ATLANTA (AP) — Let’s not gloss over college basketball’s myriad problems.
Rampant corruption. Academic malfeasance. One-and-dones posing as actual students.
Yet somehow, as this thoroughly maddening March has shown, the game finds a way to rise above it.
Instead of sniping about FBI wiretaps and coaches in handcuffs, we’re swooning over Sister Jean — Loyola’s 98-year-old, wheelchair-bound team chaplain, cheering on her beloved Ramblers — and gritty squads such as K-State , which handed Kentucky’s latest collection of fabulous freshman an earlier-than-expected launch to their NBA careers.
No one could’ve seen this coming.
But, really, we should have.
College hoops has faced a gauntlet of trials and tribulations over the years — many of them self-inflicted — from the game-fixing scandals of the 1950s to Len Bias’ cocaine-fueled death to the senseless slaying of a Baylor player shining the light on a sleezebag program of epic proportions.
Basketball survived them all.
It will survive the current array of ills.
Not because a bunch of shining knights are ready to gallop in to save the day. No, this will always be the domain of money-grubbing administrators and power-hungry coaches and a nauseating array of scoundrels, prowling the fringes in search of the quick buck.
We hold our noses when the ball is tossed in the air.
It’s the price we must pay for the extraordinary.
“We’re just so happy to be in this moment,” Loyola’s Marques Townes said Friday. “Life is great.”
Perhaps as much as any time in its history, the NCAA Tournament has produced an exquisite array of startling upsets, implausible comebacks and heart-warming vignettes.
For the first time ever, a No. 16 seed (UMBC, short for the University of Maryland, Baltimore County ) beat a No. 1 seed (mighty Virginia, a unanimous choice as the best team in the land during the regular season). Nevada stared down a 22-point deficit with 11 minutes to go , pulling off a frenzied rally that stunned Cincinnati. Loyola, making it first tournament appearance since the Reagan administration, walked a tightrope in three straight games and somehow survived them all — by a cumulative margin of four points.
“We all had that vision when we got to the tournament to win some games,” said Cameron Krutwig, the Ramblers’ burly freshman center. “I don’t know if we all thought we would get this far.”
When Kansas State faces Loyola on Saturday in the South Region final, it will be the first Elite Eight tournament game ever between a No. 9 seed and a No. 11 seed. That’s only the latest bit of history produced by this grouping of teams, which became the first regional in NCAA history to lose its top four teams on the very first weekend.
“I’m not surprised,” said Kansas State coach Bruce Weber. “There’s just so many good teams.”
And, perhaps, not as many great ones.
For all the much-deserved condemnation of a system that allows schools such as Kentucky to become nothing more than a single-season stopover for five-star recruits on their way to the NBA, the college game provides some intriguing contrasts that all seem to balance out in the wash.
Kentucky was clearly the most gifted of the four teams that made it to Atlanta, but that wasn’t enough to carry them past a K-State squad that relies on bruising, relentless defense to stifle its opponents. These Wildcats may not be a bunch of future NBA stars, but they’re the kind of guys you’d like to have backing you up in a dark alley. They managed to knock off Big Blue even after three players fouled out, holding Kentucky to its lowest point total of the season.
Barry Brown Jr. summed it up this way: “Making the right pass, playing for each other, just making open plays, staying confident no matter what the situation is, what the score is, what’s going on in the game. Just staying together, never getting away from each other, and picking each other up when we’re down.”
Loyola has demonstrated the value of continuity with a lineup that includes two seniors and two four-year juniors. There’s no one-and-dones at the Chicago school, but the Ramblers are still alive — and that’s more than Kentucky can say.
“When you get teams to buy into collective efforts and play together,” said one of those seniors, Donte Ingram, “you end up with upsets.”
In a little over a week, it’s back to reality.
A bunch of freshman stars will head off to the NBA.
Everyone will nervously await the FBI’s next hammer to fall.
Until then, enjoy the ride.
No matter how much they try to tear it down, the game always wins in the end.