Starting Thursday (tonight, really, in Dayton as Alabama State and Morehead State battle for the right to play Louisville) one of America’s great traditions begins: the NCAA Tournament. This tournament has garnered more and more attention each year, as it helps us to escape into the madcap world of college sports and to forget the problems of the day. Some wrongly imagine that this tournament is just a bridge to carry us between football season and baseball season, but this month now commands almost as much attention as both sports.
Over the next few weeks in sites covering the vast majority of the lower 48, 65 Division I Men’s College teams will compete for the right to play in the title game. The games, heart-stopping affairs, will raise expectations one minute and will dash them the next; in spite of the time of year that the tournament runs, this has been no Lenten entertainment! Like millions of Americans, I love March Madness for its drama, its passion, its excitement, its suspense, its intensity, and, most of all, for its unpredictability. All the experts on ESPN note that this year is the most unpredictable; University of North Carolina was crowned this year’s sure thing after returning most of its starters from last year’s Final Four run, but they lost to Boston College and Wake Forest in early January and lost their air of invincibility. Then a parade of teams became media darlings, including Wake Forest, Duke, Pittsburgh, University of Connecticut, Oklahoma, Memphis, and now Louisville, the reigning Big East Tournament Champion. Even though UNC is a 4 to 1 bet to win it all, no one is quite sure who will win–and that’s where the fun begins.
Unlike any other major sporting events in America, March Madness, as it is affectionately known as, engages and entertains from the first tip-off. Once the tournament runs its course, there will be one champion, and everyone will agree that that team earned its crown. No controversy will exist, as there was this past winter in determining which team was the best college football team; when, in heaven’s name will that wretched BCS system be eliminated and a tournament replace it? No blasé acceptance of the champion will occur, as there often is in NBA basketball, as we only wonder which one of four teams, The Cavaliers, the Lakers, the Spurs, or the Celtics will win it. No indifference toward the championship game will happen, as there often is with hockey. No, this Tournament, comprised of 63 games over 10 days, has everything that a sports fanatic craves: decisive last second victories; startling finishes; creative, invested players; crafty coaches; Juggernaut teams dominating; Cinderella teams surprising. Almost everyone I know completes a bracket, expecting that this year is the year that his/her selections will be correct, and almost everyone I know curses that bracket after the first weekend of games, when 48 of the 65 teams are eliminated.
Even though the final game in Detroit on 6 April will determine one champion, people will remember this tournament as much for all the games leading up to it as much as for the final, exciting game. The tournament, antithetical to the “there is only one winner” attitude that pervades our culture, inspires. Cleveland State, North Dakota State, Binghamton, and Robert Morris will consider this year a success, because they made it to the tournament, and teams such as Siena, Portland State, American, Cornell, and Akron will consider this season a success if they win one game in the tournament. I also love that teams given no chance to win routinely upset established programs, as those number 8, 9, and 10 seeds remind us. In the end, some member from college basketball’s aristocracy will determine who is champion, but along the way, we will witness and enjoy teams playing with unabashed joy, unrestrained passion, and unrelenting excitement. Regardless of whether we attended one of those 65 colleges and universities playing, we are drawn to these contests, because David does vanquish Goliath and the joy of sport, in its most pure and beautiful form, is on display: young men play with abandon for alma mater; mothers, with paws and claws, demons and devils, fowls and friars painted on their faces, clutch rosaries and pray for miracles; cheerleaders sob inconsolably over gut-wrenching losses; fans, joined together in a community watching, believe that this year is the year.
Tonight’s game will be held in a city where that has suffered greatly because of our present economic crisis. At present, we are watching professional baseball players prevaricate about their steroid use, professional football players whine about contracts and embarrass themselves with arrests, professional hockey players ruin one another’s careers with pusillanimous hits, and professional basketball players spend more time in courts than on them. Even college football players are embroiled in their own scandals. All these problems detract from the greatness of these sports. To be fair, college basketball has its own problems, including coaches who make promises to recruits then bolt for greener pastures. But for three magical weeks, the problems of the business of sports can be forgotten, and we can enter a number of facilities over the next three weeks and cheer with joy, be reminded of the beauty of sports in its purest form, and know that their actions will uplift us and help us, if only for a moment, forget the challenges that we all face as we pull ourselves through this recession.