Opinion: 700 days later, March Madness is finally back, and how we missed it

Dan Wolken

Even at the most uncertain moments of the pandemic last spring, when the games went silent and there was no real sense of when we’d be able to watch them again, there was great hope and excitement about the potential payback. 

We didn’t get the Masters in April, but we got it in November. The Kentucky Derby wasn’t run on the first Saturday in May, but they made it happen on the first Saturday in September. The NBA shut down for 4½ months, then came roaring back in a playoff bubble during the heart of football season. Ultimately, we got back almost everything that was lost. 

But not March Madness.

When the 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled, it could not be rescheduled, could not be saved, could not be made up. For so many players and coaches and, yes, for fans who emotionally live and die with every made basket in March, it was One Vanishing Moment we’ll never get back. 

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CAPSULES FOR EVERY TEAM:   East |  Midwest |  South |  West

The Indianapolis area will play host to the entire NCAA Tournament this year.

That’s what made this particular Selection Sunday so satisfying. Yes, the college basketball season has been a four-month logistical mess, schedules have been imperfect and arenas have been mostly empty. There’s hardly a team in the bracket that hasn’t dealt with sickness and disruption. Just getting to this point has been very, very hard. 

But after one unfathomable March without college basketball, the NCAA Tournament is back.

It may not look the same on television or feel the same in the arena as we remember. You know what will be the same? The tension of a final possession in a tie game when one basketball will send one of the teams home. The dread setting in on the bench of a top seed when they know they’re in danger of becoming an upset victim. A player from a mid-major school becoming a household name in the blink of an eye. A coach winning a game that changes his life. 

Goodness, we’ve missed it.

For all of college basketball’s flaws, and there are so many, the NCAA Tournament is perhaps the most uniquely American sporting event that we have.

Every region of the country is a stakeholder in this event. This year’s field includes teams from 33 states and the District of Columbia. The massive flagship state schools, the urban commuter schools, the tiny liberal arts colleges, the academic powerhouses and the religious institutions — they’re all in the bracket. And every year, the nation all but stops for the first two days to watch the little guys to beat the giants. 

This year, the little guy and the giant is one and the same. The season’s dominant team and favorite to win the national title? It comes from a Jesuit university of 5,000 undergrads in Spokane, Washington that has built one of the great programs of the modern era despite playing in a mid-major conference. If Gonzaga wins the national championship, it will be the first team since Indiana 45 years ago to finish a season undefeated.

That we can even ponder those historic possibilities one year after such devastation is something we won’t take for granted ever again. Have you ever looked forward to a tournament more?

It’s possible there are going to be complications, and every day the teams and tournament officials will be holding their breath about potential cracks in their plan. 

The NCAA made the prudent decision to bring all 68 teams to Indianapolis this year, cordon them off from the rest of the world and employ rigorous COVID-19 testing protocols. They’ve seemingly thought of everything, from the big stuff like practice gyms and transportation down to how all the laundry is going to get done.

Still, in this COVID-19 world, there are no guarantees. Just this past week, we saw Virginia and Duke have to pull out of the ACC tournament due to positive cases. In Indianapolis, one or two cases wouldn’t necessarily force a team to withdraw as long as they have five healthy players. But can you imagine how devastating it would be for a team to get the news that its star couldn’t play in a Sweet 16 or Elite Eight game because of a positive test? 

That’s a hypothetical problem for another day. For now, let’s just enjoy what’s about to happen and soak in the pleasure of filling out a bracket, figuring out which conferences were overrated and underrated and plotting out how to get out of work on Friday when the first round begins. 

Often when the tournament begins, there’s a natural impulse to talk about what’s wrong with college basketball from the corruption to the mismanagement of the NCAA and the never-ending debate about whether players should be paid that is now being scrutinized by Congress and the Supreme Court. We’ll probably get around to talking about those things at some point over the next few weeks because none of that goes away.

Let’s just celebrate the greatness that’s about to happen and remember how much we missed it. More than 700 days after Virginia lifted the trophy in Minneapolis, we finally made it back. March Madness is here again.

Follow columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.