By Joe Hines
PSDC Staff & Chicago Guru
I enjoy the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, AKA March Madness, as much as the next guy. I dutifully fill out brackets and watch them go up in flames along with 99 percent of the rest of the population midway through the first day of the tourney. Here in Northern Illinois, there isn’t much of a regional interest since, for the second straight year, no team from the state made the tournament. The University of Wisconsin is only about 60 miles from where I sit now, and most of my basketball-loving friends have adopted the Badgers as they wind their way through the West Region as a No. 1 seed. Here in my hometown of Rockford, we root for Wichita St. because the Shockers excellent guard, Fred Van Vleet went to high school here.
Today, there is the added feature of their contest against Kansas. The Jayhawks are coached by regional villain Bill Self, who bolted Champaign, Illinois for the cornfields of Lawrence, Kansas 11 years ago. The Illini haven’t been the same since and have become irrelevant in the college basketball landscape. Each Jayhawk early exit from the tournament is met with glee by Illini fans. We can no longer be fans of New Mexico St. because they got all full of themselves as a No. 15 seed and failed to send Rock Chalk to their demise in the round of 64. So the task falls to Wichita St. and local hero Van Vleet to send Kansas packing. Go Shockers!
For me, March Madness has lost its luster for a variety of reasons. The quality of basketball is worse with the proliferation of the “one and done” mentality. We don’t have athletes to cheer for, or similarly, to loathe. We don’t have a Christian Laettner to follow for three or four years before they dutifully go off to the NBA.
Additionally, the prognosticators that tell us who is going to be selected to the field before it is set, hurts the excitement of seeing whatever team you root for being chosen. Joe Lunardi watches each and every game on the college schedule for the last month of the season, projecting the first four in, the first four out and even the NEXT four out. It takes the mystery out of the selection process, and it hurts the magic surrounding the tournament. Do I really need to know? What fun is it for me to find out if Southeastern Kokomo State makes it if Lunardi already tells me they have?
Further, once the games have begun, there are metrics that advertise the percentage probability of each team winning/advancing/winning the whole thing. I realize that gambling is a huge factor in the success of the tournament, and of any sporting event. Cricket becomes a lot more interesting if there is cash wagered on the outcome. To me though, it takes away whatever purity and sportsmanship there are left in the game, as Kentucky rolls through with its defacto NBA team pursuing the perfect season.
I don’t want to be the buzzkill, grouchy guy that aims to take away the enjoyment of the tournament. It’s still fun for me to watch, if not for the quality then just for the drama of a half dozen one-possession games the first day. The results have become predictable though, in spite of two 14 seeds advancing the first day. They have been summarily dispatched since. So today, as the Sweet 16 is finalized, despite Kansas being a 60 bajillion percent favorite to move on, I will still root shamelessly for Wichita State to move on. Go Shockers.