It’s hard to believe that just two weekends ago, I was high above the corner of the court at the United Center, as the Buckeyes won the Big Ten automatic bid to the Big Dance. The NCAA tournament is about basketball, but it’s also about our larger survival of the sometimes-harsh Midwestern winters.
The team banners that hung along State Street reminded me of those teams that had not survived the trip to spring. Northwestern suffered the same fate as Illinois last season, as a mediocre year cost a good coach his job. My Fighting Illini managed a Big Ten win against Minnesota, which also is hiring a new coach, before falling to Indiana. Illinois earned a NCAA bid and won a game before losing to Miami. The number one seed in the East made it to the Sweet 16, but also lost to Marquette.
The Hoosiers not only lost in the Big Ten tournament, but they also were upset by surging four seed Syracuse. In the Big Dance, a number one seed doesn’t mean much on the floors where the games are played.
When West Regional second seed Ohio State takes to the floor Saturday night in Los Angeles against upstart nine seed Wichita State, time will seem to stand still.
I first became attached to the sport of college basketball as a freshman at Illinois in 1976-77.
Lou Henson was rebuilding a basketball program that would eventually make the cover of Sports Illustrated. I remember the day a high school champion from Chicago, Levi Cobb, walked through my college dorm room – taking a shot at my Nerf basketball hoop. Cobb, a star at Morgan Park, had come to visit another freshman, Steve Lanter from Belleville. Henson was building a smart and talented team that included Rob Judson – guys who would go on to successful careers in coaching and business.
It was not until 1989 that Henson finally took an even more talented team – perhaps the best Illini team ever – to the Final Four. Only the 2004-05 team, which lost the championship to North Carolina in the last two minutes of the season, also has claim to the best Illini team ever.
For me, college basketball is about guards who could lead on offense and defense, shooting forwards and team rebounding. By the end of that 1976-77 season at the Assembly Hall, I was hooked on the unpredictability of the sport.
While some teams this season were again called Elite Eight, the glow of the title soon wears off, as half of these teams find themselves not in the Final Four at the end of the weekend. Survival matters, as it does in life.
Humans understand survival and loss through the lens of March Madness. We enter this world with hope and optimism. Some survive. Others fall out. Elite emerge and gain our respect. Newcomers innovate. Champions win.
Two weeks ago, Chicago felt cold and wet. Winter was hanging on. But now, warm southern breezes will be here by the time we crown the 2013 champ.
March Madness is about surviving.