The NCAA Tournament

Why March Madness Makes Me Feel Like a Lab Rat
The stadium scene.
March 20 2007 3:19 PM

The NCAA Tournament



Josh, you're the first person I've ever heard describe a sports studio show as "tasteful," and I'm not sure whether that's a compliment. I suppose "sedate" is as much as we can hope for these days, what with Dick Vitale and Bill Raftery on the loose. I think the nicest thing I can say about CBS is that they foot the enormous rights fee ($565 million annually) to televise the tournament. Can you think of another network that feels moved to sprinkle the postgame highlights over "One Shining Moment," a soft-rock song that sounds like a cut from The Very Best of Steve Winwood, minus the subtlety and wit? "Feel the beat of your heart/ Feel the wind in your face/ It's more than a contest/ it's more than a race." Weird, all this time I thought it was a basketball tournament.


You ask a good question: Is the NCAA Tournament the best thing we've got going in sports? Is it better than the Super Bowl, the NBA playoffs, et al? Some years, probably. Here's the root of my irritation: It's not always so. Last year's tournament featured that wonderfully improbable run by George Mason. Then came the Final Four, in which the margins of victory in the three games were 14, 15, and 16 points—a total snooze. Meanwhile, over in the NBA, we got closely fought, seven-game series between the Clippers and Suns, LeBron's Cavaliers and the Pistons, and the Mavericks and Spurs, followed by two distinctly not-bad Conference Finals series and a solid Finals. Advantage, NBA.

Like you, if forced to choose, I'll take the college game. But some years the NCAA Tournament is just mediocre or outright stinks—like the Super Bowl, the Rose Bowl, and the Little League World Series. And there's nothing wrong with that. My problem with CBS is that the network seems contractually obligated to pretend that every single tournament is a life-affirming athletic endeavor, a singular three-week span in which (to quote the immortal David Barrett) "you knew you were alive." Ugh.

For those of us who get out of the house a bit more often, the one unimpeachable thing you can say about the tourney is that it's an accumulation of small joys. Last weekend, we saw Virginia Commonwealth topple Duke in the first round. Before the brackets were announced, the Rams were only of local interest, if that; as soon as they were slotted to face a weakened Duke team, they had the support of three-quarters of the free world. Winthrop, the opponent of Notre Dame, whose basketball team has apparently inherited all the evil mojo of its football team, had similar populist appeal. There was Ohio State getting a miraculous free-throw-miss-plus-3-pointer combo to get into overtime against Xavier. As you point out, Rob, Tim Floyd has resurrected his career in this tournament. Were those fun moments? Sure. Will I remember them next week? Probably not. Most years, that's the NCAA Tournament for me: wave upon wave of mild stimulations from teams and players I know almost nothing about, which makes me feel like a lab rat getting treats from a scientific professional. Now, if we get a Final Four match-up that approaches Duke-UNLV 1991, or a great regional final along the lines of Duke-Kentucky 1992, I will be a very happy rat.

I just checked the NCAA bracket challenge, and my bracket puts me in 22,043rd place overall. So, consider the above the ravings of a bitter and deluded man. In the interest of further humiliation, my Final Four is Ohio State, Georgetown, Kansas, and Florida, with Georgetown cutting down the nets. I hope you'll both call me during "One Shining Moment."



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