The Madness is now

Drake vs. Creighton. Furman vs. Sanford. USC Upstate vs. Mercer. Youngstown State vs. Wright State.

What, aren't you excited yet? Well, you should be.

With apologies to Bowl Week - actually, no, screw that over-hyped, two-weeks-too-long ESPN creation. It's a fact: This is the most wonderful time of the year.

This weekend will usher in March Madness with the dozens of mid- and not-even-close-to-major conference tournaments that make college basketball's postseason the best thing going - at least, until the NCAA succeeds in well and truly mucking it up. (Here's hoping that class-action suit gains some traction before the field expands again.) The aforementioned teams - who play, in order, in the Missouri Valley, Southern, Atlantic Sun and Horizon conferences - will, for the most part, be fighting for their one and only shot to take part in the Big Dance (or, OK, maybe a play-in game), right alongside the Kentuckys, UConns and ... Gonzagas? ... of the hoops world. 

Sure, some not-so-little guys anymore - Butler, VCU, Creighton itself some years - no longer need the automatic bid that comes with a conference championship to book a trip to the NCAA tournament. But most, such as the Coastal Carolina or Hampton University teams I once covered, do. For four (three if you're lucky enough to get a first-round bye) days at the beginning of March, everything is on the line, and the best part is, you can just about always bet on those teams playing like it.

An example: Two years ago, I watched an unheralded (like, on his own campus) senior point guard channel his inner (and heretofore unseen) Chris Paul, leading a team still reeling from offseason tragedy past the two-time defending Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament champions into NCAA glory. The fact that Brandon Tunnell and the Hampton Pirates were then crushed by Duke is not the point. The point is that for those four days in early March, Tunnell couldn't be stopped, whether he was driving to the hoop with a smoother-than-ever-before handle or pulling up for a jumper that had never looked purer. He put his team on his slight shoulders and carried them past anyone's expectations.

How to explain such a performance? Tunnell gave much credit to the motivational power of memory. Teammate Theo Smalling, accidentally shot and killed before the season began, was guiding him and the rest of the Pirates, Tunnell eloquently insisted, and maybe that was true. But I believe that's also just what happens during four days in early March.

Sure, some of the championship games are clunkers. But others - most, I'd wager - come down to the wire, a last-second tip-in or pressure-packed free throw the difference in the stories grandchildren will one day hear. As students - sometimes hundreds, sometimes dozens - storm the court, sports information directors start designing next year's media guide, mentally emblazoning "NCAA tournament" on the glossy cover, and beat writers start calculating the costs of a trip to Dayton on three days' notice. It is a beautiful thing. 

Rarely does the little guy do big things in the Big Dance. But sometimes, and with increasing frequency, VCU (then of the Colonial Athletic Association, now of the Atlantic 10) makes the Final Four. Sometimes, Butler, of the Horizon League (for a few more seconds, anyway) plays for the national championship. Sometimes, an N.C. State team that needed to win the ACC tournament to even make the NCAA field wins the whole shebang.  (For the record, the Hampton's women's team also won the MEAC title in 2011, only to also lose in the first round of the NCAAs - to Kentucky, by four points, in overtime.)

But to those of you who wait to settle in for your four-day weekend on Thursday, March 21, remote in hand, chips and beverages at the ready, eager for March Madness to begin, all that will be left to say is: Dude, where have you been?