to do a search of some sort.

However, those are the games you remember. How far exactly did No. 14 Cleveland State and Mouse McFadden get in 1986 when the Vikings defeated Bob Knight’s #3 Indiana team. I’ll never forget the phrase something along the lines of “We respect Indiana greatly but there is more than one way to play basketball”. The Vikings did get to the Sweet Sixteen but that’s where it stopped.
And where is Winston Garland now? Remember his Southwest Missouri State Bears (now Missouri State) taking out Atlantic Coast Conference powerhouse Clemson in 1987? Who was that kid from Vancouver making all those free throws in 1993 as No. 15 Santa Clara took out powerhouse No. 2 Pac-10 Champ Arizona? Umm ya, it was Steve Nash.

Everybody has their favourite upset and please feel free to add to the list. I bet the Duke fans know where Lehigh is after last year. Ask someone on the campus at Syracuse from back in the day where the University of Vermont is located and who Taylor Coppenrath is and I bet they can tell you. Yep the Richmond Spiders took down Syracuse too in 1991.

To be a true Cinderella candidate you have to dance for more than one or two songs and get to the Final Four. You can sometimes see them coming right through the first and second round. They waltz into the Sweet Sixteen and come stepping out of the Elite Eight. But somewhere, their carriage turns into a pumpkin before they make it all the way home. Jim Larranaga’s George Mason Patriots were dubbed an 11 seed and took down top seeded Connecticut in 2006 to advance to the Final Four. Oh by the way, it’s the same Larranaga who is leading this year’s 2nd-ranked University of Miami Hurricanes.

The VCU Rams Final Four appearance in 2011 started as part of the “First Four” as the Rams had to play their way into the field of 64. VCU defeated power conference teams starting with USC and then danced all the way to the national semifinal before looking in the mirror and being defeated by another underdog in Butler.

And every so often, Cinderella stands charmingly and triumphantly on the balcony waving to the adoring public. Or is that on the ladder cutting down the nets in a final shining moment. Remember as you watch this year, it is the 30th anniversary of Jimmy Valvano’s North Carolina State team that was seeded No. 6 on their improbable run to the title. Danny and the Miracles from Kansas in 1988 were also seeded sixth and don’t forget about No. 8 seed Villanova squeezing the air out of the ball against Georgetown in 1985 before the advent of the shot clock to win it all.

So get your music sheet disguised as a bracket out and watch the dance closely. Be careful not to fall in love with Cinderella too early because she may not be around when the music stops. But don’t ever be surprised by who is still on the dance floor when the when it all ends.

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