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This has not been college basketball’s finest season.
A trial laid bare the seedy details of the recruiting game, confirming just how widespread the rot is in the sport, if not all of college sports. The coach of one of the country’s top teams gets suspended after he’s heard on wiretaps talking about the “strong-ass offer” allegedly made to a prospective player. A blown-out shoe threatens the season of Zion Williamson, the most exciting player in decades, and Nike’s spare-nothing provides a case study in the exploitation of college athletes.
Add in almost nightly instances of horrible officiating, and it’s almost enough to make even the most diehard fan wonder why we continue to watch.
Come Thursday, however, our faith will be restored. For the next three weeks, all of college basketball’s ugliness will be forgotten, if not forgiven, as we revel in what is arguably the best event in all of sports. If March Madness doesn’t thrill your soul, well, you probably don’t have one in the first place.
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The beauty of the NCAA tournament is in its equality. Is Duke more likely to wind up in Minneapolis than, say, Yale, Iona or even Purdue? Of course. But it’s not a given. Look no further than last year’s tournament, when UMBC pulled off the upset of all upsets, the first 16 seed to take down a No. 1.
Not just any No. 1, mind you, but the overall No. 1 seed in the tournament, Virginia.
For two glorious days, pretty much the entire country became fans of the Retrievers — Chesapeake Bay, not golden, as we all know now. We celebrated the audacity of the interloper, and took delight in the blow it struck for “little guys” everywhere.
When UMBC lost – we haven’t forgotten, Kansas State – there was Loyola. As if making its first tournament appearance in 33 years wasn’t appealing enough, the Ramblers’ patron saint was a 98-year-old nun, Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt.
It didn’t matter if you were Catholic, Buddhist or had no religious affiliation whatsoever. A nonagenarian nun who does scouting reports and is beloved by teenagers and 20-somethings for her unconditional love and support is someone we can all root for. Plus, you learned what nonagenarian means.
But there’s more to the tournament than warm-and-fuzzy moments. (Though who among us hasn’t queued up replays of “One Shining Moment” when we’re feeling particularly blue?) While some of the games border on the unwatchable, most are thrilling, either featuring high-level play or so tightly contested the result is in doubt until the final seconds.
There was a collective “Ooh!” on Sunday night when fifth-seeded Marquette drew 12th-seeded Murray State. Markus Howard vs. Ja Morant? Yes, please! The cackling you heard was everyone’s reaction to seventh-seeded Louisville vs. 10th-seeded Minnesota.
That would be the team coached by Rick Pitino’s son vs. the team that fired him. Who says the selection committee doesn’t have a wicked sense of humor?
Look a little further down the road, and there’s the potential for North Carolina-Kentucky in the Midwest Regional finals. Or, even better, a Duke-Carolina title game. No one who saw them play in the ACC tournament semifinals would object to that — even if pretty much everyone outside of Carolina would be hate watching.
Deep down, we know college basketball is deeply flawed. Probably more so than any other sport, really, because of how small the rosters are and how large the influence of outside power brokers is.
This season was a confirmation of it – repeatedly. But just as the teams in the tournament are starting fresh, so, too, is college basketball. Make the most of it, because never has the sport needed a do-over more.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.