With any luck at all, one or two of them is thinking, “Isn’t this playoff stuff great?”
If they’re not thinking that, then they’re not sports fans at all, just petty bureaucrats who surrendered their imaginations to their duty to uphold “tradition” longer ago than they can remember.
That would be their loss, because what makes March and NCAA basketball so special is a team like Georgia in a week like the one just past.
By all rights, the Bulldogs had no business even thinking about doing anything this week except planning for spring break. They had lost 10 of their last 12 games and were 13-16 on the year, had won just four conference games all year, were listening to the hounds calling for their coach’s scalp, and were going to the SEC tournament — the pundits said — only to add one more loss to a miserable season.
In just about any other sport, a team as low in the conference standings as they were wouldn’t have been in the conference tournament at all. But college basketball believes in giving as many teams as possible a chance, because, as the lottery ads say, you never know.
Usually, the bad teams go away early like they’re supposed to and the big guys end up slugging it out in the finals. But at least they fill up an arena in the first day of the conference tournament, giving the top seeds a day to rest and check out the competition.
But once in a very long while a team like Georgia, which DQ’ed two of its top players at the season’s start for academic failings, comes along, grabs that slim chance by the throat and doesn’t let go. In the process, they prove the truth of the aphorism, it’s not how you start, but how you finish. It’s something the Rockies proved in baseball last year and the Giants proved in the NFL this season.
It’s also why any tournament is better than no tournament, and the more teams you can get into postseason play, the more fun it is. The beauty of college basketball is that a conference can hold a 12-team tournament in just four days, so in a conference of that size, even a last-place team like Georgia has a chance.
We like to think of that as the essence of America — everybody has the same chance as everybody else. One of the reasons March Madness is so great is that it’s one of the few settings in which that is actually true.
All they get is a chance, and it’s a slim one. To win, a team at the bottom of the conference has to win four games in as many days, as grueling a task as you’ll find in high-level sports. And it’s got to beat teams that want that title badly.
And then they won the title game, which was the only way the Bulldogs were going to get into the NCAA tournament. As far as that goes, it was the only way they were going to play in any postseason — they weren’t good enough for the NIT, the tournament that serves as the NCAA’s consolation prize.
With no tournament to go to and a losing record, the next step was supposed to be the ceremonial firing of the coach, Dennis Felton.
So when Georgia somehow ran Mississippi, Kentucky, Mississippi State and Arkansas, it had a punched ticket to the dance, a coach with new life, and the look of a team that was on the kind of almighty roll that could take it deep into the NCAA tournament.
It happens only in college basketball, which has the most democratic qualifying system in sports. It also exposes college football as a tinhorn dictatorship, where the bureaucrats decide which of two teams gets to play for an imaginary title and where no one else, not even the third-ranked team in the nation, is allowed to compete.
It’s a loss for football, which could use an upstart — even a 10th-ranked one — coming through once in a while, like the Giants did this year in the NFL. But that’s the BCS’s problem.
And right now, we don’t really care if the BCS chooses to continue to be the enemy of fair competition. (We’ll start caring again in late August, when the season begins.) All we care about now is that Georgia, the most unlikely of qualifiers, is adding its own touch of Madness to March.
They’re the reason they play the games instead of letting committees decide who would have won if the teams had played. They’re the reason we can keep telling our kids to don’t ever give up, no matter what the experts tell you. They’re the reason we love this game and this month.
There is nothing better.
Duke coach said that after winning his second gold medal in men's basketball would be his Team USA finale. That may not be the case anymore.
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