Why the NCAA Tournament Matters, and Why It's a Farce

Among the dopiest elements in discourse about sports, one must count the passion expended on questions that no longer will be operative in three days. But it can hardly be avoided during the first

Jerry Dowling

Among the dopiest elements in discourse about sports, one must count the passion expended on questions that no longer will be operative in three days. But it can hardly be avoided during the first week of the NCAA Tournament, which is one reason among many why much of college basketball has become such a dreary spectator experience.

Nobody is going to care in three days that Bradley, Missouri State and Kansas State are left out of the tournament, and they might not care that Stanford, Vanderbilt and Virginia are in. Nobody will raise a peep about the shady selection process, the work of a committee that usually favors major conference teams ahead of those from mid-majors when the evidence leaves any doubt about who's better. Nobody will notice that four months of regular season play were virtually meaningless for everyone except a handful of middling major conference teams that won at-large bids.

The NCAA Tournament, another national bout with social amnesia, comes to us again this week with its ordinary cast of athletes killing a year in school before turning pro (the so-called "student athlete"), coaches lauded as if their triumphs match the highest moments of fine art or military conquest and upsets. Lots of upsets.

The first four days of the tournament are such a fabulous event that one can easily tune out all his complaints about college basketball and absolutely love it. Those sports fans who have time do themselves an immeasurable favor if they can stake out a sports bar with about 25 television sets and the whole tournament satellite package, grab a table every morning at about 11 and just spend the whole day and night watching the tournament.

Like soccer's World Cup, the NCAA Tournament is an exercise of passions from all corners of one's experience.

Many people bet on the games, of course, and most of those who don't have still filled out brackets and joined several pools. Even those with absolutely no financial stakes in the outcomes can join the fun.

Maybe you went to this or that university playing right now, maybe your sister went to a university that's playing tomorrow, maybe you pull for another university because you agree with its political scientists and maybe you pull against another university because it's endowed by fossil fuel money. Maybe you like or dislike this or that coach, maybe you like or dislike this or that style of play, maybe you like or dislike the team built around one mercenary or a group formed over four years. Pick your criteria and enjoy the show.

If your sports bar is any kind of spot, people connected with every school playing will be present. You'll be absorbed in some game on one end of the bar, hear a yell on the other end and see four or five people in their New Mexico State gear jumping up and down because their guys just won on a buzzer beater.

The place is dynamic, people coming and going depending on who's playing. There's simply no better way to love the tournament.

It's so easy to forget everything you dislike about college basketball because you like this one aspect so much. You can feel the raw, physical intensity of the players pulsing through television screens. One is exhausted just watching them.

And the tournament is absolutely unpredictable. Last year, the lower seeded team beat the higher seeded team in nine of 32 first-round games, in five of 16 second-round games, in two of eight third-round games and in three of four regional finals. The higher seed won both semifinals, but the lower seed won the championship game.

That's 20 upsets out of 65 games, plus another 13 games in which the favored team won by four points or fewer. One doesn't find very many athletic competitions in which half the games either surprise you or keep you in suspense until the very end.

A few of us are mad at college basketball because the conferences basically throw out four months of regular season results and give their automatic bids to the winners of their conference tournaments. Such an arrangement makes the regular season feel so bloodless while teams play for abstractions like RPI ranking or conference tournament seed.

About 30 teams come through the regular season so well that they're going to the NCAA Tournament no matter what. The other 35 bids are left to the conference tournaments and the selection committee.

There's got to be a better way — and there is. But one tires of arguing for the abolition of conference tournaments in favor of an NCAA Tournament that includes all Division I teams.

One might as well climb onto his rooftop and howl at the moon for all anyone cares to hear of it. Fans just want to immerse themselves in the dance. They've spent all season talking about, or ignoring, the abstractions. Now, at long last, they have games.

And here's a game we all want: Xavier vs. Ohio State. If Xavier and Ohio State both win Thursday, we'll get the game Saturday in Lexington, Ky. It's the kind of game we expect from the tournament, not just because the Xavier throng gets to take a whack at Thad Matta, not just because Xavier is David and Ohio State is Goliath, not just because the two schools are 100 miles apart, but because it speaks to the way college basketball is played.

In the Ohio State corner, we have the program with Greg Oden, the great freshman who might hang around for another year but probably won't. Being the kind of program that can attract Oden, the Buckeyes decide it's worth taking him as far as he'll take them even if it means they have to change direction next year.

In the Xavier corner, we have the program that can't attract NBA lottery picks and so builds its forces through time. As it happens, the Musketeers now are a deep, experienced team, having been through the tournament grind together many times.

Can Xavier's older players, many of whom were recruited by Matta, prevail against their old coach in his new environment of super-powered talent taking its only shot? It's worth playing the tournament just to find out about that.

It might even be the kind of question that's still operative in three days.

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