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College Basketball

After The Binge, The Basketball

PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 24: Kiki Iriafen #44 and Nunu Agara #3 of the Stanford Cardinal celebrates after they defeated the Iowa State Cyclones 87-81 in overtime in the second round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at Stanford Maples Pavilion on March 24, 2024 in Palo Alto, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

These have not been great NCAA tournaments if what you're after is Cinderella's shoes. Indeed, these are so far two of the chalkiest tournaments in the history of chalk, which means that most of you have already been eliminated from your pools because you love to float upsets, mock favorites, and boast that you know college basketball when in most cases you haven't watched an unranked team all year, and now your bracket is 11 games worse than the security guard's dog’s.

Then you get Houston–Texas A&M, or NC State–Oakland, or Colorado-Florida, or Stanford–Iowa State, and you're dragged back in. You forget that barely a quarter of the 88 games played so far have had a winning margin of less than 10 points because there are so many games that you become indifferent to the overall quality. You get the one-seed scared witless by an ordinary A&M team in overtime, and the improbable Jack Gohlke never turning down a three (like Jordan Poole) and making half of them (unlike Jordan Poole) and the 102-100 game won by a corner jumper that rattles around on the rim for 20 minutes, and Kiki Iriafen and Emily Ryan and 77 points and a 36-point overtime (that's seven points a minute, in case you're nostalgic for the old NBA of February) and you are re-mesmerized by what the game can be when you focus on the outliers.

But that's why the NCAA Tournaments are quite possibly the weirdest events on the calendar—the great games are few and far between, but there are so many of them that you still think the next one you see will be a great one, and anyway you don't care all that much because in the final analysis you're only rooting for you. It's really the only way this spectacle truly works—as a five-day weekend with 60 hours of basketball played, surrounded by friends who know no more than you and in a few cases a trip to Vegas.

And like Vegas, only a very few people go home happy. How do you think life is working out in Lexington these days, or Auburn, or Lincoln, Neb., where the local factory team not only lost to A&M in the first round but lost its athletic director to the same school a few days earlier? Every person in those towns hates basketball today and will hate it until September, even if the basketball season is just something that happens between recruiting and the spring game.

But for all that, you do your brackets anyway no matter where you live, more out of peer pressure than anything else. We do love bulk entertainment. Why else do you think Costco is still in business?

Next weekend, though, is the weekend where the games have to actually be better—nobody's signing off on 93-56 in the round of 16 because nobody's just happy to be there any more. They have expectations, and because TruTV and ESPN2 are out of the rotation, you notice the stinkers that much more. This will not be the 2023 men's tournament where the Final Four included a four-seed, two five-seeds, and a nine-seed. Conversely, the women's tournament has had only two Final Four teams worse than a four-seed in this century, so bracketology, or your feeble incarnation of it, stops mattering. The security guy's dog may still win the pool, but this becomes a basketball tournament now.

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