Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Last Underdog...?

I thought Butler would win.  I really did.

But nothing is ever certain, a lesson I learned the hard way during high school football.  I've been lucky enough to experience a lot of great sports moments in my life already - a goal-line stand, a game-winning field goal, a walk-off grand slam, a hole-in-one, and a buzzer-beater are all events I've witnessed or participated in.  I've seen two of my favorite teams win championships, and I've been to an NCAA basketball regional final.  I guess I don't have as much room to complain as some, but the two things I really want the most are a World Series ring for the Orioles and a true Cinderella story.  The former is still at least a few years away, but I've been painfully close to the latter on multiple occasions, the latest coming last night.  I still remember seething about Davidson's loss to Kansas in the '08 tournament, taking out my frustration on the hoop above my garage for a good 45 minutes after the game.  I wanted nothing more than to do the same after the Devil buzzer sounded. Too bad the gymnasium doesn't stay open that late.  

This will sound familiar, but I feel robbed.  I know there were circumstances that could have prevented Butler from being in that position at the end of the game, the most prominent being enough bricked free throws by players not named Hayward to build a small tomb for Butler's bulldog mascot.  Still, it kills me to think that they did all that work for six months to come up a few inches short, inches that were well-deserved, too.  Even Maryland's furious comeback against Michigan State was not as worthy an effort as Butler's tough-as-nails, shot-for-shot bout with Duke.  If only that team were not so darn likable - Babyface Hayward, Mustache Howard, Missile Mack, the always lurking Veasley, Nored the fingersmith, Stoneface Stevens.  That doesn't even include Jukes, the Alabama transfer and charity founder who stifled Zoubek for much of the game, or Hahn, the little engine that dropped a big trey in the first half.  Vanzant scrapped for those loose balls because his life depended on it
Maybe we'll feel feel better about it if we find out in two years that there were all kinds of NCAA infractions committed by this team, but we would probably just feel more duped.  Some things seem to defy all our attempts at coping and our best-faked better-luck-next-year mentalities.  This one stings the most because we don't know that we'll ever see it again.

If the NCAA tournament expands to 96 teams, as the ESPN crew working the NIT Finals hinted last week, a so-called "underdog" team would have to win five games in ten days just to make the Sweet 16, making a Final Four run all but impossible for a Butler-type team.  It means more money for the NCAA and first-round byes for the top 32 teams (most of which will probably hail from major conferences), but it will ruin the competitive balance that it has maintained so well up to this year.  There's already one matchup that is almost impossible to win (although Princeton nearly upset No.1 Georgetown in the first round in '89), so if a team seeded worse than No. 80 somehow makes it to the round of 64, how are they even supposed to compete? It's no contest.

I'm almost convinced that a "Cinderella" story will never be transplanted into real life.  In each recent March Madness case, there were players who carried their teams (Jai Lewis for George Mason, Stephen Curry for Davidson, Gordon Hayward for Butler) to success, each one with the good fortune of playing close to home (Washington DC, Raleigh, Indianapolis) and each one ultimately coming up short of the biggest goal.  (Even this year's Cornell team couldn't beat a tough Kentucky squad while playing in Syracuse.)  All of these teams try desperately to fit the mold, and all have fallen short.  These conclusions beg the question: how spectacular will the odds be when a non-major team finally overcomes them to win it all?  Or will the next team win it, the last in a line of slow progression from Sweet 16 to Elite 8 to Final Four to National Championship game? It's difficult to say.

To be frank, I think I would die a little bit on the inside if the tournament format changed. Here we have the closest thing in college sports to a fair shake for postseason-caliber teams, and to throw away the integrity of such a system for a bump in revenue runs counter to the uniqueness of collegiate athletics.  Are we willing to reduce the opportunity for pure competition to solely the high school level and rec leagues? What happened to the singularly American experience of playing organized team sports with complex strategy while representing an institution, an idea you stand behind?  There's nothing like it anywhere else in the world, and to alter it irreparably would be doing unspeakable damage to the "maybe" factor of the sport, eliminating the unlikely possibilities that even now are more real than we think.  It will be a sad day when that time arrives, and my fear is that it's not too far away.  If that's the way it is, here's to Butler for keeping our hearts for as long as they could.  We may never see another team like them.

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