At least I saw it coming this time, I just didn’t know when. As I wrote my Groundhog’s Day post earlier this month I tried to make a point, probably more to myself than any readers. My PFA travel trail concept is likely to be a work of fits and starts. I have enjoyed the first round of stops and discovered some issues that really need to be explored and understood better in parts of the country that don’t feel them so acutely. I expect that, as time and enthusiasm allow, I will continue to write about visits to these places, virtual and otherwise. But as I was wondering yesterday when the NCAA college basketball conference tournaments would begin I was startled to find out that they would/did begin last night.
If I were to try to wrap up my whole, obsession really, with the varied nature of the many cities and small towns across the United States into some kind of sports metaphor, the college basketball landscape would be about as close as I could get. The NCAA tournament, with 68 teams taking part, is already the most open of any team sport’s championship. College football has just four teams in its championship playoff, which admittedly is four more than it used to have.
But March Madness is only the beginning. Going into the month of March each season nearly all of the nation’s 350-plus Division One teams still have a theoretical chance of cutting down the nets as national champions. That’s because all 32 (31 this year) of the college basketball conferences send the team that wins their post-season tournament to the NCAA tournament and most of them allow all their teams to play in those tournaments. Last night I watched the Mastodons of Purdue-Fort Wayne University avoid extinction (sorry I couldn’t help it) with a very entertaining 89-84 double-overtime win over Green Bay in the first round of the Horizon League Championship. So far this year the ‘Dons have struggled to an 8-14 record, but if it could reel off nine or ten more wins (depending on NCAA seeding,) the team would wake up the morning of April 6 as national champions.
An outcome like that is pretty far-fetched but it is possible and that’s the thing. It was just three years ago that the team that finished second in the previously pretty unknown (outside the northeast anyway) America East conference got on a run in its conference tournament and then pulled off the biggest upset in the sport’s history. UMBC beat the number one team in the country, Virginia, by 20 points in the first round of the 2018 NCAA tournament.
So, for the next few weeks my discretionary time will be spent, as it was last night, down in the corner of the man cave amid the obsolete video game systems with as many screens going as I can conjure. Through the $6 per month miracle known as ESPN Plus it is now possible to watch all the early round action from even the smallest conferences. There are no tournament games today but tomorrow the aforementioned America East begins its men’s tournament as does the Big South. Another 12 conferences start their tournaments sometime next week and then the remaining 16 join the fun the following week. By Selection Sunday, March 14 this year, the 320-plus teams that are still in the hunt will have been trimmed to 31 conference tournament champions and another 37 at large teams.
Incidentally, in the spirit of the kind of minutiae you can always count on this blog to dig up for you, I found this on the Wikipedia page devoted to the Fort Wayne Mastodons.
“In 1968 a large bone was discovered during the installation of a farm pond near Angola, Indiana, about 40 miles (65 km) north of Fort Wayne. The farmer contacted professors in the IPFW geology department, who identified his discovery as the leg bone of a mastodon. Faculty and students from the geology department excavated the greater part of an adult mastodon, including the skull and tusks. The bones were cleaned, preserved, and placed on permanent display at IPFW. In 1970 members of the geology club, led by professors who oversaw the excavation, successfully lobbied the student government committee charged with choosing a name for the university mascot to select the mastodon. And thus, the IPFW Mastodons were born”
The PFA Trails will be back but for now you know where I’ll be.