The broad consensus on the 2023 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship is that it’s been amazing. So many upsets! So many buzzer-beaters! So much fresh new talent on display! It’s Madness!
Uh-huh. By the time you read this, it’ll be the morning after the UConn Huskies and San Diego State Aztecs faced off in the Final. As I write, we don’t know who will win. And here’s an honest question: Did you care? Because I really, really don’t. I’m trying to decide whether to put some money on either of them to make it matter a little, which is usually what casual gamblers who are serious sports fans do to add spice to the bland broth.
I know I’m supposed to care. I’m supposed to be happy for these kids who nobody – probably not even their mothers – expected to get this far. And regardless of how it goes, we’ll hear the same old cliches: They believed in themselves! They wanted it more! Some religious deity unconcerned with interfering in all the violence, cruelty and hunger in the world stepped in to give some college basketball squad all of this joy.
So why? Why doesn’t any of this move me? Or you, if you’re being honest?
I know. Too many Cinderellas. What fun is a fairy tale when the evil stepsisters are all vanquished before the third act?
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Nobody in the NCAA Championship to love to hate
It is absolutely true that many individual games throughout the past weeks have been very suspenseful and competitive. As specific displays of athleticism and entertainment, you can’t do too much better than Kansas State’s overtime win over Michigan State or that final jump shot by San Diego State to eliminate Florida Atlantic.
But as the No. 1 seeds fell one by one, starting with lifeless Purdue in the first round, it started feeling like too much sugar. It became impossible to keep up with – or really care much about – so many feel-good stories at one time. Princeton? FDU? FAU? Furman? Miami?
For these upsets and deep runs to resonate, they have to offer a narrative that we can tune into. When No. 11-seeded Loyola-Chicago had its year, there was an incredibly adorable and loveable ancient nun in the stands. When No. 11-seeded VCU got to the Final Four in 2011, they were managed by 33-year-old Shaka Smart who went on to fulfill his promise as a head coach with last week’s AP Coach of the Year honor for his leadership at Marquette. Last year’s Cinderella, No. 15-seeded St. Peter’s, was charming because the entire student body was 2,200 and yet they took down No. 2, No. 7 and No. 3 seeds en route to the Elite Eight.
Heck, in 2021, when No. 15-seeded Oral Roberts University made it to the Sweet Sixteen, you even had a hateable Cinderella. It was confusing to many, including me, because the kids seemed nice enough but the school they attended represented a level of anti-LGBTQ animus and opposition to women’s autonomy. That bit of conflict, though, at least made us feel something.
But in all of those cases, there was just one school that came out of nowhere to force us to pay attention and learn some new names. And the blue-chip schools – Kansas, Villanova, Baylor, UConn – eventually persevered. Going deep was its own reward.
This year, the upsets came so fast and furious that they became the norm. They became the entire narrative of the tournament itself, and that cheapened their emotional impact. By the time we got to the Final Four, who was there left to root against? UConn?
Yeah, OK. But there’s nothing about them that reads swagger or smug entitlement the way Kansas or Duke or Kentucky would.
Your brackets got boring, too, didn’t they?
Look, obviously fans in Hartford and SoCal have reasons to love what’s happened. And, yes, I’m a little bitter that Michigan couldn’t even make it through two rounds of the NIT.
But still, the way March Madness went, it made the one thing that brings everyone together – the bracket – a great big dud. By the Final, the outcomes were almost certainly decided; if someone had UConn in the Final, they won.
I’m sure the pool I run is emblematic. We had one person pick UConn to win it all, and I paid him his money days ago because he couldn’t be caught. The more surprising and perhaps galling thing was that the person who took second place – again, he clinched before the Final began – did so with a meager 66 points. He got just 18 of 32 picks correct in the first round, one of the worst records. But he had UConn in the Final.
In fact, the Final for our pool matters only for determining who wins fourth place. Both entrants have maxed out their points and nobody can beat them, so it’s all up to whose tie-breaker guess on the total points scored is closest. How thrilling. (Fourth place in our pool equals getting your entry money back.)
My lack of enthusiasm this year is not unusual. TV ratings for the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight games fell 6 percent from last year. It would not be a surprise if people tuned out last night, too.
Hey, I’m as surprised as anyone about how I feel. I love a good underdog story.
But the key to a good underdog story is an overdog. And they all left the yard weeks ago.