Maybe I just don’t get March Madness. Despite the fact that the Final Four matchups take place this weekend, the hype just doesn’t seem to interest me. The NCAA men’s basketball championships are a strange tournament, one where excitement seems to move in an inverse direction, contrary to the nature of typical elimination tournaments. Other sports that feature postseason elimination tournaments generate intrigue as they progress.
The argument for the interest behind the progression, and competitive tournaments in general, is that elimination tournaments are refining in nature. This means that in theory, the best team wins in the end. Multi-game series reinforce the notion, as is the case in the NBA. But the single elimination tournament in the NCAA, paired with a patently uninteresting brand of basketball, is perhaps the reason why the wave of March Madness crests a bit soon — around the same time that the NBA becomes interesting to watch.
The first reason why March Madness becomes such an interesting watch early on is due in large part to bracket pools. Let’s be honest: if it wasn’t for that one guy who chose his winners based on a school’s colors raking in the dough for the office pool, March Madness would be way less interesting. And yet year in and year out, this tradition sustains the early rounds of what is actually some mind-bendingly boring basketball.
College basketball relies significantly less on awe-inspiring displays of athleticism and individual players than the NBA. The college game is one of strategy — coaches, systems, schemes and plays — as opposed to the NBA’s player-focused tactics. So-called basketball purists say this distills the game to its team-based roots, and they wouldn’t be wrong in saying so. But they would also be wrong in saying that this makes the game more exciting to watch. The strategic game detracts from the overall flow and offensive pacing of games, and the lack of big ticket athleticism pales in comparison to the NBA.
I am a fan of basketball in general, but the NBA just happens to be infinitely more fun to watch. Teams in the NBA build around the strengths of a single talent or a core group of talented players — not coaching systems or recruiting carousels. There’s a sense of security and predictability in the identities of individual players and teams that makes NBA fans feel more invested in their teams. But the NBA postseason is more interesting as it progresses: the fact that so much emphasis is placed on individual players’ legacies (LeBron James) or the potential dawn of a new era based on a single, unstoppable talent (Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder), the Larry O’Brien trophy just seems like a far more coveted prize than an NCAA championship.
It certainly doesn’t help that the end of March Madness marks the beginning of the “actual” NBA season where the playoff races begin to heat up. There was a debate on ESPN First Take a couple years ago between Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith where they argued whether or not the last six weeks of the NBA regular season was more exciting than March Madness. Though it seems the general response would be March Madness, the debaters were split: ESPN analyst Skip Bayless chose the NBA, citing MVP races and postseason intrigue and the overall faster pace of the game.
Even in a season where my beloved Los Angeles Lakers occupy the territory between “lovably incompetent” and “outright tanking,” and when the MVP race this season between James and Durant has both sizzled and fizzled, the NBA playoff race remains one of the most compelling draws in sports. The dramatic impact of young players such as Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard are exciting new developments, and the postseason intrigue and the potential for a “Big Three Breakup” in Miami this offseason has most NBA fans on the edge of their seats anticipating free agency.
The March Madness tournament will end next Monday on April 7 — a little more than a week before the end of the NBA regular season on April 16. The NBA Playoffs will carry the torch of basketball hype well into June. As for college ball, a new national champion will be crowned and another college basketball season will end — not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Euno Lee is a senior majoring in English literature. He is also the Managing Editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Euno What Time it is,” runs Wednesdays.