Sports, and basketball in the month of March, has this wonderful, yet terrifying way of drawing you in, only to break your heart. There’s the pure poetic beauty of an underdog team using every rock in its sling and knocking off mightily Goliath. The moment when the final buzzer sounds and players run across the floor to tackle their teammates in excitement is exactly the reason we love this time of year.
But there’s also the flip side: the side of Goliath. There’s the utter disbelief and disappointment of watching the clock hit triple zeroes and the lights going dark on an exceptional season. There’s the realization that months, even years of blood, sweat and tears all ended with one 40-minute game.
There are buzzer-beaters, emphatic dunks and enough drama and tension to make any soap opera look tame.
There’s nothing to compare college basketball during this month to. No other sporting event in the world tugs at the heart strings of its viewers more than these games do.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been fortunate enough to see firsthand exactly what this month means to people involved in it. I’ve also felt the gambit of emotions these 18- to 23-year old athletes and their coaches go through as their respective seasons and careers end.
For the Colorado State women’s basketball team, the month of March was filled with both extremes of the emotional roller coaster. The Rams first clinched a share of the Mountain West regular season title March 3, before winning it outright for the second year in a row three days later. As confetti rained down on them in the Moby Arena, coaches and players experienced a mountainous high that could only be topped by securing the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid in more than a decade by winning the conference’s tournament championship less than a week later.
But that peak would prove to be out of reach. For the second straight year, after winning the regular season title, CSU fell short in the conference tournament, this time failing to move past the quarterfinal round after losing in the finals a year ago. The Rams were unable to rekindle their fire in a loss against Northern Colorado, and fell in the first round of the WNIT nine days later — another heartbreaking March disappointment. As head coach Ryun Williams and his players addressed the media following the loss, that defeated look of disappointment crept across their faces yet again.
It was a look CSU’s men’s team would become familiar with all too soon. After winning 26 games during the regular season and knocking off Fresno State in the Mountain West quarterfinals, CSU struggled without leading scorer J.J. Avila in a 56-43 loss to San Diego State. But despite their obvious disappointment with the loss, head coach Larry Eustachy and his players seemed relieved that their spot in the NCAA Tournament was secure. They were so sure that after the loss to SDSU, Eustachy guaranteed the Rams were in the field of 68 teams to be announced two days later.
But, when the brackets were announced that Sunday afternoon, CSU was on the outside looking in, shocked to see its name among the “First 4 Out.” Eustachy addressed the media that afternoon, with a look of utter disbelief plastered across his face. As his players tried to console each other in locker room, the veteran head coach, who has led five different programs to the Big Dance, could do nothing but hang his head and shrug his shoulders. As it does with so many, March Madness had broken his, and his team’s heart.
This isn’t to say that college basketball during this month is a pit of heartbreak and despair. For many teams and players, it’s actually the opposite. Just 24 hours before Colorado State has its collective heart broken, I was able to witness the raw, emotional joy this month brings as the Wyoming men’s basketball team upset San Diego State in the finals of the MW Tournament, securing its first berth in the NCAA Tournament since 2002.
On Thursday, I watched one of my favorite moments in March Madness history as Georgia State guard RJ Hunter buried a 35-foot 3-pointer to win the game, as his dad, who is also the head coach of the team, literally fell out of his chair in excitement. Stories like that of the Hunter family remind us why we love this month so much.
However, just two days later the Panthers were eliminated from the tournament, bringing the father-son duo’s final season together, more than likely, to a halt.
It ends like that for most, though. Of the 351 teams who compete in Division I basketball, 347 of their seasons end with a loss in the month of March. Other than the winners of the NCAA Tournament, the NIT, the CBI and the CollegeInsiders.com Tournament, every other team’s season will with an emotional series of tears, hugs and goodbyes. Players who have given their lives to these programs will leave, and some coaches will too. For many, the end will be bittersweet. Bitter in the way that their entire life’s work up to now had ended, yet sweet in the way that they will be able to count themselves among a select group of people to have competed in Division I college basketball. Years of early morning workouts, wind sprints, bus rides, ice baths and games come to an abrupt end. The finality of it is almost unfair.
March reminds us to never count the underdog out, but that cheering for the favorite isn’t all that bad either. It reminds us of the beauty of college sports, where the players compete for the name on the front of their jersey, and not the one on the back. It reminds us why we tune in each year, even if it hurts. But it also reminds us that success, as exciting as it may be, is always fleeting.
March Madness can bring us March sadness, but isn’t it the unpredictability that draws us in? Even if it breaks our hearts.