March Madness

by Michael Sean Winters

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Tonight will be see the conclusion of March Madness in the men’s collegiate basketball tournament. I do not normally write about sports but you must have a strange heart indeed to gain no enjoyment from what is the best competitive playoff on the planet.

I always root for the UConn Huskies, and this was not their year. They made it into the tournament, surprisingly, by winning their conference championship series, and they won the first round. But, they lost in the round of 32 to Kansas and there was no shame in losing to the Jayhawks. Whenever the Huskies lose, I cheer for the team that beat them. (Unless it is Duke. It is intrinsically evil to cheer for Duke.) So, I cheered for Kansas but they couldn’t handle the Villanova Wildcats who will be taking the floor tonight for the national championship. I also cheered for Notre Dame, which holds my allegiance throughout the college football season, but they came up short against North Carolina, the other team playing tonight. I will be rooting for Villanova.

Personal preferences aside, why do we Americans love March Madness so much? In part, I think it is because, for all the problems with college sports and the NCAA, we simply enjoy the sheer athleticism of these young athletes. It is like watching the Olympics or a great ballet troupe. Very few of us are gifted enough to ever come close to the level of play we are watching but we still admire the gift. It is also exciting because men’s college basketball is so competitive, any given team can win or lose on any given night: North Carolina is the only number one seed left in the tournament. Indeed, I suspect most people’s brackets were ruined in the first round when Michigan State, one of the four top-seeded teams, lost in the opening round to Middle Tennessee. And, in college ball, unlike pro ball, defense really matters, so the competition within each game is not only between the hot shooters on each team, but between the entire teams’ offense and defense.

Another reason that we like the game so much is that these are kids. It is easy to forget that because their physical prowess is so advanced. But, when someone casually complains that “this guy couldn’t focus” or “why couldn’t they make those rebounds” or otherwise complains about the performance, I always think to myself, “When I was twenty years old, I was a mess.” Handling the pressure of the huge crowds, the television cameras, the nationwide audiences, the press questions, all at the age of twenty or twenty-one is beyond my conception, at least insofar as my conceptions can rely on my experience. So, the next time someone speaks ill of a college ball player, ask them what they had accomplished at that age.

Finally, this tournament, like all tournaments, captures that part of our human psychology that loves competition. Indeed, this tournament, structured perfectly, nationwide in scope, yielding no home court advantages, is the best tournament in sports. I like competition in sports, where it has its proper place even while I dislike it when it is celebrated in other areas of human life. For example, you sometimes hear the advocates of Catholic schools say that competition is good for schools. I support Catholic schools too, but not with that argument. Competition assumes that someone wins and someone loses, and where children’s education is concerned, we can never be content with a metaphor that admits some will lose. But, competition on the court, or on the baseball field or the soccer pitch is a very human thing, one that is best channeled into harmless, enjoyable pursuits. In the world of economics, it seems to me, competition is too geared to the idol of efficiency to earn our praise any longer. But, tonight, in Houston, better to say by means of the game in Houston, we can all scratch our competitive itch in a good way.

Of course, March Madness does not end tonight but tomorrow night. If you have not become a fan of women’s college basketball, you don’t know what you are missing. Fifteen years ago, it could be fairly said that the women’s game did not display the athleticism of the men’s game. Certainly, the struggle for control of the boards was a less fraught exercise. Not anymore. The women shoot with as great, and sometimes better, accuracy than the men. They elbow and push for rebounds with the same gusto and drive as any men’s team. The passing game is, again, often better than the men’s game and I also give the women the nod when it comes to defensive execution. The only point on which the women’s game lags by comparison to the men is the speed of the game, and the women are closing that gap too.

As a UConn fan, even when our men lose, we can almost always count on the women to get into the Final Four. They won the tournament last year, and the year before that, and the year before that, but who’s counting? This year, they are undefeated so far and they were dominant in last night’s semifinal match. There has been a lively debate in the sports pages as to whether or not it is good for the game to have such a dominant team. While admitting my bias, I think it is still good for the game. Women’s basketball does not yet draw the fan turnout, or the TV coverage, that the men get, so the sport still needs a storyline. Apart from UConn, there is fierce competition within the ranks: As in the men’s tournament, only one top-seeded team remains in the women’s playoffs. Standard contenders for the national title like Notre Dame, Stanford, Baylor and Texas Tech have all been knocked off by other up-and-coming teams. UConn today is like the UCLA men’s team when I was growing up, and the dominance the Bruins displayed under John Wooden also helped make the game more popular than it was before. Tomorrow night, if UConn wins, their coach, Geno Auriemma, will pass Wooden’s record for the most national titles.

I spend a lot of my day reading books that would not be described as light reading. Or, I am hunting down information on the web or calling people with expertise on a given issue to garner their perspective and, finally, trying to pull it all together into a daily blog that is informed, conversational and provocative. At the end of those days, there is nothing better than kicking back with a margarita, making some dinner and watching a college basketball game. I love watching the men’s game and I love watching the women’s game. I love talking to my dad each night about how the UConn teams are doing. Sport is a good thing in life, not immune to problems to be sure, but I am grateful for March Madness this year and every year. It's fun.

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