With a handful of seconds left in Xavier’s dismantling of Georgia State, the camera panned towards the bench as Ron Hunter pulled his son, R.J., from the court. Despite his Achilles injury putting him in an equally beloved and parodied chair near the bench, the coach stood and smiled widely at his son as he ran towards him. They embraced.
A few minutes later in the post-game press conference, we saw Hunter again, this time saying, “This was the greatest week of my life, the best time of my life as a father,” through tears. “I don’t want these kids to be sad,” he finished. As CBS went to an ad break of nu-twee automobile ads and Barkley/Shaq police procedurals, it was hard not to feel that the party’s last balloon had deflated. The tournament’s last truly surprising and likable team in the room was going home, and turned off the light as they left.
On the morning of the Sweet Sixteen, most of the field is gone. Same as every year, most of the lower seeds and small conference tournament champions have inevitably been swallowed by variously familiar whales, and the journey plunges forward into a cold, black sea. Eventually, all of the schools will have lost besides one. This is always how it goes.
While the winners—the students and alums of those Big Shithead Conference basketball squads, and Wisconsin’s half-speed inexorability machine, and of fucking course Kentucky—will continue onward, they will do so over the wreckage of those that were Just Happy To Be There and which were nonetheless crushed with the infinite void of losing. Does Kentucky hang a banner for anything less than the NCAA Championship? Does Stephen F. Austin University hang one for getting in and getting beaten fair and square by Utah?
Virginia coach Tony Bennett saw his team’s round-of-32 ouster as a teaching experience. His team’s loss to Michigan State “just leaves that feeling that you wish you could’ve taken it further.” Bennett’s team went 29-3, and was built in a way so wildly and willfully against basketball’s better aesthetics that only the possibility of tournament success could have justified playing the game this way. They lost all the same. “It doesn’t take away, once the dust settles, what this team accomplished,” Bennett said. “We give thanks for that, but certainly learn from what took place.” Luckily for the young Cavaliers and their unsatisfied coach, they will return many of this year’s players next season. They will play slower and even more methodically if they think it will help them win. As well they might. There is nothing much else for them to do.
In Monday’s Roakoke Times elegy on the team, the banal team’s jazz dirge of a headline was literally: “UVa season not disappointing nor fulfilling.” Somehow, the Cavaliers, the ACC regular season champions and a two-seed in March, ended their season without creating a memory. March is the cruelest month.
Roxanne Chalifoux became a meme that first weekend. She plays piccolo in Villanova’s band, and played through tears after Villanova was bounced from the tournament by North Carolina State in the round of 32. She received the requisite appearance with Jimmy Fallon, and a sort of ritual came full circle. Villanova, a fine program that routinely leaves the NCAA Tournament early, was a part of this, too. There's an obligatory need to be kind—good grades, fine behavior, a final season record of 33-3—but an overwhelming sense of disappointment accompanying it. There is also a familiarity to it.
And so there is, too, for the exits of all the other teams that deserved better, but also got what they deserved. I love the way that Virginia Commonwealth plays, for instance, but they too got only as much basketball as they deserve—two halves, one brutal overtime, and a ticket home courtesy of Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell. The Rams' fervent passion for man-to-man defense was easily countered with their simultaneous fear of fouling, an after-effect of an NCAA referee mantra to “call basically all contact.” Russell would struggle in the next game, a loss that would likely be the last game of his college career, but he revealed himself to be very much the kind of player that Phil Jackson should feel fine about being fined for scouting.
Even as VCU went down, they were tinkering and innovating and trying strange things. A super-small lineup—all wings and one point guard—provided a boost later into the second half, with 6'5” guard Jordan Burgess guarding the equivalent of the Buckeyes' center. The Rams made it to overtime with brawny forward Mo Alie-Cox fouled out, and their effort and persistence seemed to be rewarded. Their “Havoc” full-court press, which was hobbled after transcendent backcourt pest Briante Weber tore his ACL two months back, still glowed reasonably bright. Outplayed, they turned the ball over too much in the extra session, and lost by three or three hundred, I don’t remember. Heads buried in towels on the bench. Same old shit.
I texted with my friend Alex, a recent VCU alum, after the game. We had just gone to the Atlantic 10 Tournament, and watched the mangled Rams smash through the field with revenge wins over Richmond, Davidson, and Dayton. The crowd in Brooklyn, at some point hesitant, soared by the end of the weekend. Only so many of them could fly out to Portland to watch an OT loss.
I told him I was hopeful for the team, which was only losing three players to graduation and had already proven that it could work around just about anything.
“College sports are different, because you only get a few years to cheer for your favorite players,” he said. “Eventually, they all graduate, or transfer, or get interested, or even lose interest. Even coaches are never permanent as the prospect of greater jobs always looms. But within this transience, there's also a certain permanence, in that memories of temporary heroes will always remain.”
So maybe R.J. is still here. Maybe Briante Weber isn’t leaving after all. Maybe afterour teams lose, they all just go on.