Each year, March Madness captivates the attention of an entire nation. Whether Cinderella 15 seeds like Middle Tennessee State (25-10, 13-5 Conference USA) shock fans by upsetting a tournament favorite, Michigan State (29-6, 13-5 Big 10), or Ivy League champions Yale (23-7, 13-1 Ivy League) knock off Baylor (22-12, 10-8 Big 12), people always pay attention to the NCAA tournament. After just two days, there were no perfect brackets left on ESPN, and many fans saw some of their projected Final Four teams fall out of the tournament. While big-name teams draw attention to March Madness, it is often the small-conference or lesser-known teams and their paths to the tournament that provide the most riveting story lines.
Yale last appeared in the NCAA tournament in 1962 before this year, failing to win a tournament game in any of its three appearances in program history. This year, Yale finished the season strong with a 13-1 conference record in Ivy League play, despite senior guard and captain Jack Montague’s dismissal from the team and expulsion from the school after the university found him guilty of sexual misconduct. Sophomore guard Makai Mason led the charge for Yale in its win over Baylor, dropping 31 points and sinking 11 free throws. Mason’s stroke was mechanical, with every free throw hitting nothing but net. Alongside Mason was Brandon Sherrod, who returned to the team this season after a two-year hiatus traveling around the world to sing with Yale’s famous a cappella group, the Whiffenpoofs. His 10 points and six boards helped Yale beat Baylor.
Middle Tennessee State saw some bumps on the road to the NCAA tournament as well. Head Coach Kermit Davis committed recruiting violations while on the coaching staff for Texas A&M in the ’90s that were a huge detriment to his professional career. Davis worked various coaching jobs, from positions at junior colleges to other lower-level programs, before finally getting another chance at Middle Tennessee State.
The Blue Raiders’ sophomore guard Giddy Potts led the nation in three-point shooting percentage at 50.3 among players with at least 100 three-point shot attempts. Potts hit three three-pointers in the game against Michigan State and the team as a whole shot 57 percent, the perfect recipe for a No. 15 seed to beat a No. 2 seed. Reggie Upshaw, a junior once recruited for both basketball and football, also performed well against Michigan State, dropping 22 points against the Spartans.
The story for Stephen F. Austin (28-6, 18-0 Southland Conference) is also a compelling one. The Lumberjacks won a decisive 70-56 victory over the West Virginia Mountaineers (26-9, 13-5 Big 12). The star of the game was senior guard/forward Thomas Walkup, who won the Southland Conference MVP three times in his career at Stephen F. Austin. Walkup led the team across all three major statistical categories, scoring 33 points, grabbing nine boards and dishing out four assists.
Mason’s, Upshaw’s and Walkup’s fame was fleeting. Each of their teams ended up losing in the second round — Yale in a 71-64 loss to Duke (25-10, 11-7 Atlantic Coast Conference), Middle Tennessee State in a 75-50 loss to Syracuse (21-13, 9-9 Atlantic Coast Conferent) and Stephen F. Austin in a narrow 76-75 loss to Notre Dame (23-11, 11-7 Atlantic Coast Conference) — but no one can take away these moments from these athletes. To have the memory of leading their teams to historic wins will be something that they can always hold dear.
By contrast, with every winner comes a loser. Baylor, Michigan State and West Virginia will have to mull over their losses until November. For seniors like Michigan State guard Denzel Valentine, losses mark poor endings to prolific college careers. From watching Michigan State coach Tom Izzo’s tear-filled press conference, it was evident that he felt sorry for his players. Still, the nation can enjoy the performances from Cinderella teams and join in the excitement their players feel. The best part of March Madness is the ability to escape the banal activities of daily life to watch and hope that the underdogs can put on a captivating performance. So far, March Madness provided all that and more.