Like millions of other sports fans, I spent countless hours following and/or watching the first couple rounds of the NCAA tournament last weekend. And, like much of the tournament-following country, I found myself falling in love with Florida Gulf Coast University, a school that managed to pull off major upsets against both Georgetown University and San Diego State University, schools heavily favored to beat them.
If there was ever a story that encapsulated the true essence of March Madness, it would be their emergence, a tiny school in the middle of Florida that didn't even exist two decades ago. This---the idea of every team, whether from Texas or Transylvania Tech, having a legitimate chance at their One Shining Moment---is what makes the tournament so compelling, so unpredictable, so variable, and so fun.
And it's exactly why I'd choose the NBA over college basketball in a heartbeat
Before I continue, let me make one thing clear: I love basketball. At all levels. I love high school basketball. I love college basketball. Sh*t, I played high school and college basketball. I spent an entire evening two weekends ago watching a JV basketball tournament, a JV basketball tournament for middle school kids. I spend approximately 12% of the time I should be working and writing reading 2000 word-long breakdowns of the Miami Heat’s defensive schemes and watching YouTube mixes of people you've probably heard of (Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, etc), people you'll hear about very soon (Andrew Wiggins, Kasey Hill, etc), and people so currently irrelevant that hitting refresh doubles the amount of views on their clips (Flip Murray, Myron Brown, etc).
While this love of basketball allows me to appreciate it on all levels, it's also made me a purist. Actually, purist isn't strong enough. I'm a snob. A snob who slums occasionally, but still a snob nonetheless. As the basketball lover in me devours the endless stream of games, anxiously anticipating outcomes, reveling in the spectacle and drama, the snob vacillates between being annoyed by teams so over coached that basketball players are loath to actually play basketball (Hi, Pitt!), surprised when players actually make semi-contested shots, and annoyed that a tournament where you're surprised when people actually make semi-contested shots is marketed and sold as the best basketball basketball has to offer.
I realize that I may be lobbing some unfair criticisms towards college basketball and college basketball players. Of course they’re not as skilled and talented as the NBA guys because, well, they’re college kids, not professionals. You may also believe that college basketball is “better” because of some notable cracks in the NBA’s foundation---it’s too star-friendly, the season is too long, the league lacks true parity, etc---that make it unwatchable. These are all valid points, which brings us back to Florida Gulf Coast.
Although Florida Gulf Coast represents the essence of March Madness, they’re actually the antithesis of what traditional Cinderellas---underdog basketball teams---usually are. They play a particular type of fearless, attacking, and play-making basketball---opposed to the type of conservative, pass for 33 seconds and throw a three-point prayer towards the hoop, ball that less talented teams usually adapt when playing bigger schools---that allows their basketball players to actually play basketball. Ironically, they’ve won games because they’ve out-NBAed the teams they’ve played against.
Now, I understand why smaller, less-talented teams tend to adapt more conservative strategies when playing bigger schools. The more you slow down the game---in hoopspeak, this is “taking the air out of the ball”---the more likely you’ll be able to narrow the gap in talent and athleticism. Yet, while this is how the Transylvania Techs usually keep up with the schools like Texas, this is exactly why anyone who truly loves basketball should appreciate it most at the highest level.
The reason why the NBA seems so star-friendly is that the long season and the multi-series playoffs format weeds out all of the pretenders, shaky contenders, and Cinderellas. It’s basically the sports world’s truest meritocracy, as this format increases the probability that the people left standing truly are the best of the best. (Think about it this way: Would you rather study for a three question long test or an 83 question long test?)
You know, I love burgers almost as much as I love basketball. And, it’s not uncommon for me to make midnight runs to Wendy’s or Burger King for Baconators and Whoppers. They’re easily accessible, cheap, fulfilling, and full of all of my favorite steroids. Basically, they do the job they’re supposed to do, and they do it well. But, as someone who has also had a prime burger at Ruth’s Chris Steak House (Yes, I’m the a*shole who goes to Ruth’s Chris and orders cheeseburgers), don’t try to convince me that a Big Mac is better.