Nothing infatuates sports fans quite like March Madness. Typically, it's not the Final Four that people pencil in as their favorite day on the sports calendar, but the first Thursday and Friday of the tournament. People get less excited by the best teams in the country playing against each other for the championship than they do by the round-the-clock slate of Davids vs. Goliaths the first two days.
In the first two weeks of March, conference championship games are nationally televised, even if they feature obscure teams with little to no chance of pulling a major tournament upset. Still, we check in to watch students from the Winthrops and Woffords of the world rush the court, and wonder if they'll be the team to beat Kentucky or Syracuse. That's because the most exciting part about March Madness is the chance for these schools to dream the big dream, and the joy we all get watching those dreams occasionally come true.
While I'm all for objectivity, I do have to admit that I can't be objective about what transpired Friday night. I'm a proud Lehigh alum. I drove three hours to watch the Lehigh vs. Duke game in Greensboro, N.C. and three more to get home. I wore a Lehigh t-shirt and sat in the Lehigh section. In fact, I think Huffington Post policy requires me to disclose that I've donated money to the athletic department. In December I donated a whopping $20.09, in honor of my graduation year. Guilty as charged.
But join me anyway, for a tour of the psyche of Lehigh hoops fans this week.
Though few would have guessed before 7:15 p.m. Friday, Lehigh fans considered Duke an ideal matchup. Not because of how the teams matched up on the court, but simply because Duke is Duke. They are a storied program that much of the country loves to hate. If we are going to be in the tournament, dreaming of pulling off the upset, we might as well play Duke.
We all saw the game through the same lens. Nobody was thinking, "Let's win our program's first ever NCAA Tournament game!" All anybody asked was, "Can you imagine if we beat Duke?"
Lehigh's last trip to the NCAA Tournament, in 2010, was as fleeting as it was fun. On Selection Sunday, top-seeded Kansas and 16-seed Lehigh were the very first pairing revealed. Lehigh gave Kansas a surprisingly close game, trailing by just 6 with 13 minutes left, before losing steam at the end. Despite the close game, the night owl edition of SportsCenter, showed just one play from the entire game, accompanied by the script: "Lehigh versus Kansas, here's an alley-oop, and Kansas wins by 16."
It was the absolute briefest of cameos. Still, Lehigh's best player, C. J. McCollum, was just a freshman, so most fans were just happy to be there.
This year Lehigh fans weren't just happy to have the school's name in the bracket. McCollum is now a junior, and a two-time Patriot League Player of the Year. ESPN.com's Chad Ford projected him as a first round NBA draft pick, and he appeared in every column last week about lesser-known players to watch. He was the fifth leading scorer in the country, and figured to be the best player on the floor against the majority of teams in the tournament field. And at every level of basketball, having the best player on the court is often enough to swing the difference in a single game. Lehigh had a chance to hang with anybody, as they had already proven when they led Michigan State at halftime in December.
So when Lehigh and Duke were placed in Greensboro, three hours from my home in Richmond, I decided to buy a ticket. I decided to spend 6 hours alone in a car to watch 40 minutes of basketball, even though there was a very real possibility that Lehigh could lose by 40 points. No matter how many people told me that could be the outcome, I just couldn't help myself from dreaming of an upset. I bought the ticket because I'm a sucker. But I think that when March Madness rolls around, we're all suckers to some extent.
Somehow, Lehigh fans spent a week convincing ourselves we could win. We emailed each other movie clips of the Hickory High team measuring the court dimensions in Hoosiers and Jim Carey deadpanning, "So you're telling me there's a chance!" in Dumb and Dumber.
The Lehigh ticket office even emailed me on Tuesday afternoon asking if I wanted tickets for today's game in the event that Lehigh beat Duke.
It wasn't a joke.
I bought one.
Once we all got inside the Greensboro Coliseum, it was obvious that the game meant more to Lehigh's fans than the Duke's. For starters, the arena was shockingly under capacity. Instead of Duke fans taking advantage of the game's proximity to their campus, they allowed the Lehigh crowd noise to echo off patches of empty seats in the upper deck.
The Lehigh crowd stood for the majority of the game, chanting D-Fense and clapping until our hands bled every time Duke had ball. The Blue Devils fans cheered, but only reached that level of fury for dunks and lead changes in their favor. They could have controlled the atmosphere, but strangely they didn't. While one set of fans was intense and determined, dreaming of the impossible, the other expected to sleepwalk through to the Sweet 16.
As the first half progressed, Lehigh fans warmed to the unfamiliar task of watching the Mountain Hawks control an NCAA Tournament game. Everyone jumped up and down with every basket, cheering with the immediacy of a group that knew the game could get away at any moment, with many fans even taking pictures of the scoreboard every time Lehigh took back the lead.
Suddenly we were the random school that everyone else was interested in. One minute the UNC fans were asking where Lehigh is located, the next minute it was trending nationwide on Twitter.
The first half left everyone believing the impossible upset was possible. Even though Duke led by 2 at the break, Lehigh had been up for the majority of the game. The crowd continued to feed Lehigh, as the Brown and White made space on the bandwagon for Carolina Blue.
North Carolina fans, which were as abundant as Duke fans, started joining in chants with Lehigh and holding up signs in solidarity, hoping to see their nemesis fall in an embarrassing upset. All of a sudden the Lehigh fans weren't so outnumbered.
And then it happened. Miraculously it happened. McCollum played like a star. Seth Curry got into foul trouble. Every time Duke appeared ready to go on a run, somebody from Lehigh hit a big three or pushed ahead for a transition bucket. Lehigh outplayed them in the second half.
The atmosphere in the Lehigh section during those final 20 minutes were among the most intoxicating I've ever experienced--comparable to the World Series and the NFL playoffs. And the same scene played out in bars and living rooms across the country, where pockets of Lehigh faithful gathered to watch their alma mater take on the big boy in the Big Dance.
We didn't just win, we beat Duke. We convinced ourselves it could happen, and somehow it did.
I hope every tiny program in the country concluded on Friday that they can dream the big dream, too.
That's what makes March Madness so great.