Most years during the NCAA Tournament, I find myself wondering in a moment of sports ecstasy if this could be the best one yet. In actuality, it almost never is, but that’s an academic argument, and nothing good and fun about sports ever feels academic. The event’s popularity depends mainly on its unpredictability. Even if the first day is slow, you figure, there’s the second day, or the second round, or the second weekend. It always gets good, sometimes deliriously so.
This year it never did. A decent SEC team (South Carolina) made the Final Four, and that was about all we had to hang onto as far as madness went.
Naturally, something must be done. Things can’t just happen. There must have been some sort of error made, some flaw in the machine that has only now revealed itself. Fix that squeaky bearing or one of these days — BANG — the NCAA Tournament is leaking all over the freeway.
That’s always my first instinct, anyway.
But as humans, we’re not bound to act on instinct. And if our experience with the NCAA Tournament has taught us anything over the years, it’s that you can’t engineer madness. Not the sort we’re after. The NCAA Tournament is, above all else, a celebration of chance. Some years, by chance, the results create compelling narratives. This year, by chance, they didn’t.
There isn’t much anybody can do about that. The Selection Committee puts the teams where they go, and then the ball bounces the way it’s going to bounce. Officiating was a major complaint in the championship game, and throughout the tournament, and maybe if they called it a little looser, we get a different sort of tournament this year, or maybe we don’t.
College basketball fans sometimes say they prefer it when the top teams are still around at the end. Essentially, they’ll trade some major upsets in the first couple weekends for some major battles in the Final Four. The thinking is, this creates a truer representation of who the best team actually was that year. I often feel this way, and if you’ve invested two, three, four nights a week on college hoops from November to March you can feel ripped off watching a team that is clearly one of the best two or three in the country get taken out in the second round by some slop-lucky underdog.
But the NCAA Tournament isn’t for college basketball fans. It’s for everybody else (and gambling). It needs the madness in order to survive.
If the NCAA could manufacture it, you know it would. But then it wouldn’t be madness.