DAN BICKLEY

NCAA Tournament brings refreshing excitement back to college basketball

Mar 22, 2021, 7:02 PM | Updated: 7:12 pm
A general view of the March Madness logo on center court is seen before the game between the Oral R...
A general view of the March Madness logo on center court is seen before the game between the Oral Roberts Golden Eagles and the Florida Gators in the second round game of the 2021 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Indiana Farmers Coliseum on March 21, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Well, hello, college basketball. It has been a while since we’ve talked. It has been a while since you’ve mattered.

The 2021 NCAA Tournament has recalibrated our senses. It’s full of goodness, fresh faces and new names.

The returning star is Sister Jean from Loyola, a divine presence putting the nun in one-and-done. There’s a player from Baylor with an outrageous mullet, and I would know. There’s a star performer from Loyola with a wispy mustache and a body last seen in a YMCA recreational league. There’s Luka Garza bawling on the court after playing his last college game at Iowa.

There is no sign of Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, Michigan State, Louisville or Ohio State. Upsets abound. But are they really upsets?

Just one year ago, March Madness was not a pillar of our basketball consumption. It was a sequence of events that started with Rudy Gobert’s positive COVID-19 test, leading to an endless funeral procession of competitions and canceled events, snuffing out professional sports in America.

No single tournament is more important to the fate of its sport than the NCAA Tournament is to college basketball. The Masters means a lot to golf. Wimbledon means a lot to tennis. The Kentucky Derby is the crown jewel of horse racing. But those sports have other big events and mileposts.

College basketball would be nothing without the NCAA Tournament. Unless you’re a diehard fan of the Maui Invitational.

And so far, the 2021 NCAA Tournament feels like a scene in “Hoosiers,” saving the sport from a frustrating, ominous, disjointed regular season. It has reminded us of what we’ve been missing, of all that is beautiful with unprofessional basketball.

By comparison, the NBA is wonderful fun. It’s an empire built on stars and individual brands, full of feuds and fashionistas. But there aren’t many surprises after tipoff. The greatest players are generally representing the best teams. The best teams usually prevail in playoff series, and the best-of competitions that mitigate the power of one-punch underdogs.

The magic of the NCAA Tournament has always been rooted in the single-elimination format, the win-or-go-home dynamic that raises the stakes for everyone. Anything can happen because even the greatest teams can have a bad night. The profound cultural impact caused by Villanova’s stunning upset of Georgetown in 1985 is a golden example.

The magic of the 2021 tournament is also the timing. The NCAA Tournament was the only transcendent, top-tier American sporting event canceled in 2020. Even the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are being rescheduled to this summer.

It also comes at a time when the future of college basketball seems tenuous, at best. To no one’s surprise, player compensation through name, image and likeness has yet to take flight. Startup leagues looking to pay young stars out of high school are getting more traction. And the more blueblood programs like Kansas and Arizona defiantly mock the sport for disciplinary measures designed to combat under-the-table payments, the more jaded and calloused we all become about the sport.

This tournament feels different. It feels innocent and wholesome. It feels like a great alternative to the NBA.

For the sagging sport of college basketball, it’s coming at the perfect time.

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