The vies of Texas are upon you

By David Mullen

All eyes of America will be upon Texas when the two largest cities in the Lone Star State become the epicenters of collegiate basketball and host March Madness.

The Women’s Final Four features Iowa guard Caitlin Clark.
Photos courtesy of Caitlin Clark/Facebook

It is difficult to conceive that Illinois-born educator and athletic administrator Henry “H.V.” Porter knew the impact March Madness would have when he penned the term in an essay in 1939. He was busy working on films about basketball rules, developing an arc-shaped backboard and molding a basketball that eliminated laces, earning him induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1960.       

Many give credit to longtime CBS Sports broadcaster Brent Musburger with coining the phrase “March Madness,” but he is quick to set the record straight. As host of the CBS NCAA tournament game desk in 1982, he was delivering the late news of upsets in the Pacific Time Zone and, in his typical bravado said, “Folks, this is madness. This is March Madness!”

As a newspaper man in Chicago prior to launching a legendary broadcasting career, Musburger recalled that an area auto dealer, who sponsored high school basketball scores in the Chicago American sports section, headlined his ad “March Madness.” It is unclear if the car broker meant the basketball scores or the sales prices of Studebakers as madness, but the phrase stuck with Musburger, CBS and the NCAA.

The three weeks of NCAA tournament basketball has long been associated with a lack of work production, especially when the first-round games begin. March Madness was around long before “Bare Minimum Mondays” or the “Great Resignation” and has become an American institution.

An estimated 70 million people filled out tournament brackets this year. In the ESPN 2023 Bracket Challenge alone, 20,056,273 brackets were submitted. After Fairleigh Dickinson upset Purdue on St. Patrick’s Day, luck for rabid and casual fans ran out. All 20 million-plus brackets at ESPN online had been busted. It was “March Maddening.”

From Saturday, April 1 through Monday, April 3, more than 71,000 fans will pack into NRG Stadium in Houston for the men’s NCAA Final Four. An NCAA women’s champion will be crowned at the 19,634-seat American Airlines Center in Dallas on Sunday, April 2 after semifinal games on Friday, March 31. Millions more will watch the men’s games on CBS and the women’s games on ESPN and ABC.

The upsets continued throughout the 2023  tournament. Not a single No. 1 seed remains in the men’s Final Four, which could be renamed the Unknown Final Four. It is prophetic that the semifinal games are being played on April Fool’s Day. 

At 5 p.m. on Saturday, April 1, No. 9 seed Florida Atlantic University of Boca Raton faces No. 5 seed San Diego State University. They come from towns known for sand, not slams. But both earned the right to win two more games and hoist the trophy with unselfish play and  deep benches. San Diego State often uses 10 players, and no player on FAU averaged more than 25 minutes per game. 

Both teams have rebounded well in the tournament, but SDSU has a decided height advantage. Size matters in basketball, and that gives the Aztecs the edge.  

About 25 minutes after the conclusion of game one (game No. 65 of the tournament), the No. 4 seeded U. Conn Huskies — a school more known for women’s basketball excellence than men’s — plays the No. 5 Miami Hurricanes from another place more known for Bacardi than bank shots. 

Connecticut is playing at an incredibly high level. The Huskies cruised through the West regionals with wins by 24 points over Iona, 15 over St. Mary’s (Calif.), 23 over Arkansas and a staggering 28 points over Gonzaga and enter the Final Four as prohibitive favorites. Forward Adama Sanogo and guard Jordan Hawkins are the Huskies’ leading scorers, but head coach Dan Hurley has installed a team defense concept that has stifled opponents. 

The teams in the Final Four may come from areas better known for climate or sports other than men’s basketball, but they are all happy to land in Houston. This year, March Madness is no longer a Boy’s Club. Interest in women’s college basketball is at an all-time high, and for basketball star power, Dallas may have bested Houston once again. 

The Women’s Final Four features Iowa guard Caitlin Clark, colorful LSU head coach (and former Baylor coach) Kim Mulkey and head coach Dawn Staley and Staley, and 6-foot-5-inch forward Aliyah Boston of the No. 1 rated and defending NCAA champion South Carolina Gamecocks. The South Carolina women have won 42 games in a row. 

Greenville 3 — that’s how the NCAA name women’s regions — No. 1 seed Virginia Tech faces LSU in the first semifinal game. The Hokies had not even made the Sweet 16 since 1993.

In Clark, Iowa has the best shooter in the tournament. Arguably, either tournament. Clark and the Hawkeyes earned a trip to Dallas behind her 41 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists performance against Louisville in the Seattle 4 finals on March 25. It was the first time any player — man or woman — had achieved a 40-point triple-double in any NCAA tournament game.

Once treated like an inferior product and difficult to sell, NCAA women’s basketball this year is about “March Marketing.” The Iowa and South Carolina game from Dallas promises to be the most watched women’s basketball game in history. Opening the women’s slate is LSU versus Virginia Tech at 6 p.m. on Friday, March 31. 

No need to compare men’s and women’s basketball. While the objective in both is to put an inflated ball into a 10-foot hoop more often than their opponents, it is best to appreciate both styles of play. The man’s game is frenetic and physical. The women’s game is more disciplined and tactical. The four best women’s teams in college basketball are playing for the NCAA title. For the men, the four most unlikely teams are playing for the NCAA title.

So what if women don’t slam dunk. This year’s women’s tournament is a marketing slam dunk. It’s March Madness for both sexes, and the eyes of all basketball fans are on Texas.