Photo By Zachary Hanby
March is not an enigma. Brackets are always busted. They have been since the beginning of time. David versus Goliath isn’t just a myth made up by coaches looking to give their underdog teams some Biblical motivation. Think of those poor sports bettors and experts in the Valley of Elah. In a stunner, it was the top-seeded and heavily favored Goliath falling, quite literally, to the upstart David on a last-second stone-sling that found nothing but net! Yet, ever since David shattered the glass ceiling of upsets and Goliath’s forehead, we fall prey every year to the expectations and false narratives about why certain teams are destined for greatness, or why others aren’t.
The term “March Madness” entered our greater pop culture lexicon in 1982 when then-CBS broadcaster Brent Musburger first used it during the NCAA Tournament. Everyone forgets that Henry Porter, an Illinois high school hoops aficionado, was the first to use the phrase way back in 1939. But Porter isn’t sexy or aligned with the hype surrounding one of sport’s pinnacle moments. Bye Henry, hello Brent! March is only mad because we let it be.
There was a recent article in The Athletic that described March as “a month destined to knock the sense out of logical outcomes.” Please. As far as cliché, it doesn’t get much lazier than that. What is a logical outcome in March, some talking heads on ESPN blabbering on about Duke and North Carolina destined to collide in the Final Four? Michigan State and Auburn had other plans. Therein is the rub. The experts at the Associated Press, and even the Coaches Poll, had Kansas, Kentucky, Duke and Gonzaga making the Final Four before this year started – particularly Duke with its freshman sensations Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish. While three of these traditional blue bloods made the Elite 8, not a single made it to Minneapolis for the Final Four. There’s a lesson in this, a lesson we overlook each March.
Those teams grinding for nearly a year, like North Dakota State, don’t care that it was supposed to be a South Dakota State coronation in Sioux Falls at the Summit League Tournament. Competitors compete. There is nothing crazy or surprising about NDSU making the NCAA Tournament, and nothing shocking, despite how talented Duke was, that the Blue Devils fell an agonizing few seconds shy of the Final Four. That’s college basketball, or any sport, for that matter. I’ll say it again – competitors compete. Mike Krzyzewski, Duke’s Hall of Fame head coach, specifically referenced the fact that he thought the Bison were the best team in the Summit League over the last month of the season.
“I thought they were the best team in their league, they’ve been playing beautiful basketball. I’ve watched at least six of their games,” Krzyzewski said after Duke’s 85–62 win against NDSU in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament. “They play solid, really good basketball. And each kid has confidence in his role. Very, very well-coached team. I’m very impressed with them. We beat a good team today.” The iconic Coach K wasn’t surprised that the Bison made March Madness, so why should anyone else be?
The Bison expected to be right there, competing on the biggest stage in American sports besides the Super Bowl. “I think we saw this plan at the beginning of June,” said Vinnie Shahid, the Summit League’s Newcomer of the Year and likely preseason conference Player of the Year next fall. “When we came together as a family, we saw this happening. Through the ups and downs, many people were like, they’re too young, they can’t do this. But I think our locker room stayed together, and we definitely kept our mind on the goal at stake, to get here to March Madness, and not only to get here, but to win some games.”
The Bison were 5-0 in the month of March before falling to Duke, including an impressive 78-74 win over North Carolina Central in Dayton, Ohio, in the First Four of the NCAA Tournament. It was NDSU’s second win in March Madness, the first coming in 2014 versus Oklahoma. No other Summit League team has won a game in March Madness. “They return everybody, watch out man, watch out,” said Krzyzewski on NDSU not having a single senior on the roster.
Nothing will be given to the Bison, though. They’ll have to earn their way back to March Madness. “I challenged them to what are they going to sacrifice to put ourselves in a position where we can be right back here next year,” said Dave Richman, NDSU’s head coach. The Bison will be the preseason favorite to win the Summit League. “We can take just how hard we worked, how much perseverance we went through,” said junior Tyson Ward, who led all scorers with 23 points in the North Carolina Central win. “That first practice in the summer or first practice in the spring, just preparing for those big moments and those little moments.”
Will this March’s game against Duke, where the Bison led for most of the first half and only trailed by four points at halftime, be a precursor to bigger things? Maybe. Maybe not. That isn’t up to us, or the experts. That’s up to NDSU. “I think it breeds a lot of confidence on the biggest stage against the best in the biggest tournament in the greatest sporting event there is,” said Richman.
The only mystery of March is forgetting that competitors, not experts, decide games. Just ask Goliath. Everybody up for the tip-off, the March is on!