It might be Bourbon Street in New Orleans or Times Square in New York or the Las Vegas Strip. If there is a crowded promenade of drinking and debauchery, somewhere amid the din and sin you will probably find a solitary man on a plastic milk crate holding up a cross and using an amplified bullhorn to advise revelers that Jesus demands they repent immediately.
That’s me. Well, once a year, right about now, I feel like that guy, anyway.
America’s biggest sports party is on. It’s called March Madness, and for three-plus weeks it consumes us. We eagerly fill out brackets, dive into office pools and with rapt wonder wait to see which unsung little school will nominate itself as this year’s adorable, magical Cinderella.
I should say you do all of that. I mostly stand back shouting into a bullhorn that nobody hears, wondering what all the fuss is about. Surrounded by devout bracketologists, I’m the agnostic wandering aimlessly through the Vatican.
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Don’t get this wrong. I think college basketball is fine. I got caught up in it some a year ago, from a parochial view, when the University of Miami and lil’ Florida Gulf Coast (“Dunk City”) both crashed the Sweet 16. And it’s fun again now, in an un-Cinderella sort of way, as the mighty Florida Gators are a No. 1 seed and national-championship favorites.
What I laugh at is how so many fans who barely paid attention to the regular season turn instantly into frothing, gesticulating Dick Vitales on Selection Sunday. You might not know Jimmer Fredette from Jiminy Cricket, but the feel of a blank bracket in your hand somehow turns you into a junkie, makes you high, leaves you thinking the whole thing is AWESOME BABY!
A year ago I had to look up whether Winthrop was a school or an English butler, but if one of these Cinderella-type teams happens to unexpectedly win its first game it is a national darling, an instant media obsession.
This year it could be Manhattan or Coastal Carolina or Mercer. Or better yet:
I know nothing about Wofford but bet it has a cute mascot.
Hang on. Let me Google that real quick. (Tap, click-click, tap.)
The Wofford Terriers!
Of course they are.
The Delaware Blue Hens.
Cal Poly got in this year’s Big Dance with two left feet, with a 13-19 record. Sorry, but they don’t belong no matter how adorable or bizarre their nickname might be.
The thing about all the adorable little schools floating the Cinderella Theory is that it’s a fallacy. Mostly a big lie.
No 16th seed has ever beaten a No. 1 seed. The ultimate potential Cindys are 0-116. No. 15 seeds are 7-109 all-time, 14s are 17-99 and 13s are 25-91. And the rare 13th-through 15th seeds that do win in the first round are a combined 9-40 in the Round of 32.
Villanova was the worst-seeded team (No. 8) to ever win a national championship, and that was way back in 1985.
Cinderellas like to tease. As when three teams seeded 12th or worse made the Sweet 16 last year. Or when there were two 15-over-2 upsets in 2012. Or when No. 8 Butler and No. 11 VCU reached the Final Four in 2011. Or when five teams with double-digits seeds won on the same day in 2010.
Despite the teasing, though, it’s the big dogs and top dogs that almost always rise in the NCAA Tournament, not the underdogs. (That’s probably why we gush so over the meteors like Florida Gulf Coast was last year. Because we know they won’t last.)
I am especially paying attention to the four-game play-in round because my personal favorite team is the Xavier Musketeers. Nobody can match Xavier’s threesome of Porthos, Aramis and Athos, and I also believe Alexandre Dumas may be America’s most underrated coach.
But my favorite first-round matchup is probably Stephen F. Austin vs. Stephen A. Smith.
I look at the field of 68 teams (soon 64) and see mostly overmatched dreamers, Cinderella wanna-bes who won’t be. More than one in three teams has betting odds of 500-to-1 or worse. It’s like a bunch of local repertory theaters being invited to Broadway. I start paying serious attention around the Sweet 16.
To a March Madness junkie, though, the men’s NCAA Tournament is the greatest thing on Earth from the get-go, and the won-or-done format is to high drama what oxygen is to breathing. (Funny thing, though. If one day you are swimming through your office pool like Michael Phelps and the next day you are drowning because of a raft of crazy upsets, you are probably not as apt to rhapsodize over the single-elimination aspect.)
In summary, there are three things I don’t want to hear about:
Your golf game.
Your workout regimen.
I don’t care how many brackets you filled out. Don’t care whether the Acme Troglodytes losing tossed a hand grenade into most of them. Don’t want to hear your time-tested philosophy on the 6-vs.-11 matchup. And don’t care how you stand in your various office pools or what the payout is.
Don’t take it personally. I don’t care about President Barack Obama’s bracket, either.