With most professional sports leagues, the pinnacle of the season is the championship game. Whoever is in the Super Bowl, World Series or whichever title game you choose, that is the end all. However, I do not think that is the case with the NCAA men's college basketball tournament. The tournament starts with 64 teams, which gets whittled down to two over the course of three weeks.
Schools such as Kansas, Kentucky, Duke and Syracuse are the favourites this year, but right now, teams like Northern Iowa, St Mary's and Cornell are getting all the love and all the headlines. We expect the big programmes to advance, but we love it when a no-name programme takes one of the favourites down. This happened on Saturday as the top-ranked Kansas lost to an underdog Northern Iowa (UNI) team. When we got to work on Monday I asked everyone I worked with if they could tell me what city the University of Northern Iowa is located in - all I got was blank looks ... nobody knew. This is a true Cinderella team.
UNI, St Mary's and Cornell all fit the classic definition of an NCAA tournament Cinderella team. To be a Cinderella, you must match with at least one of the following criteria: √ We do not know which state/city your school is in. √ You are seeded 10th or higher. √ You have not been to the NCAA tournament this decade. √ You have a great story. That last criteria is pretty vague. Let me give you an example. Cornell is a very good basketball team and they have been to the NCAA tournament recently, but Cornell is an Ivy League school and the academic criteria for admission is among the toughest in the United States. Also, Cornell do not give out scholarships to get the best basketball players. If you compare this to a team like Kansas with 13 scholarship players on their roster - most of them were high school superstars - on paper, Cornell should not be able to compete on the same level. But for a few weeks each March, Cinderella teams do just that.
That is the funny thing. Cinderella teams need not advance to the final game to become tournament legends. I remember Valparaiso's Bryce Drew shot to upset Ole Miss in round one of the 1998 tournament. Off the top of my head, I cannot tell you who won the title that year, but I remember Drew's shot. This year the main candidate for legend status is Ali Farokhmanesh, the Northern Iowa guard. Ali has won each of UNI's first two games with a three-pointer in the final seconds.
After taking down Kansas, Ali was put on the cover of Sports Illustrated - the USA's biggest national sports publication. A week ago, nobody around the country knew his name. Northern Iowa may beat favoured Michigan State this week, but it is more likely that UNI will lose and the top teams advance on to the title game as usual. But for a week, the country is theirs. Cornell, UNI and St Mary's are loveable and necessary. They give us all hope for a few days or weeks.
In a tournament that did not start with North Carolina, Connecticut, or UCLA, it seems to make perfect sense that it no longer includes Kansas. A No 1 seed that many had going all the way will instead go down in history as one of the greatest bracket-busters of all time. Of the 16 teams still dancing, three of the No 1 seeds still remain. However, after seeing ninth- seeded Northern Iowa beat the Jayhawks on Saturday night you can forgive them if they do not feel all that comfortable.