And Another Thing

JG columnist Ben Smith talks about IPFW hoops sudden national exposure.

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Ben Smith

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March Madness mix of magic, education

And now the rundown, as a sacred March ritual plays out again:

1. There are two Eagles (American and North Carolina Central), one Chanticleer (Coastal Carolina) and one Fightin’ Blue Hen (Delaware) in the 2014 NCAA tournament. So Da Tournament has the feathered species covered.

2. Manhattan College is in the field for the first time since 2004, which automatically raises the bar for 2014 because Manhattan’s nickname is the gloriously obscure Jaspers. (Explanation to come later).

3. Speaking of names, Mount St. Mary’s gets a No. 1 seed in the All-Name bracket because its leading scorer is the gloriously nicknamed Rashad Whack.

And last but not least:

4. Cal Poly (13-19, 6-10 Big West) is in. The entire state of Indiana is out.

Which is, of course, why the sacred ritual – call it the Revealing of the Brackets or This Way Lies Heartache for those inclined to fill them out – is so wonderful and awful and enthralling and maddening. It’s because of the Manhattan Jaspers and the Delaware Fightin’ Blue Hens. It’s because for three or four days you learn stuff about Mercer or American you never knew, like the fact that there is a Mercer or an American.

It’s because, in just a few days, the answer to the question “What would happen if Michigan played Wofford?” will be revealed.

Also, “What would happen if Duke played Mercer?” Also, “What would happen if Michigan State played Delaware?”

It is, you see, the possibilities that are the magic of the whole thing, the delicious sense that, come Thursday, a Florida Gulf Coast is going to happen. Who saw that coming, a year ago? Who saw Wichita State in the Final Four? Who saw, already this year, IPFW being the last best hope of the Basketball State?

The Mastodons fell short by three agonizingly measly points, which was a lot closer than anyone in Indiana came. The Indiana Hoosiers, maddeningly inconsistent, looked in the end as if they couldn’t get out of the season fast enough. Purdue, simply maddening, was just not very good. Ditto Notre Dame and Ball State and Butler – and even Indiana State, which looked like a contender for awhile, until it didn’t.

And so: No Madness for you, home of Oscar and Larry and Jimmy Chitwood ’n’ them. You may turn in your credentials as a basketball state at the door.

As to the field of 64 or 68 or whatever, someone will rise, everyone else will fall, and, in between, marvelous stuff will happen. If you’re looking for the next Florida Gulf Coast, for instance, you could do worse than Stephen F. Austin (31-2 and winners of 27 straight) or North Carolina Central (28-5, beat North Carolina State, lost to unbeaten Wichita State by just 11). If you’re looking for the next Wichita State, you could look at Wichita State again – except that they’re destiny’s darlings this year, and destiny’s darlings tend to get the bum’s rush in the Madness.

Me?

I say Manhattan steals America’s heart this time around. If only because, well, how do you not root for a team whose nickname is the Jaspers?

(Which, by the way, comes from a certain Brother Jasper, who was at Manhattan back in the late 1800s. Introduced baseball to the school. Is credited with inventing the seventh-inning stretch).

The NCAA tournament. It’s an education thing.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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