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Opinion: Small Schools Give Biggest Tourney Moments

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Copyright 2018 Newsday, Inc.

Newsday (New York)

 

By now, it is common knowledge what Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt gave up for Lent. She revealed it on Twitter and said it again on TV: "Losing."

The fact that so many people know who Sister Jean is, that a bobblehead of her likeness is a hot item, that Charles Barkley said he wants to meet her, all reflect the fundamental truth about this year's NCAA Tournament: The mid-majors are the major attractions.

Loyola-Chicago, the team for which the 98-year-old Sister Jean serves as chaplain, owned the second weekend, upsetting two more opponents and reaching the Final Four. That was after UMBC owned the first weekend by becoming the first No. 16 seed to beat a top seed when it routed overall No. 1 Virginia.

At the risk of being repetitive, the theme from this corner is the same now as it was two weeks ago, right after Selection Sunday: "Let's hear it for the little guy."

Unexpected winners and unheralded teams are what give The Big Dance its jump. They also are what adds spice to college basketball, a seasoning that no other sport has. No way could the University of Maryland, Baltimore County beat Alabama in a football game, nor would it ever have a chance to try. Little guys give March Madness its beauty and, well, its madness.

"Coach always says it: 'It doesn't matter the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog,' " Ben Richardson said after scoring 23 points to lead Loyola-Chicago over Kansas State on Saturday.

The Ramblers won by 16 after taking their previous three games by a total of four points. The whole country is talking about them, even if a youngster who wanted to get a photo of himself with the squad at the team hotel asked Clayton Custer to take the shot - not realizing Custer is a star guard.

"He was going to take it, too. He was polite. I was like, 'Oh, man,' " Richardson said.

Very smart experts spend the whole year dissecting and analyzing every statistic, every trend, every projection about college basketball, but you did not see them predicting UMBC's win or Loyola's run. (Not that I should talk - I was most hideously wrong of all, picking Virginia to win the whole thing, although I did mention Sister Jean in my preview column before she became a sensation.)

Just as there is much more to Sister Jean than her basketball fandom - such as seven decades of service to the poor and students - there is more to mid-majors than a few well-timed victories. There is a lot of good basketball played in those little conferences. Just about all of the coaches at major universities developed their skills down there. Here in the East Regional, Villanova's Jay Wright talked proudly about his days at Hof s tra and Texas Tech's Chris Beard waxed poetic about coaching Angelo State.

Selection committee members ought to give mid-majors much more love than they do. Why not give the CAA or the America East a second berth? All of college basketball ought to thank the little schools for taking the focus off violations and FBI investigations.

As Loyola coach Porter Moser said after the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament (also quoted here two weeks ago): "Especially in the world of what is going on in college basketball . . . these guys and this program can lift our heads high and say, 'We're doing it the right way.' "

There is a heck of a chance that one of the big powers will own next weekend in San Antonio. Next Monday, Villanova's chaplain and associate athletic director, Father Rob Hagan, is more likely to be wearing a piece of the net than Sister Jean is. Or maybe it will be Kansas or Michigan people who will be celebrating.

But the whole Dance would not have been nearly as much fun without the little guys. We all should keep celebrating them.

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March 26, 2018
 
 
 

 

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