HOUSTON – A funny thing happens when the NCAA Tournament starts: an entirely unnecessary argument pops up again. That’s not to say that entirely unnecessary arguments aren’t happening all the time (especially online, where without them, we’d all collapse into a black hole), but this one seems entirely fixated on that weekend in March, ready to strike like all the spring pollen coating everything in sight.
NBA folks and college basketball fans spend an exorbitant amount of effort trying to be right and prove that their sport matters more than the other. The tried and true NBA side is, “the basketball isn’t as good.” The counter from NCAA Tournament fans (however misguided) is some iteration of, “yeah well NBA players don’t try until the fourth quarter or the playoffs.” I’ve been hearing these for multiple decades now, and they’re even louder now, in an age when it’s easier than ever to complain as long as you have an active wifi signal.
Of course the players aren’t as good. Something like 1 percent of total NCAA participants make it to the NBA, although that number is a bit higher among NCAA Tournament representatives. Why does that matter? It’s not the same league. If we were throwing these guys on NBA floors, putting them in Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans uniforms and calling it the NBA, I could see an issue. But that’s not what’s happening. It’s an entirely separate tournament and because we have the audacity to still call it basketball, the NBA crew trots out, year in and year out, to turn their noses up at it, tell everyone they’re essentially moronic for enjoying it, and then spite watch it anyway. It’s like buying a grapefruit, taking a big bite out of it, and getting mad that it doesn’t taste like a grape. At some point the burden of responsibility falls on you – that grapefruit was never going to meet those expectations. It operates just fine by its own standards.
For some reason the two can’t coexist without there being something to bicker about. The NCAA Tournament, on its own, in a vacuum, is one of the most exciting and unique sporting events of the year. Sixty-eight teams are whittled down to 16 in a matter of five days. There are 16 games played per day on both Thursday and Friday. The sheer mass of fanbases, chaos, players, coaches, styles, and even announcing crews is all together dizzying and offers 12-plus hours of the general sense that something is happening.
If you strip any sort of elitism or expectations out of the NCAA Tournament and just watch it as a living organism, it’s fun. It’s an escape. That’s what we want sports to be. And yet, we can’t just allow it to be that. There has to be something wrong with it. There has to be something wrong with everything now, or we’re the problem, or we’re not savvy enough. No one wants to be the person who gets got, so skepticism and an air of cynicism is entirely necessary as a coping mechanism for ultimate survival in 2016.
And yet, when I was offered a chance to attend my first Final Four over the weekend, I still felt like a kid. I was in Houston to participate in Lightwave’s biometric sensing (which translates data from wearable devices into insights on emotional responses to a variety of stimuli) during the games as part of a program through Degree. My whole life I’ve wanted to go to a Final Four. I grew up a diehard college basketball fan, and it didn’t matter which teams I was seeing, if I was going to an NCAA Tournament game, I felt special. This year marked the 20th anniversary of the first tournament I ever went to, and driving up to the stadium gave me a surreal feeling that was irreplaceable in any other context.
This wasn’t about which sport was better anymore. Or who was right, and who was wrong. It was being part of something. Four different fanbases still conceivably had a chance to win it all, and they would know their fates in a few hours. They did their best to enjoy it and cut through the tension, and most generally seemed like they were excited – and still a little surprised – to be there.
The only hang up was the venue itself. Much has been made about the problems with playing these games in a football stadium, but they’re all warranted. There’s no connection to the teams, the crowd, the bands, the cheerleaders, the mascots, or the coaches like there is when the first couple rounds are played in smaller, more manageable arenas. The football environment, much like the actual NFL in general, strips away passion, authenticity, and to some extent, relevancy. It destroys what makes college basketball different from every other sport out there. And what could conceivably still get NBA fans interested in the games themselves.
“We’re not even putting our athletes in the best structure to succeed,” ESPN analyst, former NCAA champion, and Duke All-American Jay Williams told our group at brunch on Sunday. “And it’s all about money.”
Instead, you’re left with this behemoth that’s barely recognizable to some of the games played at Cameron Indoor or The Pavilion or the McKale Center. The sound, even during huge moments, all got sucked up into the air. The raised court feels cheap and foreign. The giant video board is distracting. There’s no easy way to connect with the student section from the club level and above. The worst seat in the house may as well have been in Galveston.
Nowhere was the disconnect more noticeable than in the Lightwave data we were presented with after Saturday’s games. They hooked us up in the 300 level, and they also hooked up fans from each of the four teams. As Villanova was going through its blowout of Oklahoma, the fans got more and more hype.
You could see the student section going nuts, and people wanted to feel that way up higher, but it was impossible to have that connection, whether through sheer distance or the environment itself. We were told afterward that the student sections, on average, spent 21 percent of the game in motion. Our group? Less than 1 percent.
That takes nothing away from the students themselves, or the players who made it this far. They’re just doing what is expected of them, and they’re operating within the system that is put forth in front of them. They do their best in that. At some point the NCAA itself might realize that and scale things back a bit to allow what is naturally awesome about college basketball to merely exist rather than grabbing every extra possible cent under the laughable facade of amateurism.
Sometimes we are still left with incredible moments, like the finish of Villanova’s National Championship win over North Carolina on Monday night. Moments that can’t be taken away from any of us, whether the game was played in an empty gym or on Moron Mountain.
And that’s the beauty of college basketball and what sets it apart from everything else. It’s far from perfect. The quality isn’t nearly as high as the NBA. Even its own operating body does everything it can to sabotage its own product and turn it into something unrecognizable. But nothing can kill the magic of the NCAA Tournament, no matter how hard anyone tries. And that’s pretty dang fun, if we’ll only allow it to be.