‘Madness’ promises Cinderella stories, excitement

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It’s that time of year again.

Spring is just around the corner, and the college basketball community is coming down with March Madness fever. I used to skip recess so I could watch the NCAA Tournament. Now, I skip class.

The search for this year’s “One Shining Moment” will begin when the NCAA Selection Committee announces the seeds. But the tournament wasn’t always the three-week-long, 65-team battle royale it is today.

The University of Oregon won the first tournament in 1939, which featured only eight teams, which earned their way in by winning district playoff tournaments.

Jack Parr, former K-State standout center, helped lead the Wildcats to the 1958 NCAA Tournament his sophomore year. Parr said he thought the tournament has changed because the game itself has changed.

“Players today have a great deal more athleticism than they used to,” he said. “They’re quicker, they can jump higher and there are so many good athletes.”

Over the years, the playing field gradually expanded from the original eight, and today 65 teams are given the chance to play for the national championship. Thirty teams are given automatic bids by winning conference tournaments, and the selection committee chooses the other competitors.

“The special thing about playing in the tournament back then was the competition,” said Parr, who played in a 16-team tournament. “When you start with the 16 best teams in the country, the competition is always really keen. It used to be an exclusive group.”

H.V. Porter originally coined the term “March Madness” for an Illinois high-school basketball tournament, according to www.cbs.sportsline.com. It first became associated with the NCAA Tournament in the 1980s, and the name “Final Four” emerged in 1975.

Though the tournament was not yet labeled March Madness when he played, Parr said it was madness back then as well.

“There was a very strong interest in the tournament back in the ’50s,” he said. “Sports Illustrated and lots of other media got involved in it, and it was huge.”

For many people, what makes the tournament so appealing is the idea that nothing is impossible, and anyone can win. There are no guarantees for even the top-ranked teams, as our intrastate rivals seem to prove year after year. Cinderella stories emerge every year and always manage to capture the hearts of fans across the country.

The nation fell in love with Gonzaga when the low-ranked team made significant tournament runs three years in a row.

I still get goosebumps when I see the replay of Jimmy Valvano parading around the court after Lorenzo Charles dunked a buzzer beater to win the 1983 championship for No. 6 North Carolina State.

But perhaps the greatest Cinderella story of all came in 1985, when No. 8 Villanova became the lowest-seeded team ever to win the tournament, defeating mighty No. 1 Georgetown by two points. In last year’s tournament, No. 11 George Mason matched LSU as the lowest-ranked team ever to reach the Final Four.

Parr said he agreed upsets are one of the elements that make the tournament so exciting, and have helped the tournament become the cultural phenomenon it is today.

“There have been so many great upsets,” he said. “Any time there’s a circumstance that a team is not highly rated but is playing really well, like Gonzaga did, or George Mason from last year, those are the times when things get interesting.”

George Mason, Wichita State and Bradley were the three big bracket-busters from last year’s tournament, and Parr said he suspects some underdogs will work their magic this year.

“That’s part of what makes things so exciting,” he said. “You might as well throw a dart at the board because there are a lot of different possibilities to win it. Ohio State, Florida, Wisconsin and Kansas are at the top, but I don’t think it will be one of those four. I think we’ll see a surprise.”

No one knows whether a No. 1-ranked powerhouse will win it all or a lowly Cinderella story will steal the glory. But we can be sure the road to the Final Four will be marked with unexpected turns, and that “One shining moment” could come from anywhere.

“There are so many fine players and fine coaches,” Parr said. “But only one team can win six in a row. Everybody believes they have a chance. It is madness.”

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