By Jason Keidel
Maybe the weather in the Northeast doesn’t reflect it, but spring is days away, clocks have been nudged an hour later, and March Madness is upon us.
Jay Bilas called the NCAA Tournament “idiot proof” — meaning no matter how bad the seeds, no matter how many qualified teams are snubbed (Oklahoma State, Louisville, Notre Dame, Middle Tennessee, etc.), it is impossible to taint the product.
There’s a charm, an accidental innocence to this event that makes it as new and refreshing as spring. We see it every year, yet we approach each March Madness with the same frothing, fanatic zeal each time, while we frantically scribble out our brackets. We can’t get enough basketball for a fortnight.
As always, we have ancestral powers sprinkled with smaller schools. The top seeds Virginia, Xavier, Kansas, and Villanova are joined by upper-tier seeds like Duke, North Carolina, Michigan State, and Kentucky, with the Wildcats winning the SEC Tournament. Radford and LIU Brooklyn (who play each other for the right to play Villanova) join CSU Fullerton, University of Maryland – Baltimore County, Georgia State and a few others to form a fence of Cinderella squads around the tournament.
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There’s only one myth that needs busting. The idea that we want Cinderella to win the whole thing. We wax romantic about VCU and George Mason — and we do love them, for about a week — then we want them gone before the Final Four. Let that glass sneaker on the court for two or three games, then let the big boys take over the party. We feel better about ourselves when we say we pine for players we don’t know, from schools we can’t find on a map. It makes us sound less snobby and aristocratic. For a week, we are one with the hardwood proletarians. But that’s about it.
It’s a dynamic that applies to all sports. Folks say they hate the Yankees and Cowboys. Maybe you’re tired of Tiger Woods. But the truth is the greatest buzz, and ratings comes from the monoliths, not the underdogs. It pains people to hear that a good Yankees team is good for baseball, that the Dallas Cowboys are good for pro football, or that Notre Dame is great for college football. But it’s true. Every major sports program is talking golf today, because Woods finished second in a tournament this weekend, shooting nine-under par, missing a birdie on the final hole to force a playoff.
In college basketball, the ratings bear it out. Two years ago, the Final Four averaged 11.7 million viewers and a 6.7 household rating, according to Nielsen. This included 10.5 million viewers for Villanova’s rout over Oklahoma, and 12.9 million for North Carolina’s victory over Syracuse.
Yet the year earlier, when Duke and Kentucky filled half the Final Four, the ratings exploded. The Kentucky-Wisconsin game averaged 28.2 million viewers, the most for a semifinal game in 19 years and the largest cable number ever for a college basketball game. The other game, Duke versus Michigan State, averaged 15.3 million viewers.
We’ll give temporary lip service to Murray State or Wright State, but if Buffalo plays Bucknell in the national championship game, the ratings will be microscopic. It won’t happen, of course. We just pretend we want it. What we really want is Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, and North Carolina. Unless your alma mater is still climbing a bracket, or you take provincial pride in your local school, then you want teams from towns that have ample banners hanging from their rafters.
We still love tradition and traditional powers. And there’s nothing wrong with it. Iconic teams in all sports are followed for decades, passed like a baton from granddad to dad to you. Maybe we haven’t always had 64 (or 68, if you prefer) teams the entire time, but this tournament has been around for a while. And we worship the big boys. Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Bill Walton, Lew Alcindor, Michael Jordan, and Patrick Ewing are just part of the montage of immortals to play college basketball. We adored Phi Slama Jama and Jim Valvano and the Fab Five and perhaps the greatest team that didn’t win (the UNLV team that failed to repeat). Some of you remember that Indiana, not Kentucky or UNLV, is the last team to finish a season undefeated.
We’ll keep waxing poetic about the underdog, the forgotten schools somewhere in the woods. But we want the beacons, the temple rising from the wheat fields or flanking Tobacco Road or sparkling from plush suburbs like Westwood.
But there’s also the fun proposition that some small college will shove a big team off their perch. Maybe Murray State makes a run. As long as Kansas or Kentucky or some historical giant cuts down the nets. All the while, we’ll keep giving lip service to Lipscomb.
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Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.