March Madness works even when the basketball is trash
Saturday night, late, I was watching the end of the Texas-Abilene Christian first-round game and chatting with a few friends online, as I'd been doing off and on since March Madness began on Friday afternoon. I'm on record as a former college hoops nut who is fully disenchanted with the sport (I could pretend it's about the shitty politics of the NCAA, but in fact it's more about the awful quality of the game itself) and can't bring himself to care about this year's tournament in particular. Still, call it nostalgia or force of habit or whatever you want, but I couldn't resist tuning in sporadically, especially with an upset brewing. That was the case with Abilene Christian v. Texas, and I tuned in with about five minutes left. When it was over, I came away with two strong opinions:
1. It was some of the worst "high-level" basketball I had ever watched. Every possession was a 30-second nightmare until someone forced up a bad fadeaway and missed. The final score was 53-52, and it felt like both teams overachieved to get past 45.
2. It was still, somehow, fun.
And it wasn't the first time I held those two seemingly contradictory opinions this weekend. It happened at the end of the Purdue-North Texas upset, and when Oral Roberts beat Ohio State, and Ohio/Virginia, and even during the slogs without a true upset bid from a mid-major, like Rutgers-Clemson and Florida-Virginia Tech.
Now, let's be clear: If you had asked me to watch any of these games during the regular season, I would have stolen the nearest car and made tracks for the border. If you had forced me to watch, it would have been like the scene in Clockwork Orange where the dude's eyelids are taped open in front of the screen and he suffers irreparable psychological damage. None of my enjoyment exonerates college basketball, a sport which has been completely lost to the blunt-force slow-down tactics of a virus-like coaching philosophy, where the referees are powerless to change anything, and where talent is squelched from both sides by boring offensive systems and defenses that are allowed to grab and hold with impunity. It is, for the most part, unwatchable.
So why does it work in March Madness?
It's a hard question, but I think I've boiled it down to a few key elements. First, the volume of games. There are so many, over such a short period, that if you don't like what you're watching, you can just change to something else, and you really only have to pay attention to the last few minutes. Even when the basketball itself is a dumpster fire, which is almost always, you can enjoy the tension of a close game knowing you've made no real commitment, and something new is on the horizon. It's also why the tournament gets worse over the month; with successively fewer games to watch on the second weekend and the Final Four, each individual show of drudgery gets more exposure.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, March Madness is an institution that lives on its history. And what a tremendous history it is. Just like millions of sports fans around the country, I have endless great memories of watching buzzer beaters and upsets and living and dying with the success of my bracket. It's no exaggeration for me to say that as a kid, the first Thursday of March Madness was better than Christmas morning. I would fake illness every year, and when that failed, I'd simply skip school or leave at lunchtime. It got to the point that even my normally strict mom gave in and just accepted that when it came to the tournament, I wasn't missing the opening day.
Today, those memories persist and maintain a strong, tugging influence. While I get mildly angry at the state of the sport every time it comes on TV, there is also that subtle nostalgia pulling me in. Even the theme music makes me feel some type of way.
Finally, the format. There are many brackets in sport, but this is the best bracket, and though college basketball didn't invent the bracket, it feels like they did. It's certainly the best bracket to gamble on, and the format lends itself to all kinds of pools and wagers and contests. It is—here's where I choke up and the first strains of "One Shining Moment" begin to play—beautiful to look upon.
Don't get it twisted: College basketball is still a failed state. But March Madness works, and it works because it has always worked. Today will be worse than Friday, and next week will be worse than today, but against all the odds there's still some magic in the air when you get 64 teams together to battle it out. It's like a loyal spouse who stays by your side even after you make a mess of your life, and the fact that it still has its mojo leaves just a sliver of hope that one day, college basketball will be worthy of March Madness again.