Time to enjoy our marvelous madness

Mar. 22, 2014 @ 12:35 PM

You probably saw UNC sports beat reporter Harold Gutmann's wonderful front-page story Thursday on our area's representation in the NCAA's men's basketball tournament.

"College basketball is king on Tobacco Road, and the NCAA Tournament is the pinnacle of the sport," Gutmann wrote.  "This week, it comes together in unprecedented fashion.

"For the first time, all four area Division I basketball programs – Duke, North Carolina, N.C. Central and N.C. State -- made the 68-team NCAA Tournament field, and eight schools will converge on PNC Arena in Raleigh for second- and third-round games this weekend."

He went on to note this comparison:

“The four schools from the Triangle equal the representation from any other state in the country (California, Texas and Ohio also have four teams in). Basketball hotbeds like Indiana and Illinois were completely shut out."

That assertion brought to mind a trio of dueling columns engineered many years ago by my then-colleague at the Charlotte Observer, Mark Wolf. Wolf had Indiana roots. He recruited Circulation Director John Luby, a former Kentuckian, and a sports writer whose name I can't recall. Each argued the case that his state was the greatest college basketball state in the country.

I copied the first few paragraphs of Gutmann's story, added a parenthetical note that Kentucky had three teams in the tourney and emailed it to Wolf with the observation "game/set/match."

Can there be any doubt that North Carolina holds the title?

If the roster of teams from this state -- as it happens, all within a few miles of each other -- in the men's tournament isn't enough, consider that the Triangle also placed three teams in the women's NCAA tournament.

No wonder the ordinary routines of life are upended here in March.

Of course, as any team upset in the early rounds of the tournament knows, claims to greatness can be fleeting and elusive. As I write this Friday morning, N.C. State's men's tournament run is over and the early outcomes for the other teams undecided.

No matter. I'll hold to our claim as the most frenzied, at least, college basketball state.

All this hoopla and emotion does raise the question of just why. Decades of intense rivalry among schools near one another accounts for much of it. Long runs of success at Duke and UNC certainly galvanized long-time fans and recruited armies of new ones. And those schools' celebrated antipathy toward each other -- if only among their sports fans -- fuels the uproar.

All area schools have ardent and plentiful alumni bases in the state, a natural core of enthusiasm.

Beyond that, they inspire intense -- if sometimes mercurial -- loyalty from people who have never set foot in one of their classrooms. In Kentucky, that attachment to the Wildcats at the flagship state university was born in part from the absence of any major pro team. It may have owed something, too, to a state with persistent economic woes looking for some vicarious success.

A former governor quipped that in the Civil War, Kentucky was neutral, and when it was over, it sided with the losers. With that heritage, no wonder folks liked to savor basketball trophies.

Whatever the reasons, our deep attachment to one team or another -- or just the game of college basketball -- make our March Madness run especially deep. For us along Tobacco Road, this truly is the most wonderful time of the year.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or bashley@heraldsun.com.