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March 20, 2013

Powered Up: Madness

LEXINGTON, KY--In a little less than 24 hours, the greatest four days in sports is once again upon us. No disrespect intended--well, okay, some disrespect--to the play-in games, but the NCAA Tournament starts on Thursday.

Missouri will tip off against Colorado State at approximately 9:20 local time (8:20 Central) Thursday night in Lexington. By that time, 12 teams will have played their final games of the season. By the end of the night, either the Tigers or the Colorado State Rams will join them. And that's the beauty of March. 

Through 33 games, often inexplicable incomprehensible come-from-ahead losses, Missouri fans have known one thing: There was going to be another game.

Yes, the giveaway at UCLA hurt and the blowouts in Gainesville and Oxford were humbling and the officiating in Fayetteville and the decision-making in College Station and Nashville still defy explanation. But no matter what, the players, coaches and fans went to bed that night knowing that the Tigers would play again.

The next time Missouri loses, that isn't true.

It is what makes March so mad, and sometimes so maddening.

Just more than a year ago, I was in Omaha, Nebraska. I will admit I had hopes (and my bracket would reflect this) that I was two weeks away from covering my first Final Four. I've always wanted to go to a Final Four. Never been lucky enough to have tickets. The closest I came was watching Oklahoma practice at Kemper Arena in 1988. I thought maybe last year was going to be the year I finally got to see the culmination of the greatest event in all of sports in person.

Of course, it was not.

With about 12 minutes left in the game, I told the person sitting next to me that for the first time I believed there was a legitimate chance Norfolk State was going to beat Missouri. The Spartans just weren't going away.

About 25 minutes later, Phil Pressey's three-pointer clanged off the iron and he slumped over the scorer's table with his jersey pulled over his face. I interviewed Kim English and Marcus Denmon and Steve Moore and Ricardo Ratliffe and Mike Dixon and Matt Pressey in the Missouri locker room, some having wiped away the tears, some not yet having absorbed the shock of what just happened, all speaking so quietly you had to strain to hear.

It was, along with the one after the 1997 kicked-ball loss to Nebraska, the least fun locker room I have ever been in. But at the same time, a few hours later after the stories were written, I came to this conclusion about that day: I had a front row seat for one of the most memorable games in NCAA Tournament history. And that's something. In ten years, most college basketball fans won't be able to tell you who won the whole thing that year. But they'll probably remember when Norfolk State beat the Tigers.

Sixty-seven teams are going to finish the season with a loss at some point in the next three weeks. And for a few minutes, a few hours or a few days, that will hurt. But sports is about the ride. Only one team gets to raise that trophy on Monday night in Atlanta. For the rest of them, the next three weeks are about the moments along the way.

Thirty-two games will be played over the next 36 hours. When the ball goes up in every one, there is a chance we will see something we've never seen before. This morning, the likes of Western Kentucky and Southern University can still dream. Every kid has a chance to be the next Harold "The Show" Arcenaux or Bryce Drew or Tyus Edney or Christian Laettner. Every team can be the '83 Wolfpack or '85 Wildcats or this year's Butler or VCU. Every game will be the most pressure-packed two hours of the last calendar year. It will be glorious, it will be memorable and it will be a hell of a lot of fun.

Welcome, once again, to the Madness.

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