NASHVILLE — On Wednesday night, they held an alleged March Madness game between Syracuse, which tied for 10th in its big-fat league, and Arizona State, which tied for eighth in its big-fat league. It made for some of the dreariest television ever staged, an eyesore that doubled as a threat to send millions spiraling into discouragement, had millions in fact tuned in. Just watching could make one feel either that we were nearing the end of time or that we wished we were nearing the end of time.
On Friday downtown here where the NHL’s Predators play, there played a team that flattered the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, lending it the air and vividness that makes it treasured. This team brought along a mesmerizing lead player who was a revelation to anyone who does not have the midwinter time to study the Sun Belt Conference, which means he was a revelation to many. Had this team not squeezed through its conference tournament, it would not have received even an invitation from a selection committee that seems intent on infusing the land with a gathering dullness.
So farewell, Georgia State. Farewell to your loquacious head coach, Ron Hunter, and to your gasp of a sophomore, D’Marcus Simonds, who hails from the same high school as quarterback Deshaun Watson of Clemson and the Houston Texans, and whom Hunter projects as an eventual NBA first-round pick, and whom Cincinnati Coach Mick Cronin called “a guy who can start for anybody in our conference.” Farewell to your eloquent seniors, Jordan Session and Isaiah Williams, the latter stalling into silence twice during a postgame interview, in order to have a good, strong cry.
“I can’t get this guy to shut up most of the time, too,” Hunter said, from alongside Williams, soon adding, “Now you get him up here and he can’t speak.”
Farewell, then. Wish you were still here, somehow. That you aren’t, after leading No. 2 seed Cincinnati 47-46 with 9:30 left before buckling under the physicality by 68-53, is a credit to Cincinnati, its energy and its tall, thick trees, of which the 6-foot-3 blur Simonds said, “They were awesome specimens, actually.”
The element a team such as Georgia State brings, that of mystery and enchantment and the plausible chance for a memorable upset, appears have drifted into a money-mad disfavor. As Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports pointed out, during the last three years, only nine teams from outside the seven most prominent conferences have received at-large bids, where the number in the years 2012 through 2014 was 28. The American dialect of the English language has gone infected with terms such as “Quadrant 1,” which refers to high-caliber wins and which future anthropologists may peg as one cause for the demise of American civilization.
About this trend, Hunter pronounces himself “very concerned, I really am,” and says: “One thing we’ve taken out of the room is common sense. Common sense has been taken out. Middle Tennessee should have been in this tournament, period.”
In the final locker room of a 24-11 season Friday, the coach who got famous in 2015 for upsetting No. 3 seed Baylor and falling off his stool said: “That’s why this tournament is special. It’s not about the high majors that are supposed to be there. It’s about seeing D’Marcus Simonds for the first time. And seeing how these guys, how they play. And, ‘Wow, Georgia State’s got a good team, and they play hard.’ That’s what it’s supposed to be about. I played in the NCAA tournament for three years [at Miami of Ohio], and it was about that when I played, in the Eighties. All of a sudden, for whatever reason, it’s changed. We’ve got to get it back to that. And you can’t get it back to that by taking mid-majors out of this tournament.”
The game that lifted the lid here Friday made a fine emblem. Eight minutes in, Georgia State led 16-9, and Simonds had 16 of those 16 points, with a stunning array of audacious drives into the trees and silky three-point shots. He was on pace to score 80, and while that kind of projection is always absurd, he certainly was on pace to treat the pro-Cincinnati crowd to a rarefied March Madness performance.
He closed with 24 points on 10-for-20 shooting. He cited Cincinnati’s zone defense and said, “They just really took away my penetration.” Still, Georgia State erased one second-half, 10-point deficit as Simonds did more distributing and as Williams heated up, and didn’t look the inferior until about the seven-minute mark when, as Hunter put it: “I looked at our guys and we looked fatigued. We were tired. We were tired not because we weren’t in shape. The physicality of Cincinnati finally wore on us a little bit.”
“You could really just feel the experience that they had,” Simonds said.
From there, through Cincinnati’s 20 offensive rebounds and 46-26 rebounding advantage, the Georgia State season closed down. Yet that, too, lent meaning. As the last 20 seconds drained away and Cincinnati possessed the ball but refrained from scoring any more, the five Panthers on the floor gathered in a group hug of an excellent quality, the game clock still ticking.
Someone asked Session and Williams, seniors, to pinpoint a moment that might last in memory.
Athletes, who don’t tend to see themselves as stories, seldom master this kind of question.
But sometimes . . .
“During the course of the game,” Session said, “it got really physical, and we got down, I think, 10 maybe with about seven minutes to go. And I just, I looked at everyone’s face, and we didn’t fold. We didn’t shake. We didn’t seem like we were going to lose the game at any point. We were all smiling and clapping, ready to play, ready for the next possession. And we all kind of picked each other up. And in that moment, I realized we were all a brotherhood.”
“At the end of the game,” Williams said, “we’re down 15 and it was pretty emotional for all of us, and we all huddled up and we realized how close we really were.”
Hearing such things could have cured many a woe, including maybe even the residual agony of having spent precious time on Earth watching a team that tied for eighth playing a team that tied for 10th.
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