I couldn’t believe my ears.
I was with my friends in one of the Corner’s many fine establishments last Thursday — the first true day of the NCAA Tournament — when I saw a group of students huddled around the bar, watching the tail end of a game between Louisville, a No. 4 seed, and No. 13 seed Manhattan. I was just starting to kick into full March Madness mode, so I stepped over to see what was happening.
To my surprise, the Jaspers, led by former Maryland Terrapin Ashton Pankey, were in the game late. It was tied 58-58 with just more than 2:30 left to play when Manhattan’s Tyler Wilson made a layup to take the lead. “Oh, my god,” I thought to myself. “They’re going to do it. Manhattan is going to win this game!”
That’s when I heard it.
A chorus of audible boos, groans and expletives rang out through the room. These guys were rooting for Manhattan to fail! I didn’t get it. It wasn’t like any of them were still in the running for Warren Buffett’s $1 billion — Harvard had already taken down Cincinnati, Dayton had knocked off Ohio State, North Dakota State had downed Oklahoma and Mercer had yet to come — but rather than pulling for the underdog to shock the world, they were all hoping for the blue-blood powerhouse to wake up and restore the natural order.
I quickly recognized it as that affliction that many of us fall to at this time of year: failing to appreciate the NCAA Tournament for what it is: the greatest sporting event that the United States has to offer. I will argue until I’m blue in the face with Super Bowl supporters, World Series apologists and BCS nutjobs alike that March Madness is the best show we put on all year. But what people tend to forget is that the frequency of upsets is exactly what makes it so.
We have a habit of getting wrapped up in pulling for big-name teams or worrying about how our brackets are doing, and I’m no different. My bracket is in the 99.8th percentile of all entries on ESPN.com — Kentucky over Wichita State, Baylor over Creighton and UConn over Villanova were my babies ever since Selection Sunday, and all three panned out. I picked Louisville to win it all, so I will admit that my first thought when Manhattan scored was about my picks. But now that you’ve indulged my participation in exactly the wrong way to look at March Madness, allow me the chance to redeem myself.
The NCAA Tournament is bigger than me. It’s bigger than you. It’s even bigger than a $1 billion prize. It’s about upsets. It’s about everyone having the same chance to win it all. It’s about Coach K’s Blue Devils not being able to mail it in against Mercer like they would have done if the two played in November, and it’s about Mercer not laying down and taking a 20-point loss for the appearance money like so many small schools do early in the season. It’s about believing in your team, regardless of who you wrote down on a piece of paper or dragged and dropped on a website — that’s why I didn’t pick Virginia to win the championship in my bracket.
At a meeting for my internship Thursday, the following question was posed: Would you rather have a near-perfect bracket or an unexpected run by your team at your bracket’s expense? My answer was that I’d pick the magical run 12 times out of 10. Sure, I’d like to win some money, but nothing would make me happier than being wrong because the Cavaliers pulled it off and took home a national title.
So I won’t judge you for thinking of your bracket first when an upset occurs; believe me, it happens to everyone. But when that thought hits, I hope you fight back with everything you have and let upset fever wash over you. Watch Mercer’s Kevin Canevari Nae Nae in the huddle after the Bears knocked off Duke and let his sheer euphoria — his unbridled excitement — be yours. Because that, not your chance to win $75 from your buddies, is what March Madness is all about.