CHARLOTTE — In life in March in America, there are people you might call mid-major people and people you might call big-conference people. Mid-major people will take a University of North Carolina at Greensboro over a North Carolina State University, or a Furman over a Clemson, for they are big-hearted, bright-eyed and curious about savoring the nuanced charms of our kaleidoscopic planet. Big-conference people will take the opposite, for they are boring, boorish and deserving of deportation.
That’s basically the philosophical issue of NCAA tournament selection week among people besotted with basketball played by students: Should the nationally treasured 68-team event include more teams with gaudy records in hardscrabble conferences with gumdrop gyms, or should it tilt the way it has tilted in recent years, toward teams with 9-9 conference records in glitzy conferences with bloated arenas? Conveniently, within a swath of North Carolina earlier this week, a basketball sot could explore both realms.
This sot could attend the Southern Conference tournament in the impossibly pleasant Asheville, rich in coffeehouses and breweries and authentic shops and vegan options. It ran Friday through Monday. Then, in a mere two hours, that same sot could reach the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in shiny Charlotte, rich in riches. It runs Tuesday through Saturday.
In that path were a league (Southern) which seems destined to get one invitation while craving two or even three, and a league (the Atlantic Coast Conference) which seems destined to get eight bids while craving 16 even though it has only 15 teams. In that path were a league (Southern) which played in an earthy arena which doesn’t look like an arena, and a league (ACC) which plays in an NBA arena which looks like an NBA arena. In that path were a league (Southern) with fresh discoveries UNCG (28-6), Furman (25-7), East Tennessee State (24-9) and irresistible Wofford (29-4), all full of know-how and love and exquisite coaching, and a league (ACC) which began Wednesday with a pivotal game featuring a team with a 9-9 conference record (N.C. State) against a team with a 9-9 conference record (Clemson), both of them residents of the annual cul-de-sac known as “the bubble.”
“I told these [players], I don’t think they woke up until about 1 o’clock,” N.C. State Coach Kevin Keatts said.
The game began at noon.
In fairness, it did turn out to be one of the tightest games between 9-9 teams in the lurid history of games between 9-9 teams.
In the Southern Conference, you might talk to a coach of a 25-7 team behind a baseline of an emptied court on a Sunday night after a semifinal in which a nine-point lead vanished in a sudden morass of clogged passing lanes and dried-up offense. You both might realize the probable and wrenching finality of this loss. You might say you saw the coach exit the court arm-in-arm with his 6-foot-8 senior leader, Matt Rafferty, while the coach’s little son hopped from behind in a futile attempt to pat the giant on the back. You might think you saw months and years of meaningful collaboration right there.
You might spot a tear start to form in the right blue eye of the 35-year-old coach, and then that tear will take a brisk trip down the cheek until the coach pauses and whispers, “Sorry.” Next, Furman Coach Bob Richey said, “I feel like in college basketball right now, we’ve lost a lot of sight that it is about these kids . . . When I got the job (two Aprils ago), I was just committed: We’re going to grow people.” By the moment of the arm-in-arm exit, he had helped grow a person.
In Charlotte on Wednesday, Clemson (19-12 overall) took a 36-18 lead over N.C. State (21-10 overall), as the latter appeared particularly uninterested in defense in a world where we often find ourselves uninterested in defense. Clemson made eight three-point shots in the first half and led, 42-26.
At the Southern Conference, you might meet a highly skilled nomad coaching a 24-9 team, and you might read his CV, and it might delight you with its adventurousness (as both head coach and assistant): Southwestern Community College (Iowa), Barton Community College (Kansas), Idaho, Louisiana Tech, Illinois State, Texas A&M, Tennessee, Northwest Florida State, Wichita State, East Tennessee State. He might recall breezy days when he coached in conference tournaments with NCAA bids assured, his stomach tranquil, then tell of the knot in his gut from this all-or-nothing business of the mid-majors. “So your stomach is just a little uneasy, man,” Steve Forbes said.
In a deeply weird land, there’s a whole season, months and months, but then, suddenly: “Now, you’ve got three days to get it done,” Forbes said. “And it doesn’t really matter what you did! And that stinks! You know? Yeah, it’s really weird. It’s really weird. And I really don’t like it. I just wish it wasn’t that way. I wish more of us could get in.”
This necessitates the art of forgetting all that during games. “Nah, I don’t want that creeping in my head” on the sideline, Forbes said. “I don’t have that fatalistic thought. It’s just that I think that [his players] need to understand, sometimes they need to understand, kids are kids, and they’ve got to understand the urgency of the moment. ‘Guys, there’s no tomorrow.’ You know what I mean? Like, these other schools [in big conferences], they’re going to lose and go home and they’re going to be on a plane the next Thursday going to an NCAA site, because they play the bigger league. It’s not going to be that way for us.”
Eventual champion Wofford wriggled free of Forbes’s gutty team in a semifinal, and Forbes assessed: “We were really good. We just weren’t special. There’s a difference. Wofford’s special.”
In Charlotte on Wednesday, Clemson made 6 of 31 shots in the second half and played offense without much care toward shot selection. It happens, even in the Southern Conference.
At the Southern Conference, when UNCG became the final stalwart to subside to a Wofford flurry in the final, you might hear its coach, Wes Miller, say, “If this conference doesn’t get two bids, I will lose a lot of confidence in what this whole selection process is all about.” Then you might hear from the 6-foot-3 UNCG senior guard and artist Francis Alonso, who calls basketball a “craft,” who made it all the way here from Malaga, Spain, and who spoke in Spanish, then English (the former prettier), with the finality of the occasion crackling in his sniffles and his voice: “So, basically, you know, being here at UNCG for four years, has been, I’ve been so damn proud. I’ve been so grateful for everything that Coach has given me, from the first year, and how he treated me, not only as a player, but as a person as well. And that’s the most beautiful thing that I’ve seen in sport, you know?”
In Charlotte on Wednesday, N.C. State drew a foul with 2.6 seconds left, and everybody agreed the call was lousy, and then Markell Johnson made the free throws for the 59-58 win. The Clemson locker room emptied 10 minutes before deadline for the trudge to the bus, and Clemson faded to the back of the bubble, while N.C. State nudged to the fore, almost certainly ahead of UNCG and Furman, a matter cheered only by N.C. State fans, which is allowable, and by big-conference people, who are abominable.
Read more NCAA basketball coverage: