Mason won yesterday. Cinderella, David, use whatever lovable underdog term you want for this team, they’ve earned it.
This matters, as in big picture matters. A victory by a school that, just three weeks ago, only the most fervent of basketball fans could locate on a map, matters in a way that other things only wish they could matter. This game was the little guy’s way of sticking it to the man. This game was 251 schools from 25 conferences telling the 73 so-called “power conference” schools that they were mad as hell, and they were not going to take it anymore.
But why does it matter? Because it’s real. Real, as in unscripted, unplanned, without set-up or pretense.
A little background: There are 64 teams in the NCAA tourney – 65, if you count the play-in loser, but I don’t. The 64 are split into 4 regions, creating 16-team mini tournaments, with the 4 winners crowned the “Final Four,” and sent on to the eponymous last playoff.
It’s a uniquely American arrangement, the so-called “survive and advance” single elimination format. The biggest sports tournament in the world, the World Cup, eschews one-and-done in the opening rounds for pool play, a series of round-robins that culminate in a single elim playoff. Baseball and basketball play a best-of format, ensuring that the best team (and the most ad revenue) prevails in the end.
But college hoops sets up a bracket and runs with it. College hoops embraces Any. Given. Night. College hoops knows that if you matched up two teams 10 times, the outcome might be predictable, and college hoops doesn’t care.
Or maybe it does. Conventional widom says that the bracket-masters, the collective Sorting Hat of Sports, seeds the top 4 teams and then works its way backwards, trying to ease the path of the Number 1 seeds through their respective regions. The logic goes something like this: “95% of the country wants to see the most popular teams battle it out in the Final Four, so lets try to give them what they want.”
If you follow the seedings, then, through the first two rounds, the Sweet 16 should result in games that appeal to both the hard-core CBB acolytes as well as the casual $5 office pool fans. The one through four seeds this year were all from power conferences, save Gonzaga, but those who know, know the Zags have outgrown their mid-major leaguemates. When the Sweet 16 rolls around, the NCAA and CBS (God love them, ’cause I sure don’t) should have a marketable tournament with household names.
What of the upsets, then? Well, to be sure, the upsets are the true appeal of the first two rounds of the tourney. The thrill of a 15 seed sticking it to a 2 seed (Coppin State), or even Albany’s double-digit lead of UConn this year in a 16/1 game, is almost unmatched in the sporting world. I’d offer up a pro-sports comparison, but there is none: the pay-to-play folks can offer a superstar some money to play for them. A blue-chip recruit only goes to Albany on their way to Syracuse.
The upsets inevitably happen, no matter what Gregg Doyel says. But the upsets never last. That 12 seed that always upends a 5 seed in the opening round? They usually disappear in the second round. And if you’re an 11 seed,/ your row is much tougher to hoe: A 3 seed, arguably a Top 10 team, awaits your collectively tired asses in 2 days.
So this is what our heroes from George Mason saw when they were handed arguably the most controversial at-large bid this year: Michigan State, Carolina, and then Tennessee if the seeds held up. It was as if the Selection Committee was handing out booby prizes for real accomplishment.
But then, the road to glory isn’t paved with gimmies — a snippet of wisdom known all too well on both sides of the coin. Winthrop gave UT all it could handle before going down at the end. Wichita State showed the world that SHU was a fraud, and then cleaned up Winthrop’s mess by dispatching the Vols handily. And Mason held up its end of the bargain, out-rebounding the Spartans and showing Carolina that talented freshmen only go so far against upperclassmen and the experience of on-court learning.
The Shockers and the Pats? Three mids in the Sweet Sixteen? Billy Packer may have spent all night on Google, looking for Peoria and figuring out what a Shocker was. A mid major was guaranteed to see the Elite Eight. A mid major would have a shot at the Final Four. To steal a line from America’s Finest News Source, Holy. Fucking. Shit.
Of course, it could never happen, right? Bradley got blown out, and Mason won their game, but somebody had to, right? Thanks for showing up, guys: Meet UConn. But the road to greatness isn’t paved with gimmies.
So here we are on Monday Morning, one week from the championship game. The number one seeds are gone – first time in 26 years. First 11 seed in the Final Four since LSU, but LSU is a power school. First legit mid since Penn in ’79. First team from my beloved CAA to make it this far.
But why does it matter? Ask Dick Gerardi:
It was millions watching on CBS, knowing they saw something better than any reality show could ever hope for.
Exactly. It’s kind of ironic: CBS, the network that (incomprehensibly) continues to bring you Survivor, could never ask for a better tale of survival, growth, teamwork, determination, gamesmanship, and glory than the one being played out by George Mason.
You can take your reality shows, America, but I’ll take 40 minutes on the hardwood over some wanna-be actors on a desert isle any day of the week.