John F. Russell: Feeling the magic, failing to make the right March Madness picks

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John Russell

John Russell's sports column appears Sundays in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 871-4209 or email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by John here.

— The year was 1990, and the floor of McNichols Sports Arena in Denver was rocking.

The magic of the Final Four could be felt in Denver despite the fact the University of Colorado (my alma mater) was far from being a basketball powerhouse and Colorado State University was eliminated after a first-round loss to Alabama.

To tell the truth, I wasn’t a huge college basketball fan at the time, but fate landed me a court-side seat to photograph the basketball tournament. I was lucky enough to sit among some of the top photographers in the country as Duke moved past Arkansas and UNLV topped Georgia Tech in the semifinals. Later, I skipped classes at CU so I was sure to have a good spot to take a few photos as UNLV topped Duke for the title. The game was ho-hum, but I still owe a debt of gratitude to the Campus Press sports reporter who insisted we cover the event even though the Buffs were a few miles up the road in Boulder wondering what it would have been like to play in Denver.

I would like to say the experience inspired me to become a more educated fan of college basketball, but anyone who has seen my brackets the past couple of years knows that isn’t the case.

But I have come to understand that the NCAA basketball tournament is one of the most magical events in all of sports. It’s a tournament built on expectations and fueled by the upset. It’s driven by the emotion that draws most of us to sports and inspires people like me who take an interest in the tournament most years as long as there is an office pool to jump into and a chance to win a few bucks. Sadly, for whoever will win our pool, I did not fill out a bracket this year.

The attraction of the event is based on expectations and the interest that can be generated by a Cinderella run. I have to wonder what the odds are in Las Vegas of picking the perfect tournament bracket. I’m sure the odds makers could not have predicted Villanova in 1985, Gonzaga in 1999 or Butler in 2010 and 2011.

I have to wonder how many people picked the No. 8 Wildcats to win it all in 1985 or expected Gonzaga to knock off Florida in the Sweet 16. Who had even heard of the Butler Bulldogs before the school knocked off Syracuse and Kansas State in its run to the national title game in 2010?

That’s one of the greatest things about this tournament. I mean, who has the time to follow 64 college basketball teams and understand how a team’s results will translate to a winner-take-all tournament? Who would have predicted at the start of the week that Colorado State would outrebound, outshoot and outplay Missouri in the opening round of this year’s tournament?

The cool thing about March Madness is that you don’t have to be a huge basketball fan to understand the emotions and the drama that will play out on the court the next few weeks. I was lucky enough to experience that firsthand in 1990, and it’s an experience I never will forget. It hasn’t helped me fill out a winning bracket, but I have a appreciation of what it means to the fans and the schools that bring it to life.

To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209 or email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com

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