The NCAA basketball championships involve more than Florida's quest for a repeat title or Ohio State's 19-year-old center, Greg Oden, who looks old enough to run for president.
When I attended the Chicago regional, courtesy of The Tech, I witnessed several compelling storylines that were only mentioned as asides in the ESPN and Associated Press recaps. Some of these experiences were just amusing, while others were unexpectedly touching.
A surprising show of sportsmanship
Sportsmanship is usually a lost art in today's era of million-dollar coaches, overenthusiastic boosters, and obnoxious fans. When the University of Kentucky accidentally selected Dwight Perry to start in Kentucky's opening-round game against Villanova, his coaches had the chance to make a last-minute switch in the lineup.
However, the Kentucky staff allowed the largely ignored walk-on senior to start the game, with instructions to immediately foul so the team would not waste a timeout. Perry's teammates, including expected starter and cousin Bobby Perry, were thrilled at Dwight's opportunity to get a taste of the spotlight.
In addition to sportsmanship, Kentucky suffered from an identity crisis in both of its regional games. In the Villanova matchup, the teams had nearly identical mascots. After close examination, the Villanova Wildcat bore a murderous expression; the Kentucky Wildcat displayed a look characteristic of a cartoon character. It may be the MIT student in me, but I immediately thought, "Oh my God, it's Wildcats squared!"
In the next game, UK faced off against KU, or Kansas University. If the initials were not confusing enough already, the teams also had contrasting uniforms. Kentucky sported blue uniforms with white accents, while Kansas wore white uniforms with blue details. Thank the Lord, Kansas' Jayhawk mascot looked nothing like Kentucky's Wildcat.
Free throws occasionally tarnish an otherwise stellar player's reputation — just ask our dear friend Shaq, who can't shoot from the charity stripe to save his life. Unfortunately for guard Brennan Bechard, he doesn't have the luxury of playing at least 30 minutes a night to make up for it.
Bechard missed two free throws as the second half of Kansas' win over Niagara wound down. On the surface, it was no big deal — Kansas won by a lopsided score of 107-67. However, Bechard finished the game as the only Jayhawk who failed to net a single point. This is certainly a case in which imitating Shaq leads to an unflattering distinction.
The MIT underdog effect
Face it, MIT is hardly advertised as a mainstream athletics superpower: prospective freshmen hear about our superior academic programs, unparalleled research opportunities, and quirky campus culture. There is no mention of basketball games with thousands of face-painted fans or Facebook groups devoted to the next NBA draft pick.
Watching the Chicago games was like a "Who's Who" in basketball history — Kansas, Kentucky, UNLV, even Wisconsin and Villanova — and I felt compelled to root for the long shots. I'll call this the "MIT Underdog Effect" and chalk it up to attending a Division III college.
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi barely had a team a few years ago, and this was its first appearance in an NCAA tournament. Also, the Islanders had a particularly amusing mascot: Izzy the Islander. I identified with the less-than-intimidating hula skirt because of our dear mascot Tim, who doesn't quite strike fear into the hearts of our opponents with swishes of his tail.
When the Islanders shot to a 10-0 lead over Wisconsin, the crowd laughed: A little 15-seed could play! When the lead grew to 25-7, however, the Wisconsin fans grew edgy, booing the refs when they called fouls on the Badgers and cheering every Islander miss.
Unfortunately, the clock struck midnight for this Cinderella team, as the Badgers realized that they should probably start making baskets in the second half. Wisconsin dismissed Izzy and the other Islanders with a 76-63 victory.
UNLV doesn't fit the classic mold of an underdog story, as the team won the NCAA title in 1990. I could talk about the father/son dynamic that Lon and Kevin Kruger exhibited during the tournament until I'm blue in the face, but that already received way too much press coverage. Instead, I'll just concentrate on the Runnin' Rebels' unexpected demolition of Wisconsin to reach the Sweet 16.
The Badgers once again forgot that there are actually two 20-minute halves in a basketball game, leading to an 11-point deficit at halftime. After the break, Kammron Taylor was instrumental in helping the second seed get back in the game. In fact, my fellow sports editor and Badgers fan Travis L. Johnson '08 called me on my cell phone to reinforce that point: "How about that comeback?"
Sadly, it looked like the Rebels would go the way of the Islanders, as an alert Wisconsin team eventually took a five-point lead. I held onto the hope that, although it would destroy part of my bracket, the Rebels would stage a comeback in response.
At this point, Kruger threw on his cape, tallying three treys and converting three free throws after being fouled on another three-pointer. UNLV held a 7067 lead after Taylor sunk a trey of his own to cut the deficit to three, but the damage had already been done.
A few seconds later, the highly-touted Badgers had been unceremoniously bounced from the tournament, causing the pro-Wisconsin crowd to boo in disgust. As for me, I whipped out my phone to call Travis, basking in the reflected glow of the MIT Underdog Effect.