I’ve spent the last pair of weekends watching almost every hour of the NCAA tournament. The one described by a Mountain Dew-blooded Greg Anthony as “the year’s most insanely exciting four weeks of hoops” before explaining to you, lover of great things, how visiting the Facebook page of a company that makes phones and refrigerators could, like, totally take your March Madness experience to the next level.
If my stomach is capable of grimacing, it does so frequently at this time of year. I like the NCAA tournament. I wouldn’t characterize it in terms normally reserved for children’s toys and breakfast cereals, but it’s a source of enjoyment that occasionally solicits from me yelps of excitement that startle my cat. It’s a reasonably good level of basketball played for high stakes and an excellent appetizer for the NBA playoffs that follow about a month later. But phrases like “this remarkable group of youngsters,” the ads trying to “persuade” you that college athletes aren’t functionally retarded, the way commentators talk about “collegiate athletics” like Draymond Green is picking up where Plato left off in his quest for The Metaphysical Good: it’s rhetoric that descends from the same tree of logic that equates purity with virginity, virtue with beauty, and the 1950s with an idyllic America. It’s stupid, is what I mean. While watching the tournament, you occasionally encounter moments of glee of which only a 19 year-old is capable—the way the Louisville players were deliriously chirping and bouncing around after their comeback against Florida is a good example— but those moments don’t require narration. And besides, the sight of Dirk Nowitzki retreating to the locker room, overwhelmed with emotion after finally winning an NBA title was pretty touching, too.
The idea that college basketball is supremely entertaining because it’s untainted by—I dunno, whatever abstract evil sullies a man’s soul once he shakes David Stern’s hand—misses the point. I nodded along with Kenny Smith after CBS played a clip of an inconsolable Brian Conklin following Saint Louis’s season-ending loss against Michigan State. I’m paraphrasing here: “In the NBA, you can always put that jersey back on next year. In college, you only get four seasons, and then that thing goes in a closet or up in the rafters.” That’s one of the most compelling aspects of the tourney: there are seniors on these teams who will never play in the NBA or Europe. They’re moving on to become high school teachers and accountants after their team is eliminated. Their team’s tournament run composes the final basketball games they will play on a big stage. They’re playing to keep a crucial element of their identities alive for another 48 hours.
That’s the human drama of the NCAA tournament. The other thing that makes March great is the frenetic spectacle of the games themselves. A good tournament game spasms like a good NBA game doesn’t. In the NBA playoffs, the pace of play slows down, focus tightens, and supremacy is determined via seven-game wars of attrition. Some of the best NCAA games are fast, haphazard, and unceasingly kinetic. Like watching a gaggle of over-caffeinated squirrels chasing a windblow acorn. There’s a lot of stuff happening—three-pointers, fast breaks, turnovers, Frank Martin rupturing a capillary, piles of limbs on the hardwood—until out of the chaos emerges an ill-advised final shot—23 feet out off one leg? What the hell are you doing, you stupid kid?—that finds nylon. Your breath returns, and you wonder where the hell is Weber State, anyway? And when the game ends, the losing team returns to their locker room, not to retool and adjust, but to cry. It’s brief and visceral; its poignancy is in spangling moments, not sustained brilliance.
It’s fun, is what I mean. It offers to you what nearly any sport does: its own idiosyncrasies and two teams trying to dominate one another. I don’t know why it turns some NBA fans into anthropomorphic globs of bile. In the same way college basketball fans get sanctimonious about the intrinsic purity of the NCAA tourney, NBA purists come off as snobs who can’t deign to watch a sub-professional basketball game without taking a Silkwood shower afterward. My Twitter timeline two Friday afternoons ago was split between all-caps GLEEFUL NONSENSE about Norfolk State and NBA bloggers having a haughty condescension fit. Even the most adamant microbrew snob wouldn’t camp outside a liquor store and subject every patron who exited with a six-pack of PBR to a series of groans and insults, but Twitter allows us to pipe our most grating, acidic thought-gunk into people’s phones and laptops. I was alone, half-heartedly cleaning my apartment when I realized Whoa, Norfolk State could actually win this thing, and it was kind of soul-rendering to experience that final half-hour of GLEEFUL NONSENSE in concert with a handful of people I follow on Twitter. The detractors: what were they gaining from being disruptive other than an empty sense of superiority? Get down or get off the dance floor, dudes.
As is my wont, I take my experience with the NCAA tourney back to my NBA corner and begin to deconstruct it. I couldn’t watch Harrison Barnes’s last two outings without seeing a plummeting draft position above his head. My first reaction to Kyle O’Quinn was that he was a remarkable young man; my second reaction sparked a Google search to see where he was projected in the upcoming draft. In that sense, watching college basketball, for an NBA fan, is a bit like watching portions of a schematic fight itself. Did you know Kentucky’s roster consists of three Cavaliers? That’s the reality in my head, at least. If Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is wearing a Hornets jersey next season, I’ll feel like he has betrayed me.
The NCAA tournament is a lot of things that I’m not sure congeal into a whole. I think trying to make complete sense of March Madness—whether by marginalizing or extolling its virtues—is a fool’s errand. It’s more sensible to allow the tournament to be its fraught, fractured self. It’s hyperactive. It’s emotional. It’s an excuse for alumni to do that annoying alumni thing. It’s a Clark Kellog phrase-coining clinic. It’s a half-assed scouting expedition. (I’m completely smitten with Brad Beal after watching him play approximately 95 minutes of basketball.) This year, for me, it has been a convenient diversion from a Cavaliers team whose most pressing unanswered question is where they will finish in the lottery. Maybe high enough to put Brad Beal in a backcourt next to Kyrie Irving? I can dream. March is for dreams, too.