The term "March Madness" and the stories that it's provided

By RICK CLEVELAND,

Someone asked the other day: Who coined the term March Madness? Where did it come from?

I assumed it was from CBS, for so long the network that carried the NCAA Basketball Tournament. And that's partly true, because CBS made March Madness famous. But the truth is CBS stole the term “March Madness” from Illinois high school basketball. Brent Musberger, a former Chicago sports writer and sportscaster, first used the term to describe the NCAA Tournament on CBS in 1982.

In reality, March Madness dates back to 1939 when Henry Porter, who worked for the Illinois High School Association, wrote a magazine article about the so-popular high school tournament played annually at the University of Illinois. “March Madness,” he called it, and it stuck. Sports writers loved it and used it. What's more, when the Illinois tournament was pared down to 16 teams, they were turned the “Sweet 16.” That stuck, as well. Don't ask me about Elite Eight. I don't know.

March hasn't been this mad in Mississippi since 2002, the last – and only other time – Ole Miss and Mississippi State made the NCAA Tournament field in the same season. Remember? I do.

Rick Stansbury's Mississippi State Bulldogs finished 27-8 and in second place in the SEC Western Division. But the Bulldogs swept through the SEC Tournament, beating Alabama in the championship game, and then, as a No. 3 seed, beat McNeese State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at Dallas. The bubble burst in the second round when Texas, coached by current Tennessee coach Rick Barnes, toppled State 68-64.

That same year, Ole Miss, coached by Rod Barnes, finished 20-10 and received an at-large bid, a No. 9 seeding and a nightmare matchup with UCLA in in San Jose, Calif. The Rebels, led by the late Justin Reed and the so-called Provine posse, were beaten 80-58.

And the truth is, the NCAA Tournament has been more March Sadness than March Madness for Mississippi teams. Only one Magnolia State team, Mississippi State in 1996, has ever made it as far as the Final Four. If you are looking for omens, that '96 Bulldogs team was a No. 5 seed, just as Ben Howland's Bulldogs are this season.

But mostly, the NCAA Tournament has brought heartbreak, none more crushing than what happened to Ole Miss in the 1998 tournament. The No. 4-seed Rebels, coached by Rob Evans, were a terrific team many experts thought could go deep into the tournament. But then Valparaiso (Valpo for short) happened. Remember? If you saw it, you do.

It happened in Oklahoma City. Ole Miss led Valpo by 69-67 with less than 10 seconds remaining. Valpo star Bryce Drew missed a three-pointer, and Ansu Sesay, the Rebels' best player, rebounded and was fouled with five seconds left. Sesay, a 73 percent free throw shooter, missed the foul shot, and Valpo retrieved the loose ball rebound and called timeout with just 2.5 seconds remaining. That was time enough for Bryce Drew, son of Valpo coach Homer Drew, to hit a running 3-pointer at the buzzer to win the game and send Ole Miss home.

They'll show it again this year in openings to NCAA telecasts. They always do. That really was the epitome of March Madness.

For the record:

• This will be Ole Miss's ninth appearance in the NCAA Tournament. The Rebels have a 5-8 all-time record in NCAA play. Ole Miss last played in the tournament in 2015, beating BYU in the first round and losing to Xavier in the second.

• This will be Mississippi State's 12th NCAA appearance. The Bulldogs have an 11-10 all-time NCAA record. State last played in the 2009 tournament, losing to Washington in the opening round.

It would not surprise me if the current Bulldogs, deep and talented, advance to the Sweet 16. They have Liberty in the first round, and if victorious, would play either Virginia Tech or Saint Louis in the second. Ole Miss has a tougher road. The Rebels face Oklahoma in the first round and would likely play No. 1 seed Virginia in the second. That would be a difficult task, but far more difficult tasks have been accomplished this time of the year. That's why they call it March Madness.

Contact syndicated columnist Rick Cleveland at rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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