Saturday Morning Quarterback

Andy Reed • Updated Mar 12, 2016 at 7:30 AM

Hope you're enjoying March madness.

That is, the real March madness, not the March Madness created for CBS and the NCAA tournament's other broadcast partners.

To me, what ESPN promotes as championship week is the real madness as teams jockey to get into the Big Dance through their conference tournaments. Even those teams in power conferences who may already be in are looking to get the best seeds possible.

Then there are those teams in survival mode - which is to say, about 300 of the 350 or so D-I schools not on probation or otherwise ineligible. They must win at least a game or two or win out in their league tournaments for Greg Gumbel to call their names out late Sunday afternoon or early Sunday evening.

Every team is different. The perception was Vanderbilt would be in if the Commodores beat Tennessee, which needed to win five games in five days to make the Big Dance. But since the Vols outplayed the 'Dores for most of Thursday, Vandy will probably have to settle for an NIT bid, which was fun last year but will be considered a big disappointment this time around. The Big Orange lost to LSU on Friday and won't play past this weekend, but Thursday made the Vols' offseason.

Then there's MTSU. Conference USA top seed Alabama-Birmingham's upset loss Thursday may or may not keep the Blazers out of the tournament. If it didn't, it most assuredly will keep a fifth-place team from a power conference from going - and that's just fine with me. In the meantime, the Blue Raiders are the highest seed remaining in the tournament as they look to go dancing in the main ballroom and not in the back room of the CIT (don't ask me what that is).

But this spring's ultimate Cinderella was the first team to receive confirmation of qualifying for the tournament - Austin Peay. The Governors upset three of their Volunteer State rivals to win the Ohio Valley Conference as the No. 8 seed. I haven't been to an OVC tournament since I graduated from MTSU last century, but it seems as though that league puts on the best tournaments these days considering Belmont's last-second miracle shot to win it last year and Peay's dash to glory this time around.

The conference tournaments are so good, I saw Friday where even the Ivy League, DI's final holdout in sending its regular-season champion to the Dance, will join the league tourney lineup next year.

And that's just in Division I. All other levels of the game have also enjoyed their own versions of the madness.

Many of us just finished watching Wilson Central's undefeated run to the state tournament where it came to an end in the quarterfinals on Wednesday.

At least the Lady Wildcats, with state record-setting three-point shooter Kendall Spray, got to MTSU. White County's boys - that record-setting three-point making team - were upended in the region semifinals following 29 season-opening wins. Lebanon's 1984 Devilettes can feel the Warriors' pain as they too won their first 29 before their dreams were dashed at the buzzer in Shelbyville.

Oh, and if you thought it was disappointing for Watertown's girls losing a 14-point lead in the District 8-A finals, what about Franklin Road Academy's boys, who blew a 31-point third-quarter lead in the Division II state championship game and lost in overtime.

High school hoops are done for me. The girls will decide their three Division I champions tonight before the boys, without Wilson County representation, take center stage next week. In fact, the only local basketball team still playing is Cumberland's women, who drew a berth in the NAIA Championships in Independence, Mo., and will play Wednesday night.

But for me, the climax of March will come Sunday evening when the 68-team NCAA men's tournament field (which will include Wilson Central-alum Dee Oldham's Chattanooga team) is announced, followed by the women's 64-team bracket (which will include OVC champion Belmont with Mt. Juliet's Sally McCabe).

Speaking of the OVC women, I was just reminded of a chance encounter with Lebanon's Larry Joe Inman at a restaurant last weekend. The former LHS and Mt. Juliet coach was sitting on top of the world a year ago when his Tennessee State team made a surprise run to the championship and the Big Dance. This year, the Lady Tigers lost early and are done.

That's what's so thrilling and, yes, maddening, about this time of year. It's the excitement of anticipation and thrill of victory. It's also the agony of season-ending defeat. And it often comes down to one shot at the end of a game, the end of a long, hard season.

For those teams who survive their conference tournaments and qualify for a national tournament, this weekend is the ultimate. Then the games will come. And for all the buildup of upsets and Cinderella, chances are all of the teams which advance to the Final Four will be from the top 10 anybody could have predicted even before the season began.

The Final Four is anticlimactic to me since most of the teams will be done.

Basketball withdrawal will be underway.

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