Compelling storylines make NCAA tourney one of nation's best events
We like to say there are no sure things in the NCAA tournament, but of course there are. As you watch a game while pretending to work, somebody will hit a ridiculous shot that blows your cover. You will fall in love with a player because of his name. (My favorite: Long Beach State's Peter Pappageorge.) When the afternoon games start on St. Patrick's Day, Budweiser stock will rise six percent. You will cheer against John Calipari because it makes you feel patriotic.
And you will love this event as much as any in American sports.
The quality of college basketball has declined over the past 20 years, but the sport's marquee event is better than ever. There is a correlation there: Thanks to earlier defections to the NBA, the best teams are not as great, which makes them more susceptible to upsets, which is why we love the tournament. This inevitably leads to the following conversation, every single March:
EXPERT: "With so much parity in college basketball, we shouldn't be surprised ..."
FAN: "Hahaha, Duke lost, wahooooooooooooo!"
Most great sporting events have compelling storylines. The NCAA tournament is different because storylines seem to be its primary purpose. Last year's Final Four did not crown the best team, or even include it, and nobody seemed to worry. This year's tournament could bring story after story, such as:
• North Carolina's Roy Williams against his old team, Kansas, in a regional final. Ol' Roy would do his very best to say nice things about everyone, which would just tick people off.
• Redemption stories for Cincinnati
• Michigan State's Draymond Green carrying the Spartans to a championship. This seemed preposterous just a year ago. Green was a solid player on a dysfunctional team as a junior. Now he is a first-team All-America. Perhaps that has happened before, but I can't remember it. And let me say, pre-emptively: If Michigan State makes the Final Four, and you read a thousand stories about Green's leadership and love of his school, don't roll your eyes. It's all legit.
• Syracuse's Jim Boeheim winning his second national title, despite the loss of Fab Melo. It's unlikely, but a triumph without Melo would permanently change the perception of Boeheim. It would require some grit and tactical maneuvering from Boeheim that we could not overlook.
• The likely No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, Kentucky's Anthony Davis, battling the likely No. 2 pick, Connecticut's Andre Drummond -- in the round of 32.
• Davis and Kentucky winning the least popular national title in many, many years.
Unless you are a Kentucky fan or related to Worldwide Wes, I just assume you want Kentucky to lose.
There are two reasons for this. One is the widespread belief that, while most humans are 98 percent water, John Calipari is 98 percent evil. Please understand:
Most fans also hate how Kentucky is built. Calipari has made the one-and-done market his own, from Derrick Rose to Tyreke Evans to the John Wall/Demarcus Cousins/Eric Bledsoe/Daniel Orton quartet to Brandon Knight and the ghost of Enes Kanter to the current group, headlined by Davis.
Is this wrong? Again: I'm not saying that. If it's OK for Kyrie Irving to leave Duke after one injury-shortened year, it's fine for Davis. And as a hoops fan, you have to love how Davis and fellow freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist play. This is not the point. A lot of fans feel like Kentucky is gaming the system, and, since this tournament is just an entertainment vehicle for them, they don't feel compelled to spend a lot of time thinking about it.
The Wildcats are a great team, but they are also a freshman-dominated team, with championship-or-bust pressure. The Wildcats are not just shooting for the national title. In the minds of some, they have to win a national title to justify the way they were built. If Kentucky loses, many UK fans will wonder if a team can take the one-and-done route to a championship. This isn't fair to the players, but we're not talking about fair. It is a lot of pressure for a young team.
If Kentucky wins this way, the story may drown out the achievement. If Kentucky loses, millions of fans will rejoice. The lesson, once again: Anybody can lose in this tournament, but the tournament itself never loses.