Inevitably, March exposes fans to a deluge of talk about the NCAA Tournament–whether the fans in question are interested or not. Even those of us who object to the Tournament for one reason or another get our share of the news, by osmosis if nothing else.
This time around, the chatter is focused mainly on one question: will Kentucky run the table or lose before winning the championship? This query is so central to most commentary about this year’s tournament that it introduces every discussion, relegating all other topics (and teams) to afterthoughts. So obsessed are the sporterati with Kentucky’s potential for finishing a perfect season that they never bother asking themselves the more pertinent and interesting question:
Why does it matter if Kentucky runs the table?
Let’s be clear: the important question is not “Who cares?” Even the most jaundiced observer–or non-observer, as the case may be–of the NCAA Tournament should recognize that plenty of people do care about what’s going on there, even the individual has no interest.
No, the heart of the matter is this: why is the prospect of one team being so dominant that no one in all of college basketball can beat them, that it makes all of these observers foam at the mouth and obsess about the chances that the undefeated season will happen?
“…the kids they find there could teach their parents–and the assorted other alleged grown-ups who place so much stock in “March Madness”–a thing or two about what sports are supposed to be all about: fun and fairness…”
An eye for history surely plays a part. It has been nearly forty years since a Division I team last made it through a full season undefeated. Something that only happens once every forty years is sure to arouse attention, as a curiosity if nothing else. Whenever you get to tell yourself you’re witnessing history–or, especially if you’re a sports scribe, writing history–you tend to lean forward in your seat and start preparing to wax rhapsodic about how great those Wildcats were back in ’15.
But, as the holder of a B.A. in History, I can personally attest that history doesn’t mean much to the average person. Few of those watching this year’s Tournament will know much about Indiana’s 1976 squad, and fewer still will be able to make a meaningful comparison between Bob Knight’s champions and John Calipari’s current team.
I think there is something more fundamental at work in everyone’s obsession with Kentucky’s dominance–something that even the commentators themselves probably do not recognize, because they haven’t bothered to plumb the depths of their own sports consciousness.
When you consider the chances that the Wildcats will go undefeated, you have to ask yourself, “Am I for it or against it?” The Rupp Arena locals, of course, have a direct connection to the team and undoubtedly want to see the Wildcats win. But most folks out there–college basketball fans, general sports fans, or even casual observers–probably will root for Kentucky to lose. People have a general bias in favor of the underdog. Indeed, studies have shown that unless fans have a rooting interest for the favored team, they tend to root for the underdog. The Wildcats, should they accomplish the task, will do so flying into the faces and feelings of just about everyone watching their games.
Why is that? To find an answer, cast your thoughts back to your childhood. Do you remember picking teams for games on the playground? How did it go? Normally, when kids are dividing up into teams, they do so using an ad hoc player draft: the two best players–everyone always knows who the best players are–are named captains of the opposing teams, and then they take turns picking players to fill out their teams.
Why do kids divide up for games like that? Because it’s fair. Picking sides in that manner usually assures that the game will be played by two evenly matched teams. Talent gets evenly distributed, thus bolstering the chances of a fair and fun game.
If you remember those playground drafts, you probably also remember those kids who didn’t go along with those time-honored traditions of choosing up sides. You remember those kids who were good at the game and stepped out onto the field/court/pitch looking to blow the other kids away. “Me, him, and him…against all the rest of you.” Remember those guys? Sure you do. Do you remember them being well liked by the other kids? Probably not. Even kids aren’t interested in playing patsies for anyone. When the most talented kids gang up against everyone else, the game is unfair, and not much fun.
No wonder then that the underdog gets so much love: when the underdog has a chance, we identify the game as fun, and fair. Conversely, when one team has a huge edge over all the other teams–particularly when that same team always seems to have that same edge–we see that as unfair. Even in the pros–where buying the best team is the whole idea, and damn any organization that doesn’t want to make the effort and open the coffers–we prefer to see play between evenly matched teams. But when you’re talking about college sports, where buying a better team is not supposed to be part of the equation, it is no wonder that fans rebel against seeing one team dominate the sport.
Somehow, that point of view seems to escape all those observers who have spent this month breathlessly wondering if Kentucky can go all the way. Perhaps they should take a break from the Tournament and head out to their nearest playground. I bet the kids they find there could teach their parents–and the assorted other alleged grown-ups who place so much stock in “March Madness”–a thing or two about what sports are supposed to be all about: fun and fairness, not just for one team, but for everyone who takes the field.