Just a few more days until the US goes crazy. Again. Just like every year. March Madness is about to begin. But what is it that Americans find so fascinating about college basketball? For us over here in Europe it’s a bit hard to grasp the phenomenon. Or is it?
Sure, coming from a culture in which students in university do sports merely for recreation – if at all – it’s hard to believe that college kids fill massive arenas and millions of viewers gather in front of TV and computer screens. Just to get an idea of the scope we’re talking about: the Final Four of the 2015 competition was played at Lucas Oil Stadium, the 72K arena of the Indianapolis Colts. The legendary 1979 final between the Michigan State Spartans and the Indiana State Sycamores still ranks as the TV event with the highest audience rating ever in the US. 34%, or about one third of Americans watched the last college game of Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird – a rivalry that would continue through their professional careers. It’s some of these stories that are part of the magic spell cast upon US citizens during that infamous month of March and early April. But at the core there are some other fundamental reasons why college basketball is as great as it is. Here are our top 5 reasons why college football is better than anything else.
This is one of the reasons which is sure to be quoted in every discussion about college basketball – and at the same time one that is argued about most passionately. College basketball and college sport in general are purer than the billion dollar business of the major leagues. The players don’t get paid for playing. At best, they’re playing for an NBA contract. The coaches on the other hand do get paid big time. And people will happily quote John Oliver and his epic rant about the NCAA. Fair enough.
So making the point about purity is not an easy task. But if you’re looking at what’s happening on the court you cannot help but be moved. With every possession you can see and feel that there are real teams running up and down the court. In their four years of college ball players grow together as a unit. There are 350 teams in Division 1 alone. Only 68 of them make it to the March Madness bracket. Especially for the seniors this is a unique experience. Whether their team gets eliminated early or makes it to the final, at one point during the tournament they will face the harsh truth: tonight was the last game they played with their teammates. This is where their journey through college hoops ends – with or without a happy ending. This is one of the reasons why you see so many players crying after the final whistle. Some of them might never even touch a basketball again in their lives. Add to these odds that many of the games go down to the wire and are often decided by crazy buzzer beaters and you get an idea of the drama these players are experiencing. The NBA surely does a great job with editing highlight videos but when you watch any given March Madness recap, accompanied by that damn song “One shining moment”, you cannot help but feel it’s an entirely different sport. Yes, it’s purer.
4. REGIONAL PRIDE
Most of the professional franchises in the NBA and other major leagues are located in a huge metropolis, the so-called big markets. This is no coincidence. The franchises move where the big money and a potentially large following is situated. The owners are not even afraid to relocate their team if another market offers more money, a bigger arena or a larger number of potential fans.
On the other hand, many of the great colleges in NCAA history are based in small cities in Kentucky, Indiana, or Wisconsin. Try pointing out Syracuse, Villanova, or Bloomington on a map. Anywhere close? Or try Lansing, home of the Michigan State Spartans; Chapel Hill, home of the UNC Tar Heels? Just like for students and alumni the colleges’ sports teams serve as a source of identity for the local population. In a country where there are no local amateur teams of note the school teams play a much larger role.
While this is not about basketball, go watch the TV show “Friday Night Lights” if you’re interested in understanding this subject better. It’s about a high school football team in a small town in Texas. Where there’s no professional team and even no college around for hundreds of miles, even a team of 15-year-olds can become a source of local pride and the young players can become superstars with high expectations in them.
3. LIFELONG CONNECTION WITH THE COLLEGE
With the sports teams, the bands, the cheerleaders and so forth there are many more ways to identify with your college than is the case for e.g. German universities. Sports teams can be a source of pride, there are rivalries with other colleges – based on location or sometimes the history of their duels on the basketball court – which boost identification with your own. Furthermore, this connection is not lost upon graduating but for many people belonging to their college community is a lifelong thing. Checking the scores of your team is a great way to keep the connection alive. But many go further and occasionally visit a game when they’re in town. While virtually nobody would get the idea to go back to an auditorium to sit through a boring lecture, watching a game of hoops is a much more exciting option to feed your nostalgia. Official events like homecoming facilitate this lifelong connection and during March Madness you see not only students and proud parents filling the arenas but also many alumni who continue to support their alma mater.
This is the point where everybody joins in, no matter if he or she likes basketball or not. March Madness in the US is so big because everybody enjoys filling out their tournament brackets and betting against all odds – everybody from your next-door neighbor to the president. In this sense, a huge proportion of what’s so fascinating about March Madness is playing the lottery. This is such a huge part that we’ll dedicate another full-length blog post to this topic. And, of course, we’ll also have our very own bracket challenge for everybody who wants to try their luck.
1. CINDERELLA STORIES
The reason why it’s so difficult to predict the outcome of the NCAA tournament is that there are always huge surprises. If there is one thing you can count on it’s that there are gonna be upsets, small colleges beating the big ones. The nature of the tournament bracket is that in the first round Davids are paired with Goliaths, much like in the NBA playoffs. However, they don’t duel in a best-of-seven series but just one game decides who goes home and who can continue dreaming. For the small teams this is a great opportunity and often they work really well as a team and fight fiercely ’til the last second.
One of these so-called Cinderella teams were the 2007-08 Davidson Wildcats, led by none other than Stephen Curry. They raced through the tournament bracket, beating the big names Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin on the way. They were finally stopped in the Elite 8 when they faced off against the eventual champions Kansas. Even in this game they only lost by a 2-point margin and almost hit a game-winning 3 at the buzzer. Of course, this was a tough loss, but they had impressed everybody with their great performance and teamwork. The “babyfaced assassin” Curry went on to play in the NBA and it’s great to see that after adjusting to the league he’s back at playing almost exactly like in the NCAA tournament.
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