DAYTON, Oh. -- Back during a time when the years had smaller numbers than they do now, I went to Drexel University, a fine, upstanding and expensive mid-major school. In my studies there, there always seemed to be fellow students who skipped out on the first eight weeks of class, then showed up for the last two (Drexel's on the trimester system, you know) with lots of questions. Not the hand-raising kind -- these were ass-covering queries about chapters and papers, whispered to strangers, the shortcuts that make up so much of what we Americans call higher education.
I don't see much difference between those poor slackers and the millions of college basketball fans who are just now tuning in. You and I have been here all along -- taking notes, doing the homework and paying close attention for the past four months. But here comes the crowd whose excuse was that they were focused on football all winter, the folks who didn't come to class in February because the material was too hard to follow. And it's kind of annoying
, you know? But the bracket's out, and here they are again. And this is where the metaphor breaks down: in this classroom, they're likely not deferring to your superior attendance record. They know way
more about basketball than you do.
I fully understand the importance of casual fans to this process. If it weren't for them, there would be no March Madness as we know it, the NCAA men's basketball championship would have all the cult snob appeal and limited national relevance of the Softball World Series. We need
boorish Johnny-come-latelies to yell "That's a foul!" and "That's the worst call I've ever seen!" because it wouldn't be as loud without them, bless their hearts. We need their energy to power this thing forward as it moves into larger and larger stadiums; like any blockbuster movie, the crowd scenes require tens of thousands of extras.
One of the key elements in the growth of the NCAA Tournament over the past 30 years is the low-seed upset. "Cinderellas," they call them, even though this strongly implies the players like to cross-dress. Every year, schools few have ever heard of emerge from the mist and knock off traditional hooping powers. Just the very mention of their names each recalls a flood of memories: Indiana State, Weber State, Hampton, Southern Illinois, Northwestern State, Davidson... George Mason. Casual fans love this, corporate champions sell this, it all taps into dormant American underdoggery
that dates back to our fight for independence from the British. So powerful is this dynamic that many March-only college basketball fans feel cheated -- cheated! -- when the upsets don't come.
Which, finally, brings me to what's done here. For the past five years, I've followed the trials and travails of those otherwise forgotten schools, and have gone so far as to observe them in their natural habitats. A lot.
This has made me something as a go-to guy between Selection Sunday and Round-of-64 Thursday -- people want me to help them fill out their brackets (even though they ignore my advice
otherwise), and they want to know which mid-majors they should "keep an eye on" as great underdog stories in the making. Who's the next Davidson?
In the not too recent past, in years with numbers similar to that of the current one, I had a lucrative gig covering mid-major collegiate basketball for the largest sports website in the world. My least favorite part of it, by far, was this week. I was put forward as a "mid-major expert" with a name not recognizable from television, and my job was to sell the general public on the merits of the low seeds and why they could win. I pointed out the "good stories" so people who hadn't been paying attention could pick their favorite.
It made me feel like a pimp. Not the cool kind in the rap videos with the gold-encrusted chalices, but a dirty street hustler. I was promoting a cheap thrill for a short time at an unbeatable price. Do you like this one, or this one? If a chosen team won its first-round game, it was an unforgettable night. When it lost, became used up, didn't live up to expectations, they could simply discard Cindy at the curbside and move on to the next street corner.
If you've been reading this site for the past four months, you've probably picked your favorites long ago -- based on the evidence and rolling backstory provided, and you don't need me to sell you on anything. You have emotions invested in this weekend's events. Or, you simply go (or went) to one of these tiny schools that find themselves still contending for the National Championship, and this is the best freaking week of your life
I never got to experience that at Drexel -- during my time there, we came close... but never could get past that league title game. For those of us who had followed diligently since November, the hurt and frustration took weeks to disappear, and it usually took baseball season to make us forget. We recognized that at-large bids weren't created for schools like ours, we knew our place.
But the greatest feeling a mid-major college basketball fan can have is when the team you've followed during the season, seen play in small gyms with sparse crowds, is suddenly on the biggest stage there is. It's a giant arena, flashbulbs popping everywhere, CBS cameras swooping and circling, and tens of thousands of random people cheering. It's that contrast between the shadows and the spotlight that is this event's true spark, and why this is as special as it is.
Free of previous sales obligations, I'm looking forward to going to Minneapolis and seeing this happen all over again with the long-suffering fans of Robert Morris (I like to believe there's a very happy truck stop worker
out there somewhere) as well as the Bison Fever
of North Dakota State. The emotions on those campuses right now aren't the disposable kind.
As for the drive-by fans, they're to be merely tolerated until they inevitably leave. They can follow along for a few days, they can "adopt" a team and buy its $35 "Road to Detroit" t-shirt at the official NCAA merchandise stand, but they won't get to the heart of this. Cinderella's not for rent.