I watched considerably fewer college basketball games this season than I have in previous years, although I still got every Saturday and half the Sundays in February and March, so far, started by watching either a Michigan or Michigan State basketball game.
Now that it’s Tournament time, I’m in the midst of seven consecutive days and nights of watching kids play basketball, to be followed by a six-day stretch of viewing, and the week after that by four consecutive days. That’s 17 out of 21 days, and then, following a six-day layoff, two games in three days, at which point a national champion will cut down the nets.
By this point, some readers will already have dismissed this as one of those sports columns, but I consider it more akin to a love sonnet — you know, as in, how do I love thee, let me count the ways.
Understand, that while I consider myself somewhat of a sensitive fellow, a lover of the arts and humanities, a student of the sciences, a philosopher, a mystic and someone who takes solace and finds inspiration in nature, I am also an emphatic sports fan, and by far my favorite sporting event is this monthlong fiasco we call March Madness.
The drama of this tournament is unparalleled. Over the course of the first three rounds, which covers 60 games, there will be multiple contests that come right down to the wire, determined by a point or two. Due to the way they seed the teams, pitting the lowest against the highest-ranked teams, it sets up many David-and-Goliath scenarios, and inevitably some of the Davids will defeat some of the Goliaths.
I love that it’s a case study in imperfection, both in theory and practice. To begin with, there are no exact formulas or criteria for which teams even get into the tournament. Thirty-two teams get automatic bids by virtue of winning conference tournaments, and the remaining 36 teams in the men’s tournament and 32 in the women’s event, are chosen by a selection committee that takes into account things such as win/loss record, strength of schedule, opponents’ strength of schedule, quality wins, bad losses, success at home and success away from home, and other things, and not every committee member weighs these factors in the same way.
On the court, imperfection is evidenced by the fact that, unlike professional sports championships, the contestants in these games are not the best in the world at their sport. They’re college kids, the vast majority of whom will never go on to have pro careers, which adds to the unpredictability and furthers the drama. It also puts further emphasis on the importance of the coaches.
I love how regionalism and conference pride play into the tournament dynamics. Players, coaches, commentators and fans looking for bragging rights use wins by particular schools as evidence of the quality of play in their part of the country, or their conference.
I love the ritual of the brackets, where co-workers and friends fill out their picks and pay to enter a pool, and then follow along over the course of the tournament to see who from among their group picked the most winners and will come away with the prize money. We not only condone, but we almost encourage gambling during this event, as if it’s a community-building activity.
I’m proud to say I participated in the tournament, sitting on the bench as a freshman reserve member of the Penn basketball team that lost to Duke in 1978. They were ranked seventh in the country. We were No. 20. They beat us by four, and three games later they lost to Kentucky in the National Championship game. But that was before the tournament became what it is today — before the madness.