The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion My alma mater looked to March Madness for validation. We didn’t get it.

St. Bonaventure University’s Marcus Posley reacts after being hurt during the overtime period of an NCAA college basketball game against Davidson College on March 11 in New York. Davidson won 90-86. (Frank Franklin II/Associated Press)

Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week, we’re talking about sports fandom. Need a primer? Catch up here.

Tim Bontemps is The Post’s national NBA writer and a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.

For most sports fans, Selection Sunday is one of the best days of the entire year. After weeks and months of buildup and debate about who should get into the NCAA Tournament, the 68-team field is revealed to the nation, and fans can spend the subsequent few days filling out brackets and avoiding work as they wait for the competition to begin.

But not everyone has that same feeling. For a small subgroup of people, Selection Sunday is the cruelest day on the sports calendar. Those people are the fans, students, players and coaches of the schools that just missed out on the opportunity to take part in America’s annual mid-March celebration of sport. This year, I was one of those fans.

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My alma mater, St. Bonaventure University, was one of the final few teams to miss the cut for this year’s tournament. Despite having an impressive résumé — finishing in the top 30 in the NCAA’s ratings percentage index and being co-champions of a strong conference in the Atlantic 10 — the Bonnies (yes, that’s our nickname, don’t ask me what it means) were left out.

Everyone associated with St. Bonaventure is already defensive about the place by nature. A tiny Franciscan university tucked into the mountains of southwestern New York state (the school’s enrollment of just under 1,700 is the third-smallest of 351 Division I basketball schools), it’s a place where students survive the long, cold winter months on a steady diet of basketball and beer.

It’s a school Bob Lanier led to the Final Four in 1970, one that claimed a National Invitational Tournament championship in 1977 (back when that tournament wasn’t the hardly relevant consolation prize it is today).

It’s also a school that, in the spring of 2003, endured a scandal that still hangs over it. When Jamil Terrell, a junior college transfer, was deemed ineligible to play late in the regular season due to earning a certificate in welding but not enough credits to play for a Division I team, the ramifications were wide-ranging and long-lasting. The coach was fired, the athletic director and president later resigned, the team forfeited all but one victory, and the players boycotted the final two games of the regular season in a form of protest. The chairman of the school’s Board of Trustees, William Swan, committed suicide later that summer.

Four dismal years followed. Yet starting in 2007, Coach Mark Schmidt masterfully rebuilt the program. He landed a game-changing recruit, Andrew Nicholson, and led the Bonnies into the NCAA Tournament in 2012 by winning the Atlantic 10 Tournament championship — and with it the conference’s automatic bid.

Although Bonaventure lost in the first round in the 2012 tournament, getting an automatic bid meant a lot to the school. It was a chance, nine years after the scandal, to show that St. Bonaventure had begun to move beyond it, and was no longer a college basketball graveyard.

And, as this season played out, it began to look as though the program could be headed to another tournament berth. The Bonnies racked up one win after another over the final few weeks of the regular season, entering the Atlantic 10 conference tournament with wins in 10 of their last 11 games. Several thousand Bonaventure fans descended on the arena for Friday night’s quarterfinal game against Davidson College. The hope was to see three more wins and an automatic bid into the tournament. In reality, Bonaventure lost to Davidson in overtime, and headed home for the weekend without automatic placement in the tournament.

It still looked as though their résumé would be strong enough to get them into March Madness anyway — that is, until the selection committee decided differently Sunday night. After spending months dreaming about being part of the chase for college basketball’s championship once again, that opportunity wouldn’t come.

After the initial shock wore off, hope returned in the form of a possible deep NIT run. But that wasn’t to be, either. St. Bonaventure was one of the top seeds but played a poor game at home Wednesday night and lost to Wagner University — a double-digit underdog — in the first round.

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Only a week ago, this season had seemed destined to end magically for St. Bonaventure. Instead, it’s ended with a thud. To come so close to the kind of validation and respect that everyone associated with the school longs to receive — only to have it snatched away at the last possible second — was a cruel and painful way for what was such a wonderfully fun season to come to a close.

Because of its size and location, St. Bonaventure and its alumni are already a tight-knit group that is fiercely loyal to the school, and fiercely opposed to anyone who would try to dismiss its place as a member of the upper crust of Division I basketball. In a sport that’s filled with programs whose budgets dwarf that of Bonaventure, this was a chance to prove that the Bonnies belong on the same court as anyone.

That’s why the ending to this season will take a long time to get over. But, eventually, I will. Why? Because that’s what keeps bringing us all back to sports. The pain of these moments is topped only by the feelings of triumph, like when Bonaventure fans spilled out of Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall and into the Atlantic Ocean after capturing that Atlantic 10 Tournament championship back in 2012.

So, come next fall, my friends and I will start talking about the roster, and will start dreaming of another season like this one. Only next time, hopefully, with a slightly different ending.

Explore these other perspectives:

Nicholas Christenfeld: How do we keep sports interesting? By regulating chance.

Nate Drexler: Sports fans, unite: It’s time to go on strike.

Phillip Miller: Are amateurism rules corrupting college athletes?

Val Ackerman: The religion of March Madness

Marco Iacoboni: The science behind our love for March Madness

Godfrey Chan: A solution to the hypocrisy of the NCAA: Just watch the pros