Selection Sunday is at our throats, and for college basketball fans everywhere it is Christmas wrapped in New Year’s Eve and marinated in Mardi Gras.
And why is that? Easy, silly. Because none of the coaches will announce on Selection Sunday that they are resting four of their starters because they have to go to the Southeast regional.
But, everything after Selection Sunday is a letdown by definition, in the same way that talking about the NFL draft before it happens is better than the draft itself, and picking All-Star teams is better than the All-Star Games in which they appear, and Hall of Fame ballot arguments are better than Hall of Fame voting results.
It’s because reality is never good as anticipation, let alone the alternate realities people make up to satisfy themselves. Once the bracket is announced, it stops being the user’s world and becomes part of Corporate World. And these days, nobody approves of the judgments of others.
Such is the new way of thinking about sports that we have challenged the speed of time to satisfy our need to talk about the future in anticipation of being let down by it. We love to construct and de-construct realities about who should be a three-seed and who should end up in the West Regional, and once the reveal comes we can no longer make up our own universes. We are stuck with complaining for a day about the people who did fill the brackets because our versions are no longer worth contemplating.
That doesn’t prevent us from talking about “snubs” and other ill-defined injustices because, despite the fact that there is no such thing as an actual “snub,” we find the need to savage the fact of selection by its variance from what we would do if allowed the great honor of days-long sequestration with people we would never consent to drink with otherwise.
You know – as in, “What do you mean, UCLA’s a 3 in the East? Why isn’t Northwestern a 5 when so many media people graduated from Northwestern and therefore clog our brains with open cheering that they would not otherwise tolerate? Why do you personally hate mid-major schools, and whose pay are you in, actually?”
We call it “feeding the beast,” when what it actually is, is making arguments. And what we make argument with is the end of the arguments.
Indeed, the real problem with Selection Sunday, once you’ve disposed with the annual process story, “68 Reasons Why The Committee Is Stupider Than You,” is that the cycle is the same every year.
First is the months-long Jockeying For Committee’s Eye story. Then comes Bracketology, Joe Lunardi’s pernicious invention for the fetishizing of the bracket process. Then comes Selection Sunday, then comes The Snubs, then comes The Embarrassing Interview With The Barely Articulate Committee Chair, then comes The Incessant Breakdown.
And then, in a massive letdown, come The Results. Two, then two more, then 16, 16 more, then eight and eight. That’s 52 games in what most folks agree is the best weekend of the tournament, because that’s when the chance of chaos is greatest.
And the chaos is what we’re in it for, unless we are burdened with having a favorite team. Game after game, weird finish after absurd development, piled atop each other in a mad tapestry that allows us to believe that everyone can get something out the event.
Then come The Sweet Sixteen, and the return to big-name form that almost always serves as a letdown.
You see, while the myth of the bracket is that there is a path to glory for everyone, the truth of the bracket is that there are built-in benefits for the usual names. Kinder seedings, gentler matchups, shorter travel, more beneficent TV times, etc. – all the things that make the money grow.
That’s why Selection Sunday marks not the beginning of the tournament but the beginning of the end of the actual fun. The NCAA Tournament may be about basketball for the basketball wonks, but for the far greater majority of fans we can call “casuals,” the tournament is about your personal bracket, followed by the schools you never heard of. The rest of it is noise, with the daily interviews with The Famous Coach first among equals.
The weeks before Selection Sunday are about the comforting hilarities of What Could Be, only to be turned into the rigidity of What Is, and ultimately into What You’ve Already Seen And Pretty Damned Recently (three first-time champions have been crowned in the last 27 years), with style points given or taken away for the excitement of the final. For instance, last year’s final with Villanova and North Carolina was so good that it made you forget that the rest of the tournament was pretty ordinary stuff.
In short, Selection Sunday is the beginning of dreams for a few underdog schools, and the end of dreams for everyone else. Eventually, the games must be played, structure must be applied, and structure is never as much fun as what we pretend could be.