When the age of 24-hour sports TV dawned in my bedroom, it was a euphoric time indeed. Cursed with sleep problems, I was suddenly blessed with new riches. Australian rules football. Beach volleyball. Whatever. I took it all in with glee, gratitude and, of course, no sound out of respect for my sleeping wife. But now a few decades later, the TV sports floodgates have long been open. And in the throes of a restless night, I will now, as I did before ESPN and its ilk, grab for a good book. The novelty, the allure of wall-to-wall sports—after midnight, indeed even before midnight—is long gone.
But today and tomorrow are the glowing exceptions. Is there a more rousing event in all of TV sports than the first round of the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament? In roughly 24 hours of air time, 32 games and more unbelievable endings than all the networks combined can boast of during sweeps month. Valpo, Gonzaga, Siena, McNeese State. All those Davids vs. Goliaths, except these Davids come armed with the ultimate basketball weapon, the three-pointer, instead of slingshots. More fun than a dozen Final Fours. Remind me. Who did Duke beat in the championship game last year?
Of course, these two days of sports delirium come with a hefty pricetag for longtime college basketball fans. The 65-team tourney has depreciated to almost irrelevance the entire college basketball season. With the best conferences garnering six bids, it’s hard to get worked up over which middling team will get to be fodder for some real powers in the NCAA and which will be dumped on the historic, turned also-ran tournament known as the NIT. (Although Georgetown seemed to get plenty worked up, at least sufficiently to decline, with some petulance, the NIT invitation.)
The post-season conference tourneys are now complete jokes. Most conference champions seem to have figured out that not only is it not a priority to win their conference tournament, but it may even prove a detriment to a team trying to peak for the NCAAs that start a few days later. Why bring a tired squad when you can head home early and get in some good practice time and plenty of rest for the big dance? Not even the NCAA selection committee takes the results seriously. Virtually every regular-season conference champion flopped in its conference tournaments, but none appeared to pay any price in the NCAA seedings.
Of course, price, as in ticket price, is what these tournaments are all about. Except for the historic ACC tourney, all these post-seasons gigs are recent creations designed for no reason other than to rake in additional revenues for the conferences. Only the Ivy League clings to the eccentric notion that a 14-game league season (or longer) is sufficient, not to mention a more valid way, to determine a champion. The others stage these charades, in which the only meaningful game may be a first-rounder to determine which big-name, also-ran gets to claim an 11th seed and which gets the ax.
The conference tournament finals last weekend were mostly a succession of duds. Only Connecticut’s spirited double-overtime victory over Pitt was a glaring exception, and I suspect that has more to do with the magic mix of college ball and Madison Square Garden. Duke thumping NC State. Who cares? Arizona outrunning Southern Cal. Yawn. Everybody was already destined for the NCAAs. Even Oklahoma upsetting Kansas was boring to anyone but the most diehard Sooners fan. And, of course, Kansas still walked off with a number one seed, while Oklahoma settled for a two-spot. Not that there’s that much drama in whether you open with Holy Cross or University of Illinois-Chicago. Not to take anything away from those teams. The best game I saw the whole week involved Illinois-Chicago, an overtime nail-biter against Loyola of Chicago in which the two less-than-titans battled for a single tourney berth.
But today, all is forgiven. Every game is an elimination game. Each contest sends someone on a long, sorrowful trip home (and crushes the hopes of thousands who backed that loser in their office pool). Even though it’s a crapshoot in which I already know that my destiny is snake eyes, I absolutely love it. So a cautionary note to my editors. Starting a little after noon, please don’t call me—if we need to talk, I’ll call you.