In the wake of Saturday night’s Duke vs. North Carolina game, which saw the Tar Heels clinch the regular season ACC championship crown, the annual excitement of March Madness began. Now, on the dance’s doorstep, teams will compete in their conference tournaments to determine who gets the automatic bids and who has to romance the stone hoping for an at-large bid.
So why is this such an infectious tournament? Nearly every collegiate sport has a national championship tournament. Sixty-eight teams enter, four enter the final stage, and only one team comes out the other side with a ring and an eternal smile. This story undoubtedly carries a spirit, but why basketball and why madness?
Undoubtedly, the most compelling aspect of this tournament comes from the sport’s parity. Year in, year out, titans of the regular season and NCAA basketball history fall to the little guy, the lesser known programs who find a way to enter the tournament and then make the most of their opportunity. The modern era’s advances have rendered the recruiting process easy for the best teams. Finding the best players now requires a simple Google search.
The likes of Kansas, Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina will always find a way to be title contenders, but before these teams can slide into the Final Four, they have to go through trials and tribulations against second-tier programs who want to win the two 20-minute halves just as badly, if not more so, than the big dogs. In the tournament’s lengthy history, 2008 was just the first time all four top-seeded teams reached the final four. Whether it’s at the hands of a No. 2 or a humble 12-seed, number ones do fall, and often. Whether it’s true in real life or not, the American Dream is fully alive on the hardwood each March.
Sixty-eight teams put their name in the championship bin, praying for the basketball gods to smile on their campaign. Though the favored teams have a distinct advantage over the more unassuming programs, the game presents itself to both teams in the same way. Whoever puts the ball in the basket the most times wins. There are rules, but they apply to both teams. Preconceived advantages abound, but a self-proclaiming equality on the court produces a more accurate vision of the American Dream than the one we are told as kids.
If the idea of the underdog weren’t romanticized enough, the sporting faithful came up with the perfect name for an overachieving squad, the Cinderella team. Though this unlikely band of heroes almost always meets their demise in the later rounds, when quality overpowers sheer will, the clock runs past midnight in the most magical way. These moments make the tournament all the more worthwhile.
Basketball is also the perfect sport for the casual sports fan to observe and enjoy. By virtue of the sport itself, there is no shortage of scoring. With a backdrop of feverish student and alumni supporters bound to their team by colors and mascot, the game features frequent lead changes and swings of momentum. America likes high-octane events, as seen in its outrageous support for NASCAR, and college tournament basketball comes the closest, sans actual engines and motors. Forty minutes is not a lot of time, so each possession counts. This results in a neat marriage of America’s desire for action and its relatively short attention span.
As mentioned before, the tournament’s script is far past a beach read, feeding the holes in our lives left open for inspiration and admiration. The actors in the play? America’s young and talented athletes. Not too different from an ancient Greek tragedy, these youthful competitors struggle to perform their best, win the game and keep their palpitating hearts in their chests on national television — not a walk in the park for 18-year-olds.
Lacking years of experience and wisdom, emotions run high and are ever-present on national television as these teenagers bare their souls to their teammates, the game itself and spectators nationwide. Although 98.9% of them will never play in the NBA, the level of play in these sixty-seven games is awesome.
The most used and — as I see it, the most overused — argument as to why college sports are more fun than professional sports is in the money. A contentious reality in the modern era, these collegiate athletes are not compensated monetarily. Though many receive scholarships, which are a transaction of value in a sense, the players do not receive the lucrative financial gains that professionals do.
Many assert that this distinct difference is a huge reason behind college sports’ appeal. These athletes are merely playing for their school and their teammates. This is an oversimplification at the least, and totally false in reality. College’s best players, almost all of whom advance to the tournament, definitely play for the altruistic reasons mentioned above. But to say that they are going balls to the wall solely for the good of their team with no ulterior motive is naïve. If only 1.1% of players are so lucky as to make it to the next level, they need to perform well on the national stage in order to do so. The only difference between the NBA player and the college player in this sense is that one is playing for a paycheck they get at the end of the week and the other for the one that they’ll receive at the next step in their career.
Aside from monetary compensation, these guys are all gamers. They’re the best in the world at what they do and not all of that is borne out of physical and technical ability. No matter how much someone is or isn’t getting paid, they’re going to try their absolute hardest to win a playoff game. Having said this, there is a hole in my argument that falls by the wayside in a direct answer to the question at hand. Though these 1.1% of players are the superior group, basketball is a team sport and requires five players and subs to get the job done.
Every year, teams feature a handful of players that may be playing in the last game of competitive basketball for which they will ever suit up. This stark reality breeds a determination to win that NBA players do not face until the ends of their long careers. For these aged few, the prospect of their last game inspires an attitude that is so raw that it is more than visible; it is visceral.
As for the tournament picture, it’s hard to say as of now. Division I sports are always a couple weeks behind our DIII schedule, so the top flight is just reaching their conference tournaments in the coming week. This weekend defines the tournament composition, especially for the lower-seeded programs hoping to squeeze in with a good conference performance or victory.
For now, the Kansas Jayhawks appear to be the championship favorites with fifty-eight first-place votes in the AP Poll, as opposed to the three given to UCLA, the next closest. Villanova, last year’s champions, are sitting in the second spot in the poll. That historic final could be recreated as North Carolina is also having a strong season, casually resting as the fifth-ranked program. Though there are some question marks around the bubble that separates March Madness from the NIT, the upcoming games will fill in those blanks and give us the framework for the fireworks to come. Buckle up.