As Gary noted earlier, the NCAA Tournament really is the tease of all teases.
Sixty-four Sixty-eight teams enter, 67 teams lose. Sixty-four teams don't even make it to the Final Four! Can you believe it?
In football, you know very quickly if you have a chance at a title, sometimes as early as spring football. But the NCAAs are popular because just getting in gives so much fleeting hope to so many fans nationwide. I found that out at a crushingly young age, and USF's painful loss to Ohio reminded me of that far-gone time.
My first sports fan experience came as a nine-year-old in Rhode Island. (Like most USFers, I'm a transplant). Rhode Island doesn't have much as far as sports go: University of Rhode Island basketball, Providence College basketball, and, um, the Tennis Hall of Fame!
I didn't know much about sports, but I had an aunt who was a freshman at URI, so I followed URI basketball, which wasn't hard because seemingly everyone in Rhode Island followed the team.
So when URI made the tournament in 1988, the whole state was thrilled. So thrilled in fact that they wheeled a TV on a six-foot TV cart into my elementary school's cafeteria during lunch so the fourth, fifth and sixth grade and all the staff could watch #11 seed URI play #6 seed Missouri in the first round. As is their tradition, Missouri folded, and URI advanced to play Syracuse in the second round.
No one thought URI had a chance, seeing as Syracuse had future NBA starters Derrick Coleman, Rony Seikaly and Sherman Douglas. Syracuse had just won the Big East conference tournament. But somehow URI pulled through and won.
The buzz in Rhode Island the next week was electric. You thought, Well, there's no way we are losing the next game. We just beat the best team in the best conference.
In the next game we played #2 seed Duke. URI was a huge underdog again. (And if we could get by Duke, the other game in our bracket was won by #1 seed Temple, a team URI twice played well during the season. We weren't afraid of them.) It was Mike Krzyzewski's second Final Four team. This was in the pre-"everyone hates Duke" days, but Rhode Islanders found very quickly how easy and wonderful it is to hate the Blue Devils. My hatred of Duke is life-long and firmly rooted.
The Duke game was back and forth. The lead must have changed hands a dozen times. Every fan's thoughts progressed from "Hey, we might win this," to "We can win this!," to, almost absurdly "WE ARE GOING TO WIN THIS!!!" Before every crash comes a delicious high.
But another future-NBAer, Danny Ferry hit a game-winning shot in the final minute and URI lost 73-72. And just like that, it was over. Just like with USF on Sunday.
You go through a long season, and there are so many ups and downs. But every season has ups and downs. The NCAA tournament doesn't. For so long, there are only ups. There's the up of getting into the Dance. There's the up of the first win, then the up of the second win. At least one of those wins is usually an upset, so after that, you feel in-freaking-vincible, because the team is playing SO well. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is going wrong. In the mind of every USF basketball fan was "USF plays amazing defense, no one can score on us."
Then you get an upset in the bracket, face a #13 seed, and start really thinking you can go far. We lead at halftime, and things are going easy. Our defense is impenetrable. Then North Carolina's starting point guard breaks his wrist, and they seem like less of an obstacle. There's no way their backup PG can handle Anthony Collins. None.
Except, we don't get that far, and around the corner, out of the locker room, comes an Ohio team that shoots lights out in the second half. The refs give a couple questionable calls the other way. USF could play defense as well as the '85 Chicago Bears and it wouldn't matter. And it doesn't matter who's in the next game either.
The future for you as a fan will change forever. It's always been fun watching the tourney as a neutral, with no rooting interest. And, because you are sports fans, you'll watch the rest of the tourney, but during each game, you'll think of what might have been. You'll even think about it next year and every year after. And since I still hate Duke because of that loss 24 years ago, USF fans, you don't know it now, but prepare for a life-long, irrational hatred of the Ohio Bobcats.
They won the one you were supposed to win.