Overtime: Why March Goes Mad

BEN SIECK | Sports Editor

For all of its flaws, college basketball has one thing down to perfection.

The opening weekend of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament has no rival in terms of entertainment value. It is any hoops fan’s dream. It is a complete inundation of basketball—48 games over the course of four days.

College basketball cannot touch the NBA in terms of player skill and quality of play, and this can be painfully obvious. Yet for those four days, millions of Americans are completely enthralled.

The tournament’s hold on the American psyche takes root before the first game even tips. Filling out a bracket is practically mandatory for any sports fan. Even those who do not know the difference between a Blue Devil and a Tar Heel manage to get in on the action. More than 11 million brackets were filled out on ESPN.com alone.

Filling a bracket out is an entertaining experience by itself. If people will vote on a bracket of the best condiments or Chappelle Show sketches, you can bet they will fill out a bracket where they can watch the results unfold in real time.

For an estimated 50 million Americans, the thrill of picking correctly is not the only incentive. Gambling on bracket pools has become the jaywalking of the sports world.

Everyone likes being right, and adding monetary gain to the equation only doubles the enthusiasm.

However, the concept would soon lose its luster if the product on the floor could not hold the attention of its viewers.

College basketball players’ collective skill level is high, but it’s a noticeable step down from the NBA. However, the tournament makes up for quality of play with the chaos that comes from less-skilled players being involved.

When close games get down to the wire, each possession matters more, and the pressure mounts. Missed shots, free throws and turnovers normally turn fans off from basketball games. But when the game is close, those miscues keep teams alive and fans on the edge of their seats.

A 14-point lead with five minutes left is almost insurmountable, but do not tell North Carolina State fans that. Their team went 8-for-18 on free throws in the closing minutes of their second-round matchup with Saint Louis, allowing the Billikens to tie the game and win it in overtime.

When fans wax poetic about the “passion” in college basketball, I cannot help but wonder if they are talking about a player’s angst after missing a crucial shot or committing a late-game turnover.

It is not good basketball, but it is compelling theater.

The tournament has figured out the secret formula to draw fans in, but what really keeps them coming back is what makes sports such a integral part of American culture—it is an escape.

Just like film, literature and other forms of entertainment, sports offer a respite from the daily grind. Life is not fair, and Goliath usually wins. But in the NCAA tournament, David wins more than he should, and nothing captures the public’s attention like a “Cinderella” run in the tournament.

Whether it is George Mason, Butler or this year’s darling Dayton, for two hours the underdog has a chance. If you are cheering for the underdog or the traditional power, March Madness is a time for hope.

As Sunday’s Kansas-Stanford game neared its close, the CBS cameras found a young Kansas fan with tears streaming down his face as the Cardinal lead grew. Moments later, the Jayhawks were back within striking distance. The camera flashed back to the same child who was now dry-eyed and cheering.

“Tears just a minute ago, and now hope,” Jim Nantz said on the broadcast.

To which, analyst Greg Anthony added:

“That’s what March Madness is all about.”

It is a beautiful mess, and it works.