For years I've had a love-hate relationship with the NCAA Tournament.
Right now, I love it. Richland Source is beginning our first NCAA Bracket Contest and the best news of all is it will be automatically graded by a computer -- not me!
As for hate, like nearly everyone outside of Durham, North Carolina, I despise Duke. For years I've watched the NCAA Tournament committee give the Blue Devils the path of least resistance to a Final Four, knowing full well idiots like me will tune in just to root against Coach Mike Krzyzewski's outfit -- directly impacting the tournament's TV ratings.
It's especially galling when the best Ohio State team of my lifetime, in 2011, was the consensus No. 1-ranked team in the land (and the No. 1 overall seed), yet faced the most difficult landmine possible. The Buckeyes would've had to beat Kentucky and North Carolina just to get to the Final Four. Had it gone chalk, Kansas, and of course Duke, would loom at the Final Four.
When the Buckeyes were nipped by Kentucky in the Sweet 16, my hatred was cemented. Duke would've never faced a foe like that so early in the draw.
That's just the tip of my frustration.
For years as sports editor at the Mansfield News Journal, I was in charge of the NCAA Tournament contest. It was all paper, readers filled out brackets, and then the sports staff and part-timers graded them. One year we had nearly 1,500 entries.
It was a daunting task. I well remember dragging brackets home to grade in the wee hours of the morning. The newspaper ran a picture of me covered in brackets one year to ask readers for patience as we waded through the task.
Also, I usually wound up running the newsroom's bracket pool. One year an executive editor came up to me, horrified, and apparently oblivious to the worst-kept cultural secret in the U.S. workplace.
"Larry, what if the Mansfield Police came down here and saw you running an NCAA Tournament pool?"
"That's OK with me," I said. "They can get in it if they want to."
One year some of the staffers complained. They didn't follow college basketball, but wanted to join in the fun. So, we simply did a blind draw, at $1 per team. The winner gets $64. My colleague Jon Spencer beat it back to the office from an out-of-town assignment just to make it in time for the draw. I think Spence bought $10 worth of entries. Naturally, the highest-rated team he drew was Tulane.
Meanwhile, news reporter Jodi Andes bought one ticket and drew North Carolina. Of course the Tar Heels won the whole thing and Jodi announced she would buy a new pair of pumps with her winnings.
I announced that was my last year of running the pool -- until the next season.
One must understand, I grew up watching this event with my Dad. One of my earliest memories is seeing Bill Walton hit 21 of 22 shots and score 44 points against Memphis State in the 1973 NCAA championship game. That remains the greatest NCAA finals performance of my lifetime.
My freshman year at Ohio University, I cut out early from a Philosophy exam and rode with some friends to the NCAA opening round games in Dayton. Naturally, I failed the exam. #WorthIt.
We bought scalp tickets to watch Danny Manning lead Kansas and Scott Skiles pace Michigan State. They both advanced through that bracket to meet in the Sweet 16, where the Jayhawks won an OT thriller over the Spartans on their way to the Final Four.
The next year we decided to hell with the scalpers and bought our tickets almost a year in advance, knowing a regional was scheduled for Cincinnati. We cheered Indiana to a regional semifinal win over Duke and then watched Bobby Knight in astonishment. The fiery IU mentor assaulted a phone at the scorer's table, clearly shaking up the officiating crew, and sparking his team from a 12-point second-half deficit to a 77-76 win over LSU in the regional finals.
That marked the most impactful coaching moment I've seen in the tournament. The Hoosiers went on to win the national championship by beating Syracuse that year.
I covered the 1990-91 and 1991-92 Ohio State teams at every stop of the draw. The 1992 Elite Eight overtime loss to Michigan and the Fab Five, the best team money could buy, remains one of my most bitter memories.
On the other end of the spectrum, the 1999 trip to the Final Four is perhaps the best. No one expected Jim O'Brien's team to do anything. They were 1-15 in the Big Ten the previous year.
But then point guard Scoonie Penn arrived, and he absolutely willed the Buckeyes to their first Final Four in 31 years. It's no longer recognized because of NCAA violations, but it happened, and I followed them all the way to St. Petersburg and a national semifinal loss to eventual national champion Connecticut. Didn't matter in the least, what a ride.
That 2011 OSU team with Jared Sullinger, David Lighty, Jon Diebler, and Co. was a special group. I covered them in Cleveland as they absolutely destroyed their first two foes, beating No. 8 seed George Mason 98-66.
Ohio State was the best team in the field, but they could not overcome William Buford's horrific shooting night against an outstanding Kentucky team, losing a 62-60 upset.
Last year marked a welcome return for OSU to the tournament, especially when Chris Holtmann's team won a first-round game before bowing out to Gonzaga.. This year's Buckeyes are a shell of that team. Hence my interest in college basketball has waned a bit.
Still, I'll be plugged in enough to root hard for Duke's foe, every step of the way.