March Madness is upon us, and by that I mean the NCAA Division I basketball playoffs. I travelled to Salt Lake City to watch men's second and third round action, which I try to do each year. What can be better than watching six D1 games live over three days while spending the rest of the time watching games on TV?? Not all six games are exciting contests, but this year, four of the six were.
That included Wichita State grinding out a win over Pitt, Southern nearly upsetting Gonzaga, Harvard upsetting New Mexico, and the Shockers of WSU bouncing Gonzaga in the third round. Not a bad regional, and it far exceeded my expectations looking at the lineup going in. That just shows you one more time that you never know with college hoops.
Salt Lake City was not the only place for upsets. My alma mater, LaSalle, found a way to make it to the Sweet 16 as a play-in team, having not been to the tournament since 1992. On the other hand, my other alma mater, Notre Dame, was upset in the first round. And my team for 19 years, Creighton, won a close second round victory, only to fall to Duke in the third round. Thus far, my affiliated institutions have a record of 4-2! One of these days, maybe the SU men's team can make it to the dance. The SU women nearly did this year, and they will be right in the thick of it next year, I am sure!
Speaking of women's hoops, they are in the middle of their tournament, as well. Normally, it is equally exciting, but this year is there any chance that someone can beat Baylor? It just does not seem likely, which makes it less intriguing. That is the interesting thing about the men's side this year - it seems like so many teams have a legitimate shot at the title.
The Albers March Madness pool is back - I am so glad Madhu Rao has ramped it back up! There is a lot of abuse unleashed every time the results are updated, and I get more than my fair share. But that is OK, as it would be unseemly for the Dean to win. It is important to have a respectable finish, however! That Harvard win busted my bracket some, by the way!
I have been going to Regionals since 1998, when Creighton qualified for the Big Dance for the first time under Dana Altman, and played in Orlando. It was there that Creighton upset Louisville in the first round. A few changes I have noticed since then is that (1) TV coverage of games is so much more available, (2) tickets are easier to get and there are more and more empty seats, and (3) the commemorative t-shirts are so much easier to buy - they always used to run out of them. (1) and (2) are no doubt related.
There is one thing that sometimes becomes a problem, and that is fans (and announcers) sometimes forget how YOUNG these players are. That goes a long way in explaining a missed layup or free throw at a critical point, losing one's temper and drawing a technical foul, or making a bad decision on an impossible angle shot or pass. Then, sometimes an occasional fan will think it is humorous to get on a player like one would witness at a pro game - not very funny at all. That is the advantage of working in higher education every day - you know how young the players are!
I know that there are many critics of March Madness, saying that it exploits the students and makes millions of dollars for others. On the first point, a scholarship athlete is getting over $50k in benefits assuming he or she is making progress toward a degree, and that does not factor in what a degree will do for lifetime earnings (on average). Plus, you know those students just love the experience of being in the tournament!
On the second point, that is no doubt true, but schools are negotiating more favorable contracts with networks and more of that can be used to pay the costs of athletics (including the other sports for men and women!). Plus, schools reap intangible benefits from the exposure in terms of alumni relations and boosting the brand of the school - just check with Florida Gulf Coast on that!