posted by Matt W on March 28th, 2014

I have always enjoyed March Madness. To me it is a more cerebral look at college basketball. I sit down with a bracket and reflect on the season, and then methodically move from spot to spot until I crown a national champion. Then the actual tournament starts and I get to see how well I did. Picking upsets is always cool, and as I like the well-coached, scrappy teams that handle the pressure of the tournament, these will always be my favorite type of games. For example, Villanova beating Georgetown will always stick out in my mind. But my favorite play through all the March Madness will always be Valparaiso beating Ole Miss in the first round of the 1998 tourney.

Valparaiso was the 13th ranked team in the bracket playing the number 4 seed Mississippi. Most people had actually thought Mississippi was cheated by only getting a 4 seed for the tourney. They were definitely looking to make a very deep run that year. Valparaiso had only one strong player, the coach’s son Bryce Drew, and a nice supporting cast. The game played out as most expected with Valparaiso’s scrappy play and Drew’s shooting keeping the score close. Near the end of the game, they got to within 2 and fouled an Ole Miss player with the slim hope he would miss at least one of the foul shots to give them a chance to tie with a three. He missed the first and the Valpo coach called timeout to ice him on his second shoot. The shooter missed the second shot as well and the rebound was tipped out by Mississippi.  Valparaiso’s ball.

It was then that the magic began. With 2.5 seconds left and without a delay, the inbounds pass was thrown to a player just past half court. The receiving player jumped in the air over the defenders and did a perfect touch pass to a cutting Bryce Drew. He caught the ball in stride and put up a 25-foot jumper that touched nothing but net for 3. 70 to 69, game over.

This would indeed be a great moment in sports if the story stopped there, but for me it was the ensuing interview with Bryce Drew that will always make it my favorite play. The interviewer said that was indeed a miracle play, and asked “What was going through your mind?” With his father/coach standing in the background, Drew’s answer was something like this. “Nothing was going through my mind. We had practiced that play so many times it was second nature. All the players on the team are so sick of that play because we do that play at the end of every practice. We are always tired but the coaches make us do that play because someday we might need it to win ‘the big game.’ I guess they knew what they were talking about. I’ve made that exact shot hundreds of times in practice.” Coach Drew didn’t even have to say a word.

I always like it when a smart well-coached team does well, and it seems like there is always at least one that does well every March. Valparaiso was just the 1998 version. They ran a play to perfection hundreds of times in practice and when the moment came on the biggest stage in college basketball it was indeed “perfect.”

Remember, “Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.”  March Madness has a way of showing that adage to be true every year.

(Originally posted March 21, 2012)

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