There were 351 hungry teams vying for 68 elusive spots in the Big Dance in 2014. After 67 heart-wrenching games and millions of brackets gone bad, only one team was left standing Monday evening, and there is nothing in sports or entertainment quite like it.
Will anyone argue if I say college basketball is the best?
Early last summer, my father called me from an AAU basketball tournament in Palm Springs, Calif. He was raving about a couple of kids from Houston. They were the tallest players on the floor at around 6-foot-6 but both were playing the guard positions. They were twin brothers, and they were committed to Kentucky.
Big deal, I thought. A pair of one-and-dones who can’t play team ball and who will underachieve on another 10-loss John Calipari NBA farm team.
I couldn’t control my skepticism, especially after the dismal manner in which Kentucky’s season ended in 2013 (the Wildcats lost in the first round of the NIT to Robert Morris that year).
Boy, was I wrong.
Those twins, the Harrison brothers, despite their youth, managed to average more than 24 points between them in their freshman seasons. And in the NCAA tournament, when it counted most, they led a team of all freshman starters — and two freshmen coming off the bench — to the championship game and nearly won.
And they did it in style, too.
They trailed or were tied at half in every tournament game, yet they still managed to take down three of last year’s Final Four teams, including an experienced and undefeated Wichita State team, as well as last years national champion and runner-up, Louisville and Michigan, respectively.
And in the Final Four, the freshmen somehow managed to not turn the ball over even once against a gritty and experienced Wisconsin team.
Aaron, in particular, stole the national spotlight by hitting not one but two game winning three-pointers, one in the Elite Eight and one in the Final Four (not to mention a huge 3-pointer in the final minute against in-state rival Louisville in the Sweet 16), proving that he is in fact ready for the big time.
After the win against Wisconsin, Calipari summed it up, “We played seven freshmen, folks. We played seven freshmen. They’re all performing in that stage, under those lights, which is an amazing story.”
Harrison’s teammate, fellow freshman Dakari Johnson said after the game-winner over Michigan, “He got big nuts, to be honest. He can’t even walk right now.” Perhaps not the most subtle explanation, but you’ve got to love his candor.
And this is just one example of why, at a time when the NBA is at its most stale and predictable, NCAA basketball continues to entertain, enthrall and captivate the hearts and minds of Americans all while reminding us of the pure joy of basketball.
A Kentucky team that was No. 1 in the AP and USA TODAY Coaches preseason polls fell from grace and earned an unsatisfactory No. 8 seed in a stacked bracket, only to come back and fall just five points shy of a national championship.
And let’s not forget about that other team, the team that won it all.
The No. 7 UConn Huskies, who penned their own quite amazing story, were also coming off a year where they did not play in the tournament (they were barred from the postseason because of poor academic performance). Yet, with a second-year head coach, the Huskies defied all logic and busted all brackets on their way to cutting down the nets in Arlington, Texas.
Meanwhile, Huskies senior point guard Shabazz Napier won the tournament’s most valuable player award and bookended his college career with national championships, winning one as a freshman and one as a senior.
“You’re looking at the hungry Huskies. This is what happens when you ban us,” Napier said on national television after the win.
Two amazing stories, one of redemption and one of development in a truly amazing tournament, and the last three weeks have been just another incredible reminder of why March Madness is the greatest show in sports.
Reach the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @NPMendoza