Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Madness Without a Rooting Interest

For the first time in seven Marches since becoming a Florida fan, I will not have my favorite team to root for in the NCAA Tournament. (I will infuriate Maryland fans by noting that the Terps were the favorite college hoops team of my youth, and I was thrilled to watch them win a title in 2002.)

Please consider that of the many misconceptions of my Florida fandom, I did not start rooting for them when they started winning national championships. Rather, there was very little to say about the Gators from 2002-2005, as they perennially underachieved -- when teams make Final Four runs to the championship, as a national sports columnist you sort of have to cover them. (OK, in my case, cover them exhaustively.)

Anyway, regardless of the Florida flame-outs from '02-'05, I still went in with the same hopes as any other fan: Maybe this is the year for a Final Four run, even the Sweet 16. '06 was a bonus: I don't think anyone saw a title coming, aside from die-hards who pick them every year regardless. '07 was a different story altogether: Anything less than a repeat championship would have been failure.

NCAA Tournament expectations are fascinating: Mount St. Mary's fans? Hell, they WON A GAME! Being blitzed by UNC is all icing. American may lose by 40 to Tennessee; that won't stop fans from enjoying the ride over the past week to their first-ever NCAA invite.

For other teams, the expectation is "Wow, a Sweet 16 would be nice." Vanderbilt from last year comes to mind.

For other teams, not making the Sweet 16 -- at a minimum -- is a freaking embarrassment (Duke), and anything less than a Final Four is a wasted season. (UNC, Kansas, Memphis)

For a handful of teams, nothing less than a title will do. I think UCLA and Ohio State fans were like Florida fans a year ago; there was little consolation in being in the Final Four. Compare that to the joy of LSU in 2006, for whom making the Final Four was such an unexpected surprise that just making it that far was good enough.

Success on the scale of George Mason, obviously, is in its own stratosphere.

I'm sure there is some quantified way to describe expectations: If you are a 1-seed or a 2-seed, you have to be thinking "Final Four or Bust." In the case of UCLA and UNC, I can't imagine they would be satisfied with a mere Final Four appearance. (Kansas and Memphis, however, have been so dogged by recent problems as top seeds that making the Final Four would be considered a breakthrough.)

If you are a 3-seed or below, the Final Four is a bonus. But if you are a 3-seed and don't make the Elite Eight, it's a bit of a waste. (Ask a Xavier fan.) Even fans of the 4-seeds (say, Pitt) might be disappointed to not make the Elite Eight.

Even though "chalk" says the Sweet 16 should be the Top 4 seeds in each region, this is where things get complicated. I would argue that fans of Drake (a 5-seed) would be utterly crushed if the team didn't make the Sweet 16. Same with fans of 7-seed Butler, 6-seed USC or Purdue or even 11-seed Kansas State.

The fact is: There are probably 12 teams whose fans realize that just making the Tournament is fun enough; they have no expectations. Maybe getting out of the first round would be amazing, but only because it would mean they knocked off a great seed to do it.

Everyone else will be crushed to lose in the first round. The math is harsh: 20 other teams besides my "No Expectations 12" will lose be out before the weekend. And I would imagine at least 32 teams heading into the Tournament EXPECT to make the Sweet 16; again, the math is unforgiving.

For every unexpected team that galavants into the Sweet 16, there is an "expected" team that didn't, whose otherwise entertaining season is kind of ruined. That goes all the way up the line, the stakes getting higher (and tougher) as the tournament rounds progress.

For UMBC to not beat Georgetown, no big deal. For UNC not to win a championship, big deal.

There was something to be said for those days as a Florida fan -- or fan of any team, many of you can relate -- when the modest goal was the Sweet 16... maybe the Final Four if we were very very very very fortunate.

I'll admit it: Last year's tournament was not fun for me. The pressure that anything-but-a-title-is-a-failure made wins nothing more than "expected," with an insane fear of anything unexpected. Every negative play during a game -- early or late -- was panic-inducing. Only when the result was clearly out of reach was I able to actually relax. No, not enjoy it -- simply relax.

That said: I would rather lose in the first round, disappointingly, than not be in the field at all. Because miracles can't happen -- expectations can't be beaten -- if you're not in the bracket to begin with.

I empathize with nervous UCLA or UNC fans. I appreciate the dread that Kansas and Memphis fans might be feeling. I can't imagine what fans of teams like Butler or Drake or Xavier must be feeling, knowing that this represents as good as chance as they'll get to go to a Final Four.

I'm trying to think of a fan base (outside the No-Chance Dozen) for whom it's all a bonus: Fas of Villanova, the last team in, comes to mind. (When the bracket first came out, my gut was to take Nova to the Sweet 16, an intuition I overruled -- booting them in the first round, which I may yet come to regret.) Or how about fans of Baylor, which just a few seasons ago seemed like a program destined for implosion, let alone an NCAA Tournament.

Despite how blissfully brutal last year's Tournament was for me, I miss that feeling: The expectations... daring to dream... fearing the worst. All I have now is: "Hey, I hope my bracket picks are right!" or "Hey, I hope we see some upsets!" Those are two of the most worthy sentiments in all of fandom, and for those whose teams didn't make it, they are absolutely sustaining. But the missing piece is obsessing over your own team. Enjoy it while you can.

-- D.S.


James said...

Isn't this why people do tournament brackets? Heck, why have a rooting interest in six games when you can have a rooting interest in all 63 (or 64 if your bracket includes the play-in).

Try, just one year, not filling out a bracket, and see how much fun march madness is. It's awful. Though it does make those NCAA "Don't Bet On It" ads pretty funny, when you realize that no one would watch Butler/South Alabama if they weren't in a pool. (Sure, there are free brackets now, too, but if you think that's the reason people are excited about first-round games, I've got a bridge to sell you.)

Ben Patterson Sports said...

I don't think Drake falling short of the Sweet 16 would be devastating at all. The fact that they are in the dance as a 5 is an unbelievable accomplishment. Drake hasn't been a 5 seed in their own conference tournament in years. Are they one of the 12 with no expectations, no. But even if Drake lost to WKU, Bulldog fans wouldn't be devastated or see the season as a failure.