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We welcome Sister Jean and Rick Pitino back to March Madness this week with the firm knowledge every NCAA Tournament needs its saints and sinners.
Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, the 101-year-old team chaplain for Loyola and undisputed MVP of the 2018 tournament, promised not to storm the court if she’s allowed to watch her beloved Ramblers in person inside the Hoosier bubble in several Indiana venues.
Hopefully she gets the benefit of the doubt, though perhaps a Denver boot can be attached to her wheelchair during games out of an abundance of caution.
Pitino, the 68-year-old Iona coach who was ousted at Louisville in 2017 for alleged NCAA violations, has promised to pack eight suits for the trip, apparently for his own use and not as potential kickbacks to players. After a celebrated college coaching career that included stints at powerhouses Kentucky and Louisville, Pitino is now in the unfamiliar role as Cinderella with a small-school team that endured a 51-day break from games from December to mid-February due to positive COVID-19 tests for nine players, two managers and two coaches — including Pitino.
The return of March Madness from its COVID-19-related 2020 sabbatical, with all of its hype and drama, its buzzer-beaters and bracket-busting upsets, and even its never-ending replays to see who last touched the ball before it sailed out of bounds, is exactly what America needs right now during its slow-motion return to normalcy.
One shining month, please, is all we ask.
This year’s field has a little bit of everything: an unbeaten Gonzaga team that the experts love but few have stayed up late enough to watch; a made-for-March duo in Illinois stars Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn; the return of Bryce Drew — whose buzzer-beating 3-pointer for Valparaiso in its first-round upset of No. 4 seed Mississippi in 1998 has been replayed every year since — as coach at Grand Canyon; the presumed No. 1 NBA draft pick in Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham; and the tournament coaching debut for Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing, whose Hoyas stunned the Big East Tournament field after the Hall of Fame New York Knicks great was dissed by security in his self-described “house,” Madison Square Garden.
The only thing missing is Duke, the team we all love to hate.
The Blue Devils pulled out of the ACC Tournament after a member of the program tested positive for COVID-19, ending a stretch of 24 consecutive years of fans rooting for them to lose to a school they never heard of before the NCAA Tournament.
So can anyone pick up the mantle as honorary tournament villains?
We still have Kansas, bless them, and Bill Self, KU’s self-important coach.
But the Jayhawks aren’t exactly the powerhouse they once were, and they ceded the Big 12 this year to No. 1 seed Baylor, which is coached by another Valpo guy — Bryce Drew’s brother, Scott.
And like Duke, Kansas pulled the plug in the Big 12 Tournament because of a positive COVID-19 test within the program.
It will be difficult for some to root against teams such as Kansas, Michigan, Virginia and others that overcame the adversity of a coronavirus crisis in their program. In fact, if every team that suffered through some COVID-19 issues can be considered a Cinderella, this could be the first year of an all-Cinderella Final Four.
Feel-good stories abound in 2021, including Michigan, which is coached by maize-and-blue alumnus and former Illinois Mr. Basketball Juwan Howard. It seems like ancient history to some, but Howard theoretically can get redemption for the legendary Fab Five teams, whose wins and appearances in the 1992 and ’93 Final Fours were vacated by the NCAA because of an alleged money-laundering incident involving Wolverines players and a booster.
Howard was not one of those accused players and enjoyed an exemplary career as an NBA player and Miami Heat assistant coach before taking over the Wolverines program in 2019-20.
Michigan won the Big Ten regular-season title in Howard’s second season — despite Illinois AD Josh Whitman’s now-infamous “day of infamy” protest letter claiming the Illini’s right to be co-champs — but lost three of its last five games after an 18-1 start. Howard also engaged in a heated shouting match during the conference tournament with Maryland coach Mark Turgeon.
“I don’t know how you guys were raised, but how I was raised was by my grandmother, and also by Chicago,” Howard said. “I grew up on the South Side. When guys charge you, it’s time to defend yourself. Especially when a grown man charges you.”
Having covered Howard during his high school years at Vocational, I can confirm he’s as Chicago tough as they come. That designation also applies to coach Porter Moser’s Loyola team, which played in virtual obscurity while cruising to a 24-4 record and the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season and tournament titles.
With Illinois’ return as a national power and a huge alumni base in Chicago, the Ramblers performed admirably in the Illini’s shadow. Whether they can make a Final Four run like the 2018 team will depend on if the supporting cast can complement Cameron Krutwig and Lucas Williamson, who know how to get there. Prayers from Sister Jean also might be mandatory.
In the end, seedings and brackets may be less relevant than ever in this unusual COVID-19 atmosphere. Everyone is in the same Hoosier bubble, facing the same protocols — and with a limited number of their fans allowed inside.
Gonzaga spent more than a week in Indianapolis in November for the Jimmy V Classic, in which a much-anticipated showdown against Baylor was canceled less than 90 minutes before tipoff because of two positive COVID-19 tests in the Bulldogs program.
“By the eighth day we were there, it was almost apocalyptic,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few told the Washington Post. “It felt like we were in Siberia. Indy’s a great town, but we couldn’t go out at all. We were stuck in the hotel. We ordered food from St. Elmo’s (steakhouse), but it wasn’t close to the same.
“I do worry about going through that for three weeks — not just for us, for everybody. By Final Four weekend, the winner might be the team that holds up best mentally through it all.”
The NCAA Tournament always has been about survival.
This year the word carries more meaning than ever.