(Originally posted November 13, 2004)
It is designed to do a lot of things, but it certainly is not designed to break your heart. The game begins in the late autumn, when everything else has shriveled and fallen and died. Its blossoms come slowly in winter's course like crocus starts popping through icefields. And when it does stop, it leaves you to face the bursting glory of a fresh spring. What the hell's wrong with that? (apologies, Bart)
Each November, college basketball fades in slowly, takes its dutiful place in the blurry background of the American sports landscape. Only in recent years have the the Men In Charge decided that the season's opening stages needed to be sexed up to compete with the dominant late-year sports stories - the national pastime that is the NFL, convoluted college gridiron bowl jostlings, the annual start of the increasingly ridiculous soap-opera/freakshow that used to be a pro basketball league. They've done this by staging made-for-television invitationals, power-conference challenges, and sham tournaments with worthless trophies.
But I say that while none of this has ruined anything, none of this is necessary in the least. The six weeks that end a calendar year and begin the school hoops season are crucial to the unfolding story.
When the first "Midnight Madness" events are staged in October, each and every one of the 342 Division I teams has a 0-0 record and a theoretical chance of winning the national championship. The path is clear. Win your conference, or play well enough to please the gatekeepers on the selection committee, and you're on the March bracket. Go on a six-game winning streak, and you've achieved eternal glory.
November and December effectively crush many of these irrational and romantic hoop dreams. Early games serve to define and enforce the natural stratification that occurs when differing levels of strength, speed and skill enter into the arena. By the time the new year ticks over, it's usually apparent who the real contenders are, who the potential surprise teams are, and what the true worth of your season tickets are.
So guarantee games, 30-point blowouts and walkovers are not inherently "ugly," they are an example of the necessary elements of any Darwinist construct. We need to differentiate between the big fish, the little fish, and the sorta-kinda-middle-sized fish. To buck nature's way and to test your fish improperly can turn a 8-0 record at Christmas into a 10-18 disaster. And a few holiday upsets here and there signal that flaws are to be addressed, or act as urgent warnings that the conventional wisdom is in need of adjustments.
The early season also allows stratification on a local level, a chance for local teams in separate conferences to vie for regional supremacy and set brother-versus-brother bragging rights: the "unofficial" Big Five tournament in Philadelphia, SEC vs. ACC matchups, Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky, the little California schools of the Big West against their big brothers in the Pac-10.
And then comes the new year. Conference season. The games that are so important that they are recorded separately, in parentheses.
The league season brings a structure heretofore lacking. Cold Saturdays (Fridays for the Patriot and Ivy) are explosions of matchups and point spread listings and awful band versions of "Rock & Roll Part 2" and buzzer-beaters. Teams jostle for position in their conferences and divisions. And for the most part, the games are good and evenly matched.
An intended effect of playing in a conference is that you are presented with the same competition every year. Familiarity does breed contempt, it's true. In league play, you don't need the geographic proximity of Tobacco Road to form a great rivalry - just look at Oral Roberts and IUPUI, Utah State and UC-Irvine, Manhattan and Niagara.
So I'm offended by the notion that the period of time between the Super Bowl and the NCAA Tournament is marked as some kind of sports black hole. Some people think it's so boring that women falling out of bikinis is the only way to hold fans' attention. While I'm certainly a fan of the effect, I don't like the cause.
But I do understand it, to an extent - conference games do require an attention span that may exceed the limits of the hibernating brain. You can put Duke and North Carolina on ESPN every night, but as long as nothing is on the line other than tournament seeding, many will choose to curb their enthusiasm.
When February turns to March, two months' worth of work have added up to a single number, a seeded dance card to the conference tournament. Most leagues set up shop in a neutral arena, drawing busloads of fans and cheerleaders and dance teams and bands to their temporary hoops meccas. Each game eliminates a single team, and when the week is through, there are 31 tickets issued to the Biggest Dance Of All. Many of these schools are known only to folks in the 100-mile radius and mid-major freaks, and they've brought glory and unmitigated success just by surviving their leagues.
Then, just like that, it's Selection Sunday, the holiest day on the college hoops fan's calendar. A secretive bunch of suits in Indianapolis fills out the brackets and chooses worthy "at-large" teams - and let's face it, they're usually right about who gets to go. The next three days are the longest, waiting breathlessly for the tip-off of the play-in game while sad, dispirited teams play out the opening rounds of the NIT.
And in four quick days, 64 become 32, 32 become 16. Ten-seeds beat sevens, and every once in a while a feisty teen will slip through. One or two wins for a small school will cement the squad in their fans' hearts forever, and the eventual and inevitable loss won't hurt a bit. In the end, this event belongs to the big boys.
A deep breath, and it's another weekend dedicated to the tough work of narrowing the field. Elite Eight, Final Four, National Championship, and finally a true and deserving winner. It's the most exciting and pulse-pounding event in American sports, and nobody can deny it.
It is the most beautiful of sports seasons - rambling and undulating, slightly flawed, yet offering perfect dramatic structure. The season quickly and effectively winnows hundreds of hopefuls down to one champion (one must only pass a fleeting glance to our college football brothers to see exactly how hard of a task this really is). Four distinct stages in rapid succession, each played with quickening pulse and shorter breath.
So let's begin.
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