Dial up sports radio the past few days and you heard wall-to-wall NFL coverage: the Peyton Manning saga, the Tim Tebow saga, the New Orleans Saints’ bounty saga, even a bit of Robert Griffin III sprinkled in. Close your eyes, and you’d think it was fall.
But, people, come on! This is March. March is no time for football. (Sorry, Arena Football League, but you don’t count.) March is college basketball season, time for the most exciting tournament in sports, time for Jimmy V and Dickie V, time for out-of-nowhere George Mason and up-from-nowhere Butler, time for Christian Laettner and Mario Chalmers and Keith Smart and Lorenzo Charles and . . . Kyle O’Quinn? Um, who?
And Thursday begins the Sweet 16, allowing us to mercifully avert our gaze from the off-field NFL drama and focus on those athletes who actually are playing their sport as this spring comes around.
Who will be the storyline for this March Madness when we look back? After a first weekend where giants were slayed, the biggest giant of them all, this uber-talented and very young Kentucky Wildcat team, looks to be in the best position to go all the way and finally win head coach John Calipari his first national title. That, the prognosticators say, is what we expect.
Or it could be the more unexpected tale — a Final Four dominated by the state of Ohio, which still has four schools remaining, Ohio State, Xavier, Cincinnati and this year’s Cinderella, 13 seed Ohio. (The unlikely case of a Xavier-Cincinnati title game — “Crosstown Brawl Part II: Dunk With A Vengeance” — would have enough drama and marketing opportunities to make Don King drool.)
It could be Rick Pitino, who is trying to make Louisville the second straight surprise Big East tournament winner to leverage that title into a net-cutting celebration in April. But first Pitino will have to overcome Michigan State and all-around good dude Draymond Green, who is averaging 20 points, 12.5 rebounds and eight assists in this tournament. Roy Williams is trying to galvanize his North Carolina squad after the devastating injury that could keep point guard and on-court quarterback Kendall Marshall out, but Cinderella Ohio hopes to make the most of Marshall’s fractured wrist.
Indiana’s trying to break some Bluegrass hearts once again, Baylor and Perry Jones III are trying to prove they’re not just huge talents but huge gamers, and Kansas is staring down another Final Four in what was supposed to be a down year.
All great storylines, no doubt. All reasons to set aside Manning Mania and focus on actual games, at least through the weekend.
Yet if there’s one storyline that’s most compelling here, it’s the team that’s sloughed off off-court drama after off-court drama and now finds itself just two wins from the Final Four.
Everyone counted out Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse Orange just a few games into this season, when longtime assistant coach Bernie Fine was accused of decades of sexual abuse in the ugly wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State. Surely the Orange would wither in the face of intense media scrutiny. Surely the surly Boeheim would get himself in trouble and jeopardize this season by speaking too frankly and too angrily about the situation. Surely this was not the Final Four team we expected.
So what did they do? The Orange went 31-2. They captured a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament. They banded together, they shrugged off the off-court drama, and they became a feel-good story of resilience in the face of darkness.
Then this: On the eve of the NCAA tournament, as brackets from coast to coast had these guys heading to the Final Four, 7-foot center Fab Melo was declared ineligible. Syracuse would have to plod on without the Big East Defensive Player of the Year. Surely this time the drama would catch up with them. Suddenly they were a popular pick for a second-round upset loss to eighth-seeded Kansas State.
Yet here they are, still proving all of us wrong.
"I think we’re one of the hottest teams, especially coming in with so much doubt, the way the media was doubting us, and I’m sure other teams were as well,” senior forward Kris Joseph told reporters Wednesday, the day before Syracuse will take on fourth-seeded Wisconsin in Boston. "The way we’ve been playing, the way we’ve been executing, especially after our last win against Kansas State, I think we’re on pace to do something real special right now."
Special, indeed. A Syracuse trip to the Final Four — or even Boeheim’s second national championship in his 50 years at Syracuse, first as a player, then as an assistant coach, and for the past 36 years as head coach — might just make them the most unexpected No. 1 seed of all time to make a Final Four. It would turn a season of off-court agony into a story of resilient success.
Of course, so much more about this tournament has been unexpected: two No. 2 seeds losing in the first round, the capital of the college hoops universe moving from Tobacco Road to the Ohio River, the ugliest on-court moment of the college basketball season — the Cincinnati-Xavier brawl — serving as the beginning of two tales of redemption.
Everything about this March has been so unexpected, it might even make you forget that Manning’s a Bronco, that Tebow’s a Jet and that the NFL season won’t start for more than five months.
You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.