Saturday, March 17, 2012

Reveling in the Madness Despite Not Really Giving a Hoop

Photo Credit: Chuck Burton, AP
I love the NCAA Tourney.

But I don't care who wins. Not just the whole thing, but any given game.

And though the men's college basketball tournament is one of my favorite sporting events to watch, and long has been, I don't need to see any of most games nor most of any game.

Especially this year, when no Illinois-based schools made the field of 68, providing even less of a modicum of a rooting interest than normal, all I really relish seeing is the last five minutes of any closely contested game.

Particularly the ones that come down to the last few shots.

There is really nothing in sports quite like the drama--even, and probably especially, in the tournament's early rounds--of a team, any team, having the ball down 1 or 2 points with about 10 seconds left in the game. Make the shot and go on, miss it and go home.

Appreciating that both the eventual winners, and losers, in this situation are 18-22 year old kids playing in front of thousands of spectators and millions of viewers--many of whose "bracket pool" or even more substantive wagers ride on the outcome--these final possession thrillers are absolutely tantalizing, even intoxicating.

Photo Credit: Nati Harnik, AP
And when shocking upsets happen--like yesterday, when two #15 seeds (in their tournament regions) knocked off a pair of #2 seeds, which had only happened four times previously--it's even better.

Not that I really have any reason to care more or less about the players for Lehigh or Norfolk State than the kids who play for Duke or Missouri, but who doesn't love a David vs. Goliath underdog outcome?

-- As I write this, Gonzaga, the #7 seed in the East region is down 52-47 to Ohio State, the #2 seed and a clear powerhouse all season. There are about 12 minutes left, but if it stays close with under 5:00 to play, I'll really start to pay attention.

I first became hooked on the NCAA Tournament in 1979 when Coach Ray Meyer and star Mark Aguirre led the Chicago-based DePaul Blue Demons to the Final Four with a victory over perennial powerhouse UCLA. Keep in mind that as a Chicago-area resident born in 1968, this was, excepting a couple middling Bears and Bulls playoff teams, my first experience following a local team with real championship potential. And that it came in one of the tournament's most storied editions--after reaching the Final Four, DePaul had Larry Bird's undefeated Indiana State on the ropes before losing 76-74; ISU then lost to Magic Johnson's Michigan State squad in the finals--made it that much more memorable.

DePaul was a big deal for the next three years, ending the regular season ranked #1 or #2 in the country, only to be shocked out of the tourney in Round 1 or 2. The Demons remained worth following for awhile longer, but have made the tournament only three times in the last 20 years, most recently in 2004.

-- Gonzaga has cut it to a 2 point deficit with 5:48 to play. This is getting good. 

-- Tie game! 

See what I mean? Now I'm hooked; wild horses couldn't drag me away--it's a commercial--although I honestly couldn't care less if Ohio State or Gonzaga moves on to the next round. I also don't care that the last 2 minutes of the game will take about 15 in real time. That's part of the fun.

-- 1:43 left, Ohio State misses a free throw, but is up 3
-- Gonzaga misses a 3-pointer that could've tied it
-- 1:00 left, OSU goes up 5
-- :40 left, Gonzaga player misses two free throws; can't help but feel bad for him
-- :33, Ohio State makes two free throws, up 7. Gonzaga has missed their last five shots. Same player for the Zags now makes both free throws. But it looks like Ohio State will win this.
-- :11, Gonzaga hits a wild 3, cutting it to 70-66, but it may be too late. Another time out. 

-- Ohio State wins 73-66 and moves onto the Sweet 16. That was fun, but not even the best example of what makes the NCAA Tournament so awesome.

Not to get too psychological, but it might seem that my being so enamored by something providing only transient enjoyment is somewhat antithetical to my general proclivities.

I don't care much for casual party conversations with people I'll never see again. I tend to have a problem with bands these days that get popular for a song, never to be heard from again. And I typically never watch professional sporting events in which I have no rooting interest, other than during the playoffs.

But it absolutely doesn't bother me to say that I love the NCAA Tourney but honestly didn't recall that UConn won it last year. The last five minutes of any close game is all I need--and will rapturously enjoy--even if I'll forget about it almost instantly. Yes, I'll probably watch the final game, but won't care any more about it than a first-rounder with a dramatic finish.

In the '80s, I went to college at Northern Illinois University; they never made the tourney during my time there and only twice since, getting bounced in Round 1 in '91 and '96. So it's not like I have an alma mater to root for, and though I have some innate home state affinity for the University of Illinois--and was delighted to follow their nearly undefeated run to the NCAA Championship game in 2005--it's not like I really care about the Illini.

Likewise, I might have slightly more than zero interest the next time DePaul, Loyola, UIC, Northwestern, Bradley, Illinois State or another Illinois college gets an NCAA bid, particularly if they have a real contender.

But right now it's early in a game between Murray State and Marquette. Given how often I visit Milwaukee, you might think I'd be rooting for Marquette. But as Murray State was 30-1, got only a #6 seed and sounds like they were named for an old Jewish man, I think I prefer they win.

Though I don't really care.

I'm really just rooting for it go down to the wire.

(Heck, until I just looked for a DePaul 1979 photo, I forgot I had written this piece last year, about my Most Memorable NCAA Moments. The site I had written it for reformatted, so each photo title is missing, but hoops fans should still be able to identify the moments.)

No comments: