Why Thursday and Friday of the NCAA tournament are the best
In the opening round of the 1998 NCAA tournament, two future March Madness legends watched a scrawny coach’s son from a little-known school capture America’s heart.
Little did they know they’d have their own moment 17 years later.
“R.J. used to take that first day of March Madness off of school, and we’d watch it together,” Georgia State head coach Ron Hunter recalls. “We watched that Valpo shot. R.J. eventually talked to Bryce [Drew] about what it’s like to play for your dad, and I don’t know if he comes to Georgia State without that conversation.”
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Seventeen years later, R.J., the leading scorer for 14-seed Georgia State, dribbled up the court with the Panthers down two against Baylor with less than 10 seconds left in the opening round of the 2015 tournament.
R.J. had seen this movie before.
With an announcer calling for him to drive to the basket, Hunter, an eventual first-round pick and the best player on the floor, took the ball past mid-court, dribbled left and ... passed?
Dad, who tore his Achilles in the Sun Belt tournament postgame celebration a few days prior, calmly watched from a rolling stool on the sidelines. “He got the defense to relax for a split second,” Ron tells NCAA.com. “I think that if he didn’t pass it, he would have never made the shot.”
R.J. got the pass right back, rose up for a deep 3-pointer and buried it with 2.6 seconds left.
Without context, a 14-seed upsetting a 3 is special. Add in the father-son element, the game-winning 3, Dad’s torn Achilles and falling off the stool when his son hit the shot? That’s a rejected-for-being-too-cheesy Hollywood script.
That’s why the first Thursday and Friday of the NCAA tournament are the best.
Ever leave a movie theatre and think, “That was cool, I guess, but there’s no way that would ever happen in real life.” Even flicks based on true stories are often embellished to fit a narrative. Entertaining, sure, but not necessarily relatable.
The first two days of March Madness need no dramatization. More drama might be unhealthy.
Take this: Kris Jenkins hit the shot of last year’s tournament, given the stakes. But in terms of pure unlikeliness, the best shot of the tournament might have been Paul Jesperson's. Come on:
These moments are so special they can stand on merit. Now, thanks to bracket hysteria, where everybody has a rooting interest, they climb to the realm of classics.
The person who picked that Northern Iowa upset probably felt like the smartest person in the room. The one who picked Texas? Well, Ron Burgundy said it best:
When an unpredictable tournament is played in front of millions of people with an emotional investment, greatness ensues. Sometimes it's a thrilling shot at the end. Other times, David simply outperforms Goliath for 40 minutes. Middle Tennessee knows the feeling.
Michigan State was the second-most popular pick to win the national championship in last year’s Bracket Challenge Game. It’s easy to see why. The Spartans had Tom Izzo (who’s made seven Final Fours), Denzel Valentine (a first-team All-American), a one-and-done phenom in Deytona Davis and experienced, talented role players.
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MTSU's Giddy Potts had other ideas. His story is a classic: unheralded, under-recruited, under-appreciated. All the usual adjectives.
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“Everybody had a reason for why he just wasn’t quite good enough,” Potts’ high school coach, Stace Tedford, says. “He was too short, or he was too heavy, or he wasn’t quick enough. He really took that personally.”
“I looked at the tape when we first signed him, and I thought, ‘Good lord, this kid can shoot the basketball,” Blue Raiders play-by-play man Chip Walters says. “But he’s built like a fullback.”
Middle Tennessee head coach Kermit Davis says Potts arrived on campus weighing 242 pounds. He’s since trimmed his body fat from 20 to 7 percent. Potts led the country in 3-point percentage last year; he went from an out-of-shape, undersized shooting guard to the primary reason why MTSU, a 15-seed, knocked off the second-seeded Spartans.
We see this every year in the first few days: a brand-new star, usually with a funky name, comes out of nowhere to capture imaginations. It is college basketball’s version of Lin-sanity, only this happens every year. Yet, it never gets old.
Potts has a chance to write a new chapter in his March Madness legacy this season when No. 12 Middle Tennessee takes on No. 5 Minnesota on Thursday in a first-round game. The thing is, at some point Thursday or Friday, there will be another Giddy Potts. Ninety-nine percent of America just hasn’t met him yet.
MORE: How often we pick upsets
March upsets are frequent, but the unexpected is still rare enough to be a novelty. Many of these teams, still, have no shot against the big boys. But because it’s impossible to watch all 351 Division I teams throughout the season, it’s tough to separate the squads who simply are fortunate to be dancing from the ones who can make some real noise. Believe it or not, Hunter has experienced both sides.
Hunter reached the NCAA tournament in 2003 when he was the coach at IUPUI, which had made the jump to Division I only a few years prior. His Jaguars lost by 31 points to Kentucky. It was never a fair fight.
“I’ll be honest with you. I didn’t even think about winning,” Hunter says. “We were just so happy to be there.”
In the next two days, there will be blowouts. But we will also see upsets, often in games we least suspect. There will be heroes we’ve never heard of before. There will likely be buzzer-beaters. There will be viral moments. And there will be red, a lot of it, on everyone’s brackets.
All of it on Thursday and Friday. No sporting event packs more into two days.
Enjoy the Madness, everyone.