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One shining moment – ‘The Back Roads to March’

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There are few times on the American sports calendar as eagerly anticipated as March Madness. The NCAA basketball tournament is one of the most celebrated sporting stretches of the year, with teams from all over the country harboring hopes of championship glory.

Now, the reality of the tournament is that, while there will be 64 teams that gain entry to the bracket (68, technically, when you take the play-in games into account), only a handful of those have realistic aspirations of winning it all. For the majority of these teams, the real victory is getting there in the first place.

A handful of those hopefuls serve as the primary subjects for legendary sportswriter John Feinstein’s newest book “The Back Roads to March: The Unsung, Unheralded, and Unknown Heroes of a College Basketball Season” (Doubleday, $27.95). It’s a look at the teams and people who live the college game off the beaten path. Sure, there’s some mention of the Dukes and Kentuckys and Virginias of the world, but this book isn’t about them – it’s about the teams grinding it out in conferences where if you don’t win the whole thing, you have no shot at The Dance.

It’s about the University of Maryland Baltimore County – UMBC, the perpetrator in the single greatest upset in the history of the NCAA tournament. Feinstein spends time with the coach and players of this team, just one year removed from their victory over the University of Virginia – the first-ever triumph of a 16-seed over a one.

It’s about a scrappy Army team that has to fight for every inch it gains, even as it carries with it an almost unmatched pedigree of past coaching brilliance – legends like Mike Kryzyzewski and Bobby Knight got their starts with the Black Knights nee Cadets.

It’s about Tommy Amaker, coaching the Harvard Crimson through the tangled tendrils of the Ivy League and hoping to find a way to take his team to the top, even when injuries and other issues threaten to push his team back to the pack.

It’s about the University of Buffalo and about Nate Oats, the guy Bobby Hurley plucked from the high school ranks to serve as his first assistant and who wound up replacing him when he moved on to Arizona State. It’s about

And it is DEFINITELY about Philadelphia’s Big 5. The five schools – Villanova, Temple, Penn, St. Joseph’s and La Salle – have a storied history of inter-city competition. Perhaps more than any other hoops hotbed, there’s a competitive tradition here – one that in some ways outstrips even the NCAA tournament itself. The Big 5 matters in a way that those who have never experienced it will never understand.

Feinstein combines the collective might of his passion for the game, his gift for evocative descriptive prose and his unparalleled access to paint a vivid and memorable portrait of a handful of the Davids that seek every year to topple the power conference Goliaths that litter the tournament bracket.

“The Back Roads to March” is a walk through the convoluted and cynical path navigated by the NCAA come Selection Sunday, a place where a middling school with a marketable name gets elevated to the Dance over a strong, hungry team that had the bad luck to lose in the semis of their conference tournament, leaving them to cross their fingers for the NIT or cough up the cash to hit one of the pay-to-play postseason tourneys.

That’s the truth inherent to Feinstein’s aptly-chosen title. For these schools to make it, to fulfill the lifelong dreams of all involved, the stars must truly align. Only via a perfect storm can these schools, these coaches, these players navigate their way to the NCAA. The basketball gods must smile and allow all the cosmic dominoes to tumble in the precise necessary order. Whereas teams from power conferences view berths as their birthright, these teams know that shots at the big time are precious few and far between.

If there’s a Mount Rushmore of sportswriters, John Feinstein has a pretty good argument to be on it. You can count on one hand the number of writers who can match what Feinstein brings to the table … and you can’t count the number who surpass him at all, because they simply don’t exist.

That gravitas makes him ideal for a project like this. His gifts as a chronicler of the sport are well-documents; seeing those gifts aimed not at the legends that sit atop the game, but rather those who sit a notch or three lower down the ladder, is a delight. Feinstein passes no judgment on these teams, nor does he view them as inferior in any way. He recognizes the quality of their play, both in terms of the young men on the court and the coaches guiding them along their way.

“The Back Roads to March” isn’t about championships. The players at UMBC or Harvard or Army or Buffalo will almost certainly never stand on stage as “One Shining Moment” rings through a confetti-littered football stadium, the only venue large enough to contain the financial megalith that March Madness has become. But here’s the thing – as clichéd as it sounds, these guys really are just happy to be here.

So when that first tourney weekend hits, take a moment to consider the truth of that 15-seed facing down a Kansas or an Ohio State or a UCLA; remember that their journey was a long one … and that for them, victory was assured before a single point was scored.

Last modified on Tuesday, 03 March 2020 07:55

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