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‘Cat Bracket Fever

Last weekend, I had a recurring dream.

Downtown Nashville (Dave Polaski, Townsquare Media)

I dreamt that I was in Nashville, Tennessee for the 2nd and 3rd Rounds of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. During that time, my alma mater, the Ohio Bobcats, knocked off Michigan and South Florida in consecutive games to improbably reach the “Sweet 16.”

Then it hits me — that whole sequence actually happened.

Bridgestone Arena during NCAA Tournament (Dave Polaski, Townsquare Media)

Part of the fun of March Madness is the “Cinderella” story, the team that defies logic and statistics to make a tournament run and topple the big boys of the college basketball world.

George Mason captured the nation’s imagination in 2006, when the school overcame tremendous odds and went all the way to the Final Four. VCU’s Final Four appearance last year provided a major boost to the university’s popularity and revenue stream. Butler made it to consecutive national championship games in 2010 and 2011, giving mid-majors across the country hope that they could someday reach the pinnacle of NCAA basketball.

Could 2012 be Ohio’s turn?

The Bobcats won over "Elvis" last weekend (Dave Polaski, Townsquare Media)

The Bobcats entered this year’s tournament as the #13 seed in the Midwest region, a number which proved lucky as they took on the #4 Michigan Wolverines in the 2nd round at Bridgestone Arena last Friday. Bolstered by junior guard D.J. Cooper’s 21 points, Ohio led throughout much of the game and held on for a 65-60 victory.

Ohio pulls off the upset of Michigan (Dave Polaski, Townsquare Media)

Those wearing green-and-white inside Bridgestone Arena were in heaven. Despite setting a school record for victories (27) in the regular season and MAC Tournament, few experts gave the Bobcats a legitimate chance against a talented Big Ten team like Michigan.

Ohio fans celebrate the win over Michigan (Dave Polaski, Townsquare Media)

On Sunday, Ohio faced South Florida, a Big East team with Cinderella visions of their own. The #12-seed Bulls blew away Cal and knocked off Temple in their first two NCAA Tournament games, bringing them within one win of their first Sweet 16 appearance in school history.

After a disjointed 20 minutes of play, the Bobcats trailed USF 27-21 at halftime. Despite the deficit, many Ohio supporters seemed confident that the 2nd half would bring better fortune. The underdogs would not disappoint, rallying behind Walter Offutt’s 21 points and Cooper’s 19 for a 62-56 victory.

Walter Offutt scored 21 points in the win over USF (Dave Polaski, Townsquare Media)

Following the game, my cell phone exploded with congratulatory texts and phone calls from friends and family members. Ohio had not advanced this far in the NCAA Tournament since 1964.

In recent years, I watched as numerous mid-major teams went on magical postseason runs, wondering, “Why can’t that happen to my school?” Now it’s a reality, and it’s even more satisfying than I could have imagined.

Ohio's next challenge: North Carolina (Dave Polaski, Townsquare Media)

How long this feeling will last is anybody’s guess. Dreams of the Elite Eight, Final Four and national championship may end tonight, as Ohio goes up against mighty North Carolina in the Midwest Regional semifinal in St. Louis. The #1-seed Tar Heels are a heavy favorite against the Bobcats — even if their star point guard, Kendall Marshall, ends up missing the game with a wrist injury.

On paper, it’s an extremely uneven matchup — North Carolina has almost as many national championships (6) in their history as Ohio has NCAA Tournament victories (7). But that’s why they play the games. Although there’s a significant size and talent differential, perhaps this will be the one time out of 100 that Ohio comes out victorious. After all, there’s a reason it’s called March Madness.

Posing with Rufus (Dave Polaski, Townsquare Media)

Regardless of tonight’s outcome, I’m extremely proud of my alma mater. I’ll never forget what I experienced in Nashville last weekend — two games, two upset wins, one Sweet 16 appearance, dozens of high-fives from random strangers and hundreds of memories.

Once a Bobcat, always a Bobcat.

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