The Magic of March Madness

With the NCAA men’s basketball national championship set to be played between powerhouse universities Kansas and Memphis, it is easy to forget what makes March Madness so, well, mad. For the first time in the tournament’s history, all four number-one seeds made it to the Final Four, with no Cinderella team left to root for. But to say that this result, which would have taken negligible sports acumen to predict, has made this year’s tournament any less exciting would be overlooking most of what has occurred over the last month.

Anybody who wonders why college basketball’s final three weeks are so widespread in popularity needed only to witness the first two rounds of play this year. With an initial field of 64 teams in the tournament, it seemed like CBS was able to televise a brewing upset for every one of its time slots over the first four days, including Western Kentucky’s improbable buzzer beater to shock Drake in overtime, Duke just squeaking by Belmont by one point, and San Diego coming out of nowhere and taking down Connecticut by one point in overtime. And that’s just to name a few from the first round.

What makes March Madness so great ultimately boils down to the volume of the playing field, unseen in any other sporting competition except maybe the Olympics. Aside from the frenzy of the first four days, during which 48 games cut the field to 16, there is also an unbelievable amount of diversity in competition. You see the unknown mid major pitted against the storied program, the southern country school up against one from the inner city, the confident team stacked with talent against the tenacious overachieving one. The subplots within the tournament are countless, making it very easy to find a team to identify with. And the laws of probability say you will get a few upsets to shock you along the way.

But when the upsets carry into the Sweet Sixteen and then the Elite Eight, it is no longer a result of simple probability. This year, Davidson, which has just 1674 total undergrads, put on the glass slipper and made an exhilarating run reminiscent of George Mason just two years ago. The relative unknown from North Carolina, a state already in over its head in basketball with established programs in UNC, N.C. State, and Wake Forest, upset number-seven seed Gonzaga, number-two seed Georgetown, and number-three seed Wisconsin consecutively to make it to the Elite Eight. All three of those teams have been annual staples for the NCAA tournament. Yet the motley crew of Davidson, seeded just 10th and led by the hot Stephen Curry, played as if it belonged in a major conference as well. There was nobody following the tournament who wasn’t, unless for obvious monetary reasons, behind Davidson during its run. And when the team played number-one seed Kansas to the buzzer, missing a shot at the end of regulation that would have won the game, you could almost hear the collective moan of a sports nation hoping to see the Cinderella survive one more week to the Final Four. But our hearts were beating nevertheless.

åWhether by way of disappointment or utmost glee, the NCAA tournament never fails to resonate with its spectators. The fact that the Final Four this year consisted solely of number-one seeds is a moot point. At this stage in the competition, seeding no longer has any relevance. The Final Four simply consists of those teams that were on the right side of all the shocks, all the late-game rallies and buzzer beaters. This year they were Kansas, Memphis, UCLA, and UNC — schools, not seeds. Kansas and Memphis were on the right side of things once again Saturday night. The NCAA tournament, much like the real world, is as much about surviving as it is excelling. Whichever team is left cutting down the nets Monday night can say that the players fought their way all the way to the top, with all of us as their witnesses.