The NCAA tournament is the best continuing event in American sports because it brings us the unknown in two compelling ways: We don’t know who’s going to win, and we don’t know much about the people doing the winning. It’s high drama involving folks who aren’t yet high-falutin’.
Contrast the Big Dance with, say, the NBA playoffs. Is there anyone alive who doesn’t know something about LeBron James? But who, before Virginia Commonwealth made its run to the 2011 Final Four, knew anything about Shaka Smart (coach) and Jamie Skeen (player)? How many among us even knew where VCU was based?
Interest in college basketball’s regular season keeps declining because we don’t know the players — all the good ones are gone to the NBA almost as soon as they arrive — but that November-to-February weakness becomes a March strength. We’ve been conditioned to watch the NCAA tournament if for no other reason than to root for our bracket, and in so doing we meet the most interesting people.
We watch the tournament because it’s the only major team sporting event that includes 16th seeds. We still pay attention to Duke and Kansas and Carolina, but the charm of this tournament is that, unlike the NFL postseason and the soon-to-be-unveiled BCS playoffs, middleweights get to partake and even stick around.
Many folks point to the 1979 final that saw Magic Johnson and Michigan State face Larry Bird and Indiana State as the game that made the Big Dance big. I’ve never quite believed that, in part because the game itself was nothing special. I’ve long thought that the NCAA tournament took flight in the middle ’80s on the wings of two epic upsets — North Carolina State over Houston in 1983 and Villanova over Georgetown in 1985.
Those were the first real upstart champions — Texas Western doesn’t qualify, having entered the tournament ranked No. 3 in the land — and they stand as two of the bigger upsets in the history of sports. And they both were fabulous games: Lorenzo Charles’ dunk-off-an-air-ball remains the greatest ending of any NCAA final, and the ’85 title game was played at such an exalted level that Georgetown, the nation’s best team, made 54.7 percent of its shots and committed only 11 turnovers — and somehow it lost.
Anyone who watched those games was hooked forever, and with the rise of the mid-majors and the thinning of top-end talent because of one-and-dones, every March now brings the real promise that just about anything can happen. In 2011 VCU went from a regular-season loss to Georgia State to the First Four in Dayton to the Final Four in Houston, and there to meet the Rams in the semis was … Butler.
College basketball isn’t what it was, but the tournament stands as tall as ever. It’s a cliche to say there’s nothing else like it, but there really isn’t.