Comics Ate My Brain

March 15, 2005

Brought To You By The Letter "M": March Madness

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tom Bondurant @ 6:54 pm
Several years ago, an Entertainment Weekly cover screamed out at me, “OSCAR PICKS! How to win your office pool!”

Maybe it’s just my upbringing, but I never heard the copy machines singing for Oscar like they do the second Monday in March, when those insidious bracket forms start sapping worker productivity.

It doesn’t hurt that March is a funny time of year around here. Towards the end of February the weather might get warm enough for short sleeves, and sometimes everything lines up just right for at least one sunny, pleasant weekend afternoon basketball game. Even the bitter taste of defeat goes down a little smoother if you can walk out of Rupp Arena into a nice springlike day.

That didn’t happen this year, and there haven’t been too many warm days lately. Regardless, the end of college basketball season means the end of winter. In a week, after the first two rounds are history, it’ll officially be spring. The last two Final Four spots will be decided in two weeks, on Easter Sunday. By the time the championship game tips off eight days later, the baseball season will be underway. In Lexington thoughts will then turn not only to baseball, but also to thoroughbred racing, as we gear up for Keeneland’s April meet and May’s Kentucky Derby. Spring offers so many opportunities for rebirth, and it also eases the pain of the winter just ended.

You can tell by the flowerdy prose that basketball fandom does strange things to a person, or at least to me. For decades, University of Kentucky mens’ basketball has dominated sports in this state, and it’s been fairly successful. However, success has apparently bred a kind of paranoia, or at least insecurity, that it could all come crashing down at any moment.

It did come crashing down in 1988, when a wayward overnight package popped open and started an NCAA investigation that forced out the coach and athletics director and put the program on two years’ probation. New coach Rick Pitino brought Kentucky back to prominence quicker than anyone expected, most notably with an heroic one-point overtime loss to Duke in the 1992 NCAA East Regional. That game was soon dubbed “the greatest college basketball game ever,” and it was probably the last time Kentucky was considered a serious underdog. Over the next five years, Pitino’s Kentucky teams went to the Final Four three times and the national championship game twice, winning it all in 1996 and losing in overtime in ’97. In 1998, Pitino’s successor Orlando “Tubby” Smith guided the team to another championship, the school’s seventh.

Kentucky hasn’t been back to the Final Four since then. Twice it’s reached the round of eight; twice it’s gone out in the round of sixteen; and twice (including last year) it’s been humbled in the second round. Each time it’s failed to live up to its seeding. This year Kentucky is a No. 2 seed, which means that of the 15 other teams in its region, it should meet the No. 1 seed (Duke) in the round of eight. That’s not impossible, or unreasonable, but the longer Kentucky goes without a Final Four berth, the more grumbling there will be.

By contrast, Kentucky’s first opponent is Eastern Kentucky, located a half-hour south of here in Richmond. Eastern’s coach, Travis Ford, is a former Kentucky player who was part of both that 1992 Duke game and Pitino’s first Final Four team. By winning the Ohio Valley Conference tournament, Eastern earned its first NCAA tournament bid since 1979. (Ironically, in 1979 Kentucky did not go to the NCAA tournament, but made up for it with 23 appearances in the next 25 years.) Thus, Eastern is one of many schools who are just happy to be invited, even with the bittersweet realization that its leviathan neighbor to the north will probably send it home before its bags are unpacked.

Therein lies the tournament’s drama. Of the 65 schools invited, 64 will end their seasons with losses, including at least three of the powerhouse No. 1 seeds. (“Beware the ides of March,” indeed.) In recent years the NCAA instituted a “play-in” game, with the two lowest-seeded teams playing for the privilege of most likely losing to the highest-seeded team. The thought was that the play-in winner would have won at least one NCAA tournament game before being eliminated.

In 1992, even after winning the Southeastern Conference tournament, Kentucky was still largely in happy-to-be-there mode. Beating reigning champion Duke to go to the Final Four would have been virtually a fairy-tale ending for Pitino’s players, all of whom were unheralded and none of whom had been involved in the events which led to NCAA probation. As it is, that team is remembered very fondly for rehabilitating their alma mater.

And yet I still find it hard to deal with each year’s inevitable loss. It’s ultimately easier to take, as it was in 1992, when every win isn’t so much an affirmation of greatness as it is a sweet reprieve from the end of the season. Better to let each win lift your spirits than each loss knock them down. This year — unlike many, many others — no one is picking Kentucky to win it all, and while that’s humbling (or even a little frustrating), it has lowered my expectations. Last year (as the very well-meaning Best Wife Ever pointed out) Kentucky was the No. 1 seed overall and won only one game. That was frustrating to watch.

Of course, some frustrations are greater than others. Many traditional basketball powers, including Michigan, Maryland, and Indiana, didn’t even make this year’s tournament. Because it is not good form to complain in the face of success, I imagine there is not much sympathy for Kentucky fans around the country. That’s fine. No one feels sorry when the Yankees lose except for Yankee fans, but I do like to think I have a good perspective on the whole thing.

If there is one lesson to take away from every college basketball season, it’s that virtually no one ends on a perfect note. That’s what makes the national title so elusive, and the struggle to gain it so all-encompassing. Kentucky has won more regular-season SEC titles and more SEC tournament championships than all the other teams in the conference put together, but somehow that all gets minimized for three weeks in March.

So I’m really going to try, as I do every year, to enjoy each game as it comes. College basketball inspires a lot of strong feelings, whether you think it’s a way of life or a waste of time. It can be a tremendous thrill to watch. The trick seems to be in outweighing the lows with the highs.

Besides, if all else fails, spring will be here soon enough.

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1 Comment »

  1. Tonight, your Wildcats take on my Bearcats! You’ll probably kick our ass, but I’m hoping this leads to more regular match-ups between this I-75 pseudo-rivals.

    Comment by Woody! — March 19, 2005 @ 7:25 pm


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