Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Hoop Dreams

Now that March Madness is over, we can all get back to more important things, like whether, as Entertainment Weekly inquires, Jesse James is the most hated man in America. Most hated, really? When Glenn Beck is out there? Let's get some perspective, EW.

I've never quite been able to put my figure on what it is about the annual NCAA tourney that I find so intriguing, especially considering that I pay zero attention to basketball the rest of the year. Don't get me wrong, I love sports--baseball, football, bocce ball, I'm there. But not basketball, which is just too much running up and down a court for my taste. Perhaps that's the answer: March Madness isn't really about the sport, but more about the brackets (ie, a competition we can all play at home) and the scores. Particularly during the early rounds of the tournament, so many games are being played simultaneously that most match-ups are distilled by broadcasters to their final minutes or seconds, which is about how long I think these contests should last in the first place.

Maybe if my alma mater were ever part of the 64-team pool, I'd feel differently. But alas, I happened to graduate from the University of Toledo (Ohio, not Spain), which is not exactly an athletic powerhouse, though they actually used to have a pretty decent hoops team when I was a kid. My dad was a big fan, and I'd sit with him and listen to their games on the radio, keeping score at home with a pencil and pad of paper. The Rockets had a great run during the '70s and even made it to the Sweet 16. Once.

UT is largely a commuter school, and while its urban campus is actually quite pretty, affordability is its main selling point. If I found myself in possession of a hot tub time machine, I don't know that I would choose to attend today. Instead, I would advise my younger self to give Gonzaga a serious look, or maybe Robert Morris, or UTEP.

It's not exactly a secret that all American universities are not created equal. On one level, you've got your Ivy League schools and Ivy wannabes, which are out of financial or academic range for the vast majority of students. And on another level, you've got everything else. If you're stuck with everything else, you should at least pick one that prospective employers have heard of--and the NCAA tourney, or any big-time sports program, is a golden ticket to name recognition.

I have no idea what the physics department is like at the University of Kentucky, but I know that UK exists. Ditto for Seton Hall, Bradley, Louisville, North Carolina and UNLV. A Harvard diploma might seriously grease the wheels for you, but I'm betting that one from Butler will open a few doors now as well, or at least start a conversation in a way that a degree from UT or Eastern Michigan won't.

There's also a pride and camaraderie that surrounds successful sporting schools--a reason for strangers to gather together around a television with a common interest. I miss that. Mercifully, my brothers attended Ohio State for grad school, so I nominally have someone to root for during bowl games and the like. But it's not the same as being able to strut down the street in my UT sweatshirt (which I don't even own) and receive an approving nod from passersby.

The NCAA is mulling whether to expand the basketball tournament to 96 teams, a notion I initially opposed, largely because I'm generally against any kind of change. But I'm starting to warm up to the idea. With 96 slots open, the chance of UT sneaking into a bracket vastly increases. And if they manage to pull off an upset or two, hello Cinderella story, hello pride, hello no longer having to pretend I went to the University of Texas.

Go Rockets!


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