By Jason Keidel
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Warren Buffet’s billion dollars aside, March Madness has something for every fan, even if it trivializes the regular season into granular irrelevance.
Between the one-and-done mercenaries, interminable and useless non-conference play and conference tournaments that are little more than formalities, college basketball has morphed into a six-game playoff for all the marbles.
But March Madness is a lifeline in an otherwise barren winter sports calendar, an essential bridge between football and baseball. It’s the supreme precursor to the Masters, Indy 500, and Kentucky Derby – all monolithic events that even fringe fans follow, not only because of the drama but also because they are mileposts to the sunny days of summer.
There’s something about those college brackets, a litany of parallel lines, so easy on our lustful eyes, that seizes our attention like nothing short of the Super Bowl. March Madness is a distillation of modern fandom. It feeds our ADD greed for instant action, our need to gamble without any legal repercussions, and the wholly American ideal of the outhouse-to-penthouse journey for an obscure school quick to fit in Cinderella’s blessed slipper.
And there’s the notion that we can become king of the cubicles for a fleeting enchanted moment, with the seasoned jock often losing to the secretary who literally picks her teams based on moniker, color or college mascot.
Speaking of Cinderella, there’s no doubt that Wichita State is the avatar of school spirit this year, though the slipper is probably the wrong attire for a team that reached the Final Four last year and is 34-0, with a No. 1 seed this year.
Still, Wichita State tickles our old-school sensibilities, doubles as a time portal to the days when we adored all six months of the season and could follow a player’s career from darling freshman to decorated senior.
The Shockers hardly have a shocking blueprint: be great at nothing, but be good at everything. Indeed, it’s better blueprint to have a solid starting five with no holes than have a holy, singular star around whom everyone tiptoes without the ball.
Sure, you can win a sprint with Carmelo Anthony hoisting the team over his shoulder. But you’ll notice Syracuse was the first and last place he won a title. The team game is what ultimately endures, even in the disparate depths of college basketball, where the difference between the haves and have-nots is way more pronounced than in the NBA.
It seems everyone from Bilas to Obama has stuffed himself into the Michigan State bandwagon, perhaps the most poorly-seeded team in history – other than fellow, fourth-seed Louisville, the defending champs. Good team. Great coach. Hard to go wrong. But for those whose hands are historically dusty with chalk, Wichita State is a fresh breeze through the sterile halls of redundant champions, whose only enduring star is the head coach.
And, of course, all the heavy hitters seem to be all in the same region. The notorious, bloody bracket of the Midwest, is where Wichita State is supposed to somehow navigate through a roll call of Hall of Fame coaches, from Bill Self to John Calipari to Rick Pitino. Oh, and some guy named Krzyzewski – a constellation of consonants just as hard to arrange now as when he took the Duke gig in 1865.
Has any undefeated team ever entered the tournament with such stealth or a more venomous path to the Final Four? Half the country thinks the Shockers’ 34-0 record was built on the backs of stiffs, while the other half thinks they won’t even sniff the Sweet 16.
But you have to root for them, publicly or secretly, unless your alma mater is on the other side. Wichita State is a referendum on the nouveaux, cold calculus of college sports, where the notion of amateurism has been issued an official death certificate, where the classroom is a chalkboard funnel for the first sneaker deal.
It’s hard to say what’s more troubling, the NCAA’s duplicity or the farce of the student-athlete. The NCAA condemns players or programs who treat it like a business, while the NCAA rakes in billions on the backs of young men who make them all the money yet aren’t entitled to a dime of it.
Then there’s the idea that the “student-athlete” is in college too, well, attends college. Whether it’s real or contrived, Wichita State has our “Hoosiers” moment in their hands, when the sport and our lives were more simple and noble.
But in a strictly hardwood sense, teams like Butler, George Mason, and, now Wichita State are refreshing reminders that the old ethos of teamwork and maturity still matter on the court.
Calipari can parade his Parade All-Americans onto the parquet all he wants, but AAU banners and five-star summer camps don’t help when the score is tied with ten seconds left and you need a tight play run or two free throws swished. He learned that lesson in Memphis, where his bejeweled team faltered in the final moments against Kansas, postponing his coronation a few years. Indeed, for all the NBA bluebloods Calipari has ridden to the tournament, he has just one title to show for it.
And the rise of Wichita State is just a perfect confluence of timing, talent, and temerity. Just imagine a small school tucked into the cornfields of Kansas, where James Naismith and Phog Allen started the sport, stealing the hardware from the iron-clad talons of the Jayhawks, who have their mail forwarded to the Final Four.
So it would be so thrilling to see Wichita State, hardly a member of the sport’s aristocracy, win one for the little guys. And they won’t be so little if they finish at 40-0. Not even the big boys have had a taste of perfection. Only Mr. Hoosier Himself, Bob Knight, has sipped from that glittering cup.
Indeed, Wichita state could become members of an even more exclusive club…eternity.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden.
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