Up next on The Discovery Channel: “Court-Storm Chasers”. In this week’s episode our intrepid investigators trek to Champaign, Ill., to track a mad rush as yet another No. 1 falls. Later, they’ll head east to South Bend to wait…and wait…and wait… for a court-storm following a five-overtime win. What –or who – is behind this frenzy of frenzied fans?
Believe it or not, this will not be a column on court-storming or a referendum on whether or not there should be a protocol to it. This column originated in my mind last week, as yet another No. 1 (Indiana) lost, the fifth No. 1 to lose in as many weeks. It blossomed as No. 8 Miami ravaged North Carolina by 20-plus points on Saturday and ESPN’s Doris Burke spent a major portion of the second half discussing whether or not the Hurricanes deserved to jump to No. 1 (What Doris should have been debating was whether you should you storm the court in honor of a team named after a storm? Absolutely!).
Anyway, the aforementioned “upsets” (four of the five No. 1s lost their spot after a road loss, which in our view does not constitute an upset; if you watch enough college basketball or football you know that by now) and Miami’s Category-5 thrashing of North Carolina got us to thinking: So what?
Before you say, “I know where he’s headed here”, wait. I’m not headed exactly where you think I am.
Anyway, so what? So what if a team loses its No. 1 ranking in February, or if a school like Miami is voted No. 1 for the first time –in hoops – after being unranked in the preseason. All of them will be in the NCAA tournament. Kansas, a previous No. 1 which has since lost three straight –for the first time in eight years – is still headed to the tourney as well. In fact, the Jayhawks could go on to lose to the Topeka YMCA and Northern Illinois this month and they would still be invited to the Big Dance.
All of which leads to the constant bickering between die-hard college football fans (such as myself) and diehard college hoop heads. And this is where I am headed: We all need to shut up.
See, the paradigm of college football is this: every game matters. There is no postseason per se, so as we like to remind everyone, “The season is the playoff.” Detractors note, accurately, that college football is not all-inclusive because it is possible for a team to go undefeated and not play for the national championship. Which is true (I have a plan to correct this, but that is for another column and anyway after next season the debate will be moot, since the sport will move to a four-team playoff).
Contrarily, in college basketball, the season does not truly start until March. Nearly every team in a conference is theoretically alive when the calendar turns to the third month because every conference tournament champion, no matter how poor its record, is automatically invited to the NCAA tournament. And from there, all a school must do is go on a six-game win streak to win the national championship. Two years ago Connecticut finished 9-9 in the Big East before reeling off 11 straight wins in the Big East tournament and then the NCAAs. Were the Huskies a .500 team or a national championship squad? Both.
The debate rages on: college football is more meaningful because every game counts (even if that may not be true all the time) or college basketball is more meaningful because every team truly has an opportunity to win it all. Just ask Butler. And while it is easy, and quite a popular past time, for hoop heads to mock the Bowl Championship Series and all that it represents, it is just as easy for me to be amused by fans storming a court after a January or February win, since the repercussions of such a win are virtually meaningless. After all, 68 schools will make the NCAA tournament. If your school needs a big win to “escape the bubble”, well, you’re fooling yourself to think that they’re a national championship-caliber squad (that is, unless Kemba Walker is the point guard).
But at some point last Saturday, after watching Ben Brust’s 40-footer to send Wisconsin’s game versus No. 3 Michigan into overtime, and after watching Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant score 12 points in the final, in his words, “surreal” 45 seconds versus No. 11 Louisville to send their game into the first of its five overtimes, I stopped caring about meaningful games and meaningless games. Stopped caring about whether students should storm the court in January; or whether they should storm the field after Iowa State (5-4), a team with no chance of playing in any BCS bowl, upset No. 2 Oklahoma State in November of 2011.
College basketball and football are about so much more than simply who wins the championship. They exist in the moment, as do so many of the students who sit in the stands and cheer for them. Buoyed by optimism and the chance to witness something they have never experienced, both student and student-athlete get swept away in the moment. And what’s wrong with that?
In college football, especially after September, more games have no bearing on who will win the national championship than those that do. And yet the stadiums are almost always as full and the players hit just as hard. The games matter. In college basketball no team is eliminated before March, and yet the arenas are filled with frothing fans and the pressure on the players – and coaches – is palpable.
Two final anecdotes: On Saturday morning in South Bend Casey Murdoch, a Notre Dame senior majoring in finance, hit a half-court shot that earned him $18,000. Now if this Murdoch fellow is a few months away from a degree from Notre Dame, in finance, I’m not all that concerned about his financial prospects in the coming years. And yet if you saw the moment, you observed ESPN’s Rece Davis go bonkers –spontaneously raising his hands in the air to signal a “three” as if that even mattered (or was he aping Touchdown Jesus?)—over the bucket. Nothing about Davis’ reaction was staged or phony. It was pure spontaneous joy over witnessing something that was unexpected.
Second, I was at the gym on Saturday in the waning moments of the Michigan-Wisconsin game. Walking from the pool to the locker room, I stopped near a TV screen to watch the closing seconds of regulation. First, Tim Hardaway, Jr.’s off-balance three, which evoked a silent “Wow!” Next, Brust’s prayer swished through and I unleashed an “Oh my!” which led to a dozen or so people staring at the middle-aged dude in a Speedo standing outside of the men’s locker room, wondering if he was crazy.
Of course, I am. And so are you. Because you can argue that our ardor is geared toward meaningless events, and yet we still our unable to exhaust our capacity to be thrilled by them. So what? Go ahead and storm your court, wherever it is.