CLEVELAND -- Lately I've been reading When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball
by Seth Davis, a man I'm privileged to know and lucky to share a bond of mutual respect with. It's a tremendously fantastic book by a supremely talented writer, one that documents the famous 1979 national title game that ignited all this nuttiness. There's only one problem: it's about hoops. The book that's still out there waiting to be written is Please Tell Me What This Has To Do With Basketball: How the NCAA Got Greedy and Turned The Tournament Into a Big Ol' 65-Team Clusterfuck
. It's going to be a bag of words about committee meetings, and it's going to be pretty darn unreadable.
Back when I was in college, there wasn't a day I loved more than Selection Sunday. I would sit in front of the television as the details were leaked out, tried to keep up by scratching excited team acronyms and codes on my blank bracket. I felt that euphoria of emotional overload that only comes when incoming information overwhelms the brain's ability to process it. It was a relevation of order from chaos, the bridge between darkness and light, every gift-giving holiday wrapped into one big and glorious package.
Then I went to the NCAA mock selection
last month (Seth was there too), and I saw how brackets are made. I saw how 10 people are stuck in a room for five days and are forced to shoehorn today's basketball reality into the monstrous and unwieldy structure that yesterday's bureaucrats created. I saw how hundreds of votes and endless debate and a blur of team sheets turned the process into something as bland as third-quarter sales projections. It was the same kind of flawed groupthink that chased me out of the 9-to-5 world and compelled me towards mobile sportswriting. In short, it broke my heart.
The NCAA made me hate Christmas.
There's a major misconception that some TMM readers have (and in the old days, ESPN readers had it too). Some think that I'm some sort of mid-major apologist, that I go to bat for the downtrodden right or wrong, that this site is some sort of endless underdogathon. This is not true. (If it were, I'm sure I'd have more of a following.) I promise nothing but a point-of-view perspective of what it's like in college basketball's relative shadows, what life is like out here in leagues where air travel is a luxury, and what victories mean to those teams that have to struggle and sacrifice for every one.
But with the same instant readiness of internet publishing that made my career possible, there are plenty of people lining up to be the champion of the little guy. I generally don't read those sites, and am happy to let them micro-divide a large potential audience that likes to root for small and helpless things. I find that approach unrealistic and cloying, and it triggers the same gag reflex that always made me root for Gargamel against the Smurfs as a kid. To oversimplify the story of the underdog
is to cheapen the struggle.
I like thinking and logic and philosophy. I also like numbers. I love the clarity that Our Game inherently contains: it provides a 40-minute closed context in which there are always clear reasons that separate winner from loser. The scoreboard is the perfect antidote to votes and compromises and deals, and the basketball court is the anti-boardroom. (Later this week in offices across America, you'll see exactly how much that's the case, once again.)
Well, I suppose you know the raw numbers by now. There are three at-large teams that represent sub-Red Line conferences in this year's NCAA Tournament (Xavier, Dayton and Butler), down from four last year. This is supposed to be an outrage of the highest order, or so I've been told. I'll tell you again that it doesn't matter
There will always be conspiracy theories, and red flags carried by those who wish to turn this into a Frank Capra movie. People have a lot of time to kill before the games start, I recognize that. I can see how easy it is to turn Committee Chair and SEC commissioner Mike Slive into some sort of cartoon villain, and also how easy it is to forget that six of the panel's 10 members represent schools and conferences on our side of the Red Line. I can understand that it's easier to blame a perceived bias than it is to recognize that Southern California and Mississippi State shrunk the at-large bubble pool. I also know that it's easier to point the finger at others than one's own team, even when it lost its most recent elimination game and was forced upon the mercies of fates.
I used to get a real rush out of skewering the Selection Committee chair, parsing his exit interview for validation of my belief that the process is rigged against the teams I like. Now, I just feel sympathy. He has to sit through a five-day convoluted process, oversee thousands of votes and manage nine egos, then he suddenly has to become Ernest Hemingway and break everything down into three minutes of perfect soundbites. It's a no-win situation. My reaction now is: "Poor guy."
But this is the only outrage I'll ever feel. Say that VMI wins the Big South tourney, that the Keydets dance on the court and are mobbed by their fans in a hot, sticky, sweaty storm. Eight days later, the brackets are announced, and VMI isn't there. When the CBS or ESPN interviewer asks the chairman why, he says, "Well, we didn't like their body of work. So we left them out." When they come for our autobids, that's when I'll fight.
For now, we have a bracket. I hurriedly filled it out last night at 7 p.m. Eastern with little emotion as my room service food got cold, then I filled out my application for the first and second rounds this weekend. Then I switched off the TV, I saw little reason to talk about what had just transpired. Then I went back to sweet 1979 with Bird, Magic and Seth Davis.
The time and relevance for the Selection Committee and "bracketology" are mercifully over, and we are three days from the Round of 64. The games are what matter, those are what will be worth documenting later with heroic prose. And judging from the looks of things, there are plenty of combinations and permutations to get six or more small-college teams past Thursday and Friday -- that's
how we measure mid-major success around here. We'll be talking about that more as the week goes by.