I can remember a time when close only counted in horseshoes and hand grenades. When second place meant "1 loser," when gold was for champions and silver was for dinnerware, when "Miss Congeniality" and "bridesmaid" really meant "No Soup For You." There, in the dimmest recesses of my memory, I remember when being number one actually meant something.
But in an age of adjusted expectations, lower test scores, and a general unwillingness to hurt feelings, it's okay to finish a little bit behind the winner. Second place is alright, because there will likely be a second chance.
Seriously, look at the way that sports machinery has developed here in America. Wild cards. At-large bids. Four-seeds with home-field advantage. Worthless regular-season titles. Don't call it a loser's bracket, call it a repechage. I mean, we haven't had a World Series won by a division-winning team since the year two-thousand-and-frickin'-one. Sure, you can assign some blame to the TV schedule and its voracious appetite for matches and rounds and seven-game series, but come on, what gives?
Second place, by its very nature, indicates loss. You cannot finish as a runner-up without losing to someone, somewhere. Somebody is your daddy, somebody has your number, somebody pwns j00. Losing. by its very nature, sucks - and so by using the classic logical framework of deductive inference, sports are teaching the valuable lesson that it's okay to suck.
We have to put a stop to this somehow, it's getting out of hand. We have to rise up, draw a line, make winning count again. After all, as our hero Mr. Incredible says, "if everyone's special, then no one is."
In the 1950's, the NCAA Tournament stole the de facto national championship from the National Invitational Tournament, as it awarded automatic berths to the champions of the 25 recognized Division I conferences. The NCAA's were becoming the Tournament Of Champions, and the NIT was forced to fight over the leftovers and fade into its predetermined role as the Tournament Of Losers.
The next major shift came in the mid-1970's, when a third postseason tournament further muddied the waters: the College Commissioners Association Tournament. The CCAT stole conference runner-ups from the NIT, and the NCAA's reaction was swift and brutal. In 1975, the NCAA Tournament expanded to 32, and that was the end of that. The CCAT lasted for two years.
College basketball "arrived" as a television event in 1979, when sports fans became breathlessly transfixed by Bird vs. Magic (or was it Indiana State vs. Michigan State?) and set a basketball TV rating that may never be eclipsed. Smelling the sweet scents of American advertising dollars and CBS' glisteningly white buttocks, the NCAA continued to expand its tourney field: 48, 52, 64, and finally 65. Each growth spurt brought more also-rans into the fold. More losers.
And so here we are today. In addition to 31 slots filled by actual conference champions, there are 34 at-large bids fought over like chicken scraps in a dog pound. And this is what college basketball season has come to be about for a lot of people: polls, RPI's, who will get bids, which deserving mid-majors will be heartbroken on Selection Sunday, which conference can send the most schools to the Tournament.
Conference Championship Week, largely a recent construct of ESPN, is as much (if not more) about seeing big-conference teams a few more times before the Dance than it is about seeing which tiny schools will fill out the bottom end of the bracket. Every single game of the Big East tournament is televised, every single game of the ACC tournament is televised. The mid-major championships are televised whenever ESPN tells them to play the games. Saturday at 10 in the morning? Okay, sounds good to us, bring the cameras.
This March, I sat in the antiseptic higher reaches of Indianapolis' Conseco Fieldhouse amongst the Michigan State faithful, watching as they dismantled Northwestern in a sloppily-played late-night quarterfinal in the Big Ten tournament.
"I think we're in," I heard one guy say on the concourse afterwards. "This should do it. Even if we lose to Wisconsin tomorrow, we're in."
And they did lose. And they did get a 7-seed. No, it isn't about winning your conference any more at all. Conference tournaments usually play like extensions of the regular season, and aren't much more than glorified alumni gatherings.
Except... if you're a mid-major.
To a small school, the conference banner is made out of the same poly-cotton blend as a big school's national championship flag. And despite what the pundits say, the one-bid scenario is not a weakness. When you are on your conference's tourney bracket battling over a single Dance ticket, each and every game features something on the line - and it's more than the trifling difference between a 4-seed and a 6-seed. It's all about survival, pure and simple. Just like it was before 1975.
And isn't that how it's supposed to be? Winner take all?
But once again, we'll be hearing about some team or other who truly deserved to go and ended up getting screwed. Most recently, there's the tragic tale of Utah State, who fought Pacific to the bitter end of the Big West regular season. Not even a semifinal loss to upstart Cal State Northridge would derail their NCAA Tournament dreams on account of their high RPI rating... but alas, no go. Their painfully slow, dark-eyed, soulless assisted suicide at the hands of Hawaii in the NIT first round was enough to bring me to the edge of tears.
But I'm all for "screwing" the mid-majors out of at-large bids, and having them earn their way in by winning their conference tournaments. Those bids don't belong to them - they were born out of the NCAA's greed for television money, and they should go to television teams - the ones who always get the high ratings. In fact, I wouldn't mind seeing the power conferences get all 34 of them.
Eight days after Indianapolis, I sat high above halfcourt at Kansas City's Kemper Arena. Overconfident and swaggering Providence, a 5-seed despite Big East also-ran status, fell hard to the very same plucky Pacific team that won out in the Big West and earned a twelve spot. The Kansas fans arriving for the late game got behind the underdog and cheered loud and long, and helped lift the little Tigers on to victory. Watching the black and orange-clad players and coaches mobbing at half court is a memory I'll take with me for the rest of my college basketball life.
And that, my friends, is a key crank inside the Tournament's excitement engine. We need fourth and fifth and sixth place teams in there, hogging up all the four, five and six seeds.
'Cause they're the ones that get beat early on by mid-majors.
So if the NCAA wants to adopt an unofficial, unsaid policy of excluding any runner-ups south of the Atlantic 10 from consideration for at-large bids, that's okay. If this is what it takes to preserve the sanctity of Championship Week for the Big Wests and Mid-Americans and Ohio Valleys of the world, fine. If Utah State and OVC regular-season unbeaten Austin Peay were the first teams in the Selection Committee's wastebasket this past March, well that's just super-de-duper.
It'll just be our little secret.
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