I did not realize how much I had missed March Madness last year.
I was hired merely days before the 2020 men's Big Ten Tournament was cancelled and the players were whisked off the floor out of an abundance of caution, and then we were all sent home and the rest is history. Going into this year's tournament, I knew it would be a busy time for us but I had truly underestimated the bump in sessions that we would get because of it.
We had 10 schools make the tournament (Baylor, Houston, Cleveland State, Loyola, North Texas, Michigan State, Wichita State, App State, Creighton, Liberty) and a number of others barely miss or on the bubble. Army and Texas State were leading their respective conferences before losing in the tournament. Kent State had an outside shot at winning the MAC and Old Dominion finished second in their division.
I know coaching and recruiting are important facets of success in college basketball, but I also think that being a Nudge school also creates some instant success. The science behind this statement is still foggy and controversial at best, much like how The Cloud works, but over half of our eligible licensors made the tournament, and most did very well.
If you're reading this, by now you know that Baylor won the men's tournament championship. If you're reading this and this is how you found that out, then I applaud your dedication to burying your head in the sand of collegiate athletics and would like some lessons on how to do so. Baylor women's basketball lost in the Elite 8 on a controversial call of their own, which is a shame because they seemed poised to make a run at the crown. The Baylor men's team blew Gonzaga out of the water, seemingly hitting every shot they took and locking down the Bulldogs fast-paced and efficient scoring attack on the other end of the floor. Gonzaga and Baylor were the two best teams in college basketball this year, both head and shoulders ahead of every other program. We didn't get to see their regular season matchup due to a COVID cancellation, but in a way that ratcheted up the anticipation for this title game and it did not disappoint. Baylor played a nearly perfect game, knocking Gonzaga off their momentum just enough to pull ahead and stay ahead.
For the record - I don't want to hear any Gonzaga slander this year. Playing in the WCC, they of course are eligible to be ridiculed for a cupcake schedule and not playing anyone difficult until March, and there is an argument for that in some seasons, but not in this one. Put Gonzaga in the Mountain West, Pac12, WAC, whatever conference you want, and they'd have risen to the top. This team was that good, but NO ONE was beating Baylor that night with the way they shot the basketball. I would have loved to see a best-of-seven series because I know we didn't see Gonzaga's best in that game, but Baylor still played their best game of the season and are worthy champions.
We also sold lots of Baylor shirts, which is quite nice.
The morning after the title game and ensuing days following, at least a quarter of our orders every day are Baylor shirts. I would have thought that sales would slow down while fans are searching for "2021 National Champions" apparel, but they have not, and I am grateful.
Baylor's Final Four opponent was also great for sales - the Houston Cougars. Houston made their first Final Four since 1984, and although they were overmatched by Baylor, there's no shame in celebrating winning your region in the tournament. If I were a Houston fan, I'd be thinking "man, what a great season. We just ran into an absolute buzzsaw in the Final Four, I'm going to celebrate with a Nudge shirt!"
Good thinking, Houston fans.
That said, their region of the bracket was significantly weird because another Nudge darling, Loyola Chicago, upset #1 seed and many pundit's title favorites Illinois. They channeled the power of Sister Jean once again, powering through Illinois to a Sweet 16, but then unfortunately shooting very poorly against lower-ranked Oregon State. Loyola's win over Illinois was almost as much of a boost for us as Baylor winning it all; we almost sold as much Loyola gear in Q1 this year as we did in all of 2020! And their win over Illinois gave us fans one of the most memorable social media gaffes in recent history.
North Texas also made a big splash in the first round, upsetting #4 seed Purdue in pretty convincing fashion. We had loads of Mean Green orders the next day and weekend, which was awesome since they're such a new school in collection. They also got famous for the most supportive sports dads in the history of March Madness.
I was hoping Creighton would make more of a run, but their wheels fell off as the season went on and they could not get past Gonzaga. It was close for a few minutes, but then Gonzaga hit another gear and just never stopped scoring.
For as good as those teams did, Nudge schools did have some rough First Four games. App State mounted a comeback against Norfolk State but fell short. Wichita State blew a lead to Drake in the final minutes, as did Michigan State to eventual Final Four Cinderella UCLA. Michigan State was the most frustrating; we had put a lot of effort into the Championship 20th* Anniversary shirts, but they couldn't hold on. Had they won that game and even made it to the Sweet Sixteen, we'd still probably be shipping orders for them.
But like I said earlier, I underestimated how much I missed watching basketball for 12-14 hours a day. The nice thing is that this year I could at least kind of link it back to work so if I got caught staring at a TV it wasn't the worst thing in the workplace!