There’s a throng of people, yellow and green, and the patient cold. This is Hartford, Connecticut, but it feels like Milwaukee.
It was just two short NCAA tournaments ago that I was making my first trek to my first NCAA tournament in Milwaukee where the Boilermakers faced off against that yellow and green in their first-round game. That yellow and green belongs to the Vermont Catamounts, one of the best nicknames in college sports, and a consistently difficult to defeat small-conference school who is also set to play in the XL center’s South Region, against an FSU team that improbably came back late to beat Purdue this season.
Why does this matter? Because the NCAA tournament is a time for reflection, of the season at hand, and the ones of the past. It all comes to an end here. There’s a dark sentiment to that, but in these first-round games, there is hope, a fresh light that this could be the time.
For Purdue fans, it is a constant fight of trying to not fall to the darkness while seeking the light. Most of that fight rests on their Coach Matt Painter.
And Coach Painter knows, despite the consistent success, the potential third straight trip to the Sweet Sixteen, that this is not enough. In one of those silly during TV timeout segments tournaments like to run, the United Center recorded and displayed answers to the starting to gray coach and a couple of his players. During one of the questions, they asked, ‘What would their super power to be?’ There was flying, and invisibility, and the other usuals you see in comic books, and then there was Coach Painter with a knowing smile.
“To get to the Final Four.”
There was a laugh, but the kind of laugh you give at a funeral. While it might have been funny, the tension was too much. It was too real.
But Purdue fans don’t have to look very far to find inspiration. The Villanova Wildcats and Jay Wright, likely second-round opponents for the Boilers, have not always been champions. In fact, for a long time, their fans felt a similar distrust in management. A certain [i]they’ll never make it all the way[i] mentality that is the kind of perversion that both stimulates the fan into railing against the coach and reserving them just a tiny bit of pain when the inevitable collapse does occur. A masturbatory ‘told you so’ that comes with the kind of joy you should feel guilty about.
Granted, it’s not an even exchange. Jay Wright had taken the Wildcats into the Final Four in just his fifth year. That didn’t change the narrative around his coaching when that was followed by early exits. He was still on the hot-seat, with a make or break season, and if certain breaks didn’t go his way or a bout of bad luck or injury hit just right, he’d never have stayed on with Villanova long enough to win two National Championships in three years.
In the case of coaches, it is almost always the egg that came before the chicken. It’s not until you’ve already won big on the biggest stage, that you’re the right person to carry your program to that big stage.
Which is why I’m here writing yet another apologist letter to the ‘ainters. Jay Wright still hasn’t made it to back to back sweet 16’s, by the way, not since his first two tournament trips with Villanova that resulted in a Sweet 16 loss followed by an Elite 8. But he did have five straight losses in the first or second round before, you know, winning 2 National Titles in 3 years.
There’s no real answer for that. The right players? Sure, maybe, but talent has fallen to less talent time and again. Coaching? No? The same coaches that win the tournament also fall in the first round.
In wrestling, when an aging wrestler is in the twilight of his career, he passes the torch so to speak. He allows a young up and comer to ‘get over’ on him. Beating him and taking the cred that comes with that. Wrestling is, obviously, scripted, but for all the randomness and crazy that March brings, sometimes it feels scripted, too.
Not by you, or me, or coaches, or even players, but something else, something irredeemably cruel and unimaginably brilliant.
Maybe Wright passes the torch to Painter this year? Maybe he finally has the same level of success that he has had in the regular season. Maybe he finally becomes the kind of coach his resume says he should be. Maybe he’ll finally be defined the right way by the month of March.
Maybe he finally won’t choke, that’s what some of you would want to say.
But there’s too may Duke losses to Mercer. Too many Michigan St. 1st round exit. A #16 seed just beat a #1 seed. Too many Arkansas Little-Rock over Purdue outcomes to draw much meaning from the chaos.
I’m not telling you to believe or disbelieve in Coach Painter or any coach, for that matter. If they’re good enough to be a major program’s coach they’re going to be around long enough to have incredible runs and go through mind-blowing upsets. (For Painter, there is still just the one inexplicable loss on his resume, a loss that still doesn’t make any sense, and that he definitely deserves blame for.)
Just make up your mind before the tournament, and don’t let the outcome shape you too much. You’re looking for reason in madness. The name isn’t just cute alliteration. Anything can happen on any given night isn’t just a catchy cliché.
Instead, try to be like those clad in green and yellow, who show up without expectations. Enjoy the dance. The wins will come, and they’ll be more full for it. The losses, they’ll be softened, by recognizing this beautiful experiment in elimination.
Happy March Madness, everyone.