News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

March 15, 2014

MARK BENNETT: All aboard!

We love to jump on the bandwagon — for a short ride, at least

PARIS, IL — Find me a George Mason University basketball T-shirt in Indiana.

They’re rare this March. After all, the Patriots won just 11 of 31 games this season, next to last in the Atlantic 10 Conference.

Back in 2006, though, their bandwagon overflowed with fans from around the nation, won over by George Mason’s unexpected run to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament. Indianapolis, site of that year’s Big Dance finale weekend, was awash in George Mason memorabilia after the Patriots stormed into Naptown by upsetting Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and top-seeded UConn.

Suddenly, people wanted to know what backwater town this team came from (Fairfax County, Va., right outside Washington, D.C.), its tiny enrollment (33,320, the largest in Virginia), and the background of its obscure namesake (George Mason was a Founding Father of this country who pushed for the Bill of Rights).

An 11 seed in the Final Four? Holy Constitutional Convention!

Yes, everybody loved George and the Patriots, at least in 2006.

All those GMU Final Four pennants Hoosiers bought up then probably sold for a quarter each in yard sales a few years later. Likewise, George Mason’s Indiana bandwagon probably got auctioned, piece by piece, on eBay.

March Madness owes its wild popularity — the NCAA told Forbes magazine that 181 million viewers watch its 67-game tournament via TV and the Internet — to victorious underdogs such as Wichita State in 2013, George Mason in 2006, Valparaiso (over Mississippi) in 1998, Bucknell (over Kansas) in 2005, Northern Iowa (over Kansas) in 2010, Santa Clara (over Arizona) in 1993 and Richmond (over Syracuse) in 1991.

Though a core of commentators, determined to provoke ire, routinely dismiss most of those upsets as one-game flukes, the exploits of two Indiana programs — NCAA Finals appearances by Indiana State in 1979, and Butler in 2010 and ’11 — validate the dreams of the unheralded. The Sycamores (No. 1 ranked and top-seeded then) and Bulldogs belonged in those title games.

Still, even those bandwagons can unload quickly. In terms of hoops allegiance, millions of underdog-lovers become temporary converts each March.

That doesn’t necessarily reveal a flimsy heart. As an ISU alum, the Sycamores can expect folks such as myself to support them in any NCAA appearance. Those moments don’t come every March, though. ISU has made the Big Dance three times since the Bird era — 2000, 2001 and 2011. Kansas and Duke backers don’t deal with such gaps; the Jayhawks have played in 24 consecutive NCAA tournaments, and the Blue Devils in the last 18 straight.

The rest of us, though, must pick another team to root for once the Selection Committee finalizes the brackets today. As for me, I bypass the powerhouse schools and lean toward the double-digit seeds. I’ll take a hyphenated college — with too many letters to fit across the players’ jerseys — instead of a North Carolina or a Connecticut, so go University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Directional schools get penciled into my brackets (often an unwise choice), so bring it on Eastern Kentucky and Southern Miss. In any other realm, Harvard has an elite reputation, but if the Crimson do an encore of last March’s shocker over 3-seeded New Mexico, people in sports pubs all over the country will be fist-pumping.

I’ll ride on their bandwagons for a few weeks and jump off the couch triumphantly if 15-seeded Stony Brook beats Michigan on a last-second 3-pointer.

For that reason, I regularly caution anyone asking me for tips on filling out their tourney brackets. I’m bound to pick some dreadfully wrong winners in the early rounds. Usually, my bracket is a mess by 6 o’clock on the NCAA’s first Thursday night.

But, even if just one dark horse team pulls off a stunner, it’s all worth it.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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