March Madness is one of the most fascinating events in the world of sports. It consumes our televisions for three weeks of the year, elevating a sport that is often confined to background space in cultural consciousness to the forefront of our minds. It, arguably, oversaturates our basketball capacity. It, provably, makes us all less productive. It, definitely, lives up to its billing as a special kind of sports insanity.
The basic premise of the tournament is revelation, not confirmation, which throws some people for a loop. Every time a #1 seed goes down or a seemingly dominant team gets bounced early, talk immediately turns to how overrated they were or how soft their schedule was. That’s not true, strictly speaking — each team is probably exactly as good as we thought. But if there is a weakness, anywhere, it will get exposed. March will find your flaws, no matter how well you thought you covered them up. It is a microscope, not a cursory inspection. The NCAA Tournament is trial by fire. “We think these are the best teams in the country. They will have different styles, different paces, different tactics. You’ll be tested in multiple ways in this tournament. Whoever can beat six of these teams in a row, you’re the best of the best. You have the fewest flaws.”
The fact that many teams that looked like they could beat anybody all year can’t win six in a row is what draws us in. But this covers up a basic fact about the tournament — only a precious few teams can actually string together those six wins. The tournament is lauded for its unpredictability, yet both the men’s and women’s tournaments produce champions drawn from a limited menu.
Since 2010, only 2019 Virginia and 2021 Baylor have been first-time champions on the men’s side — and both those squads were #1 seeds that looked dominant most of their seasons. Otherwise, every single national championship has been its program’s second, or third, or fourth, or fifth, or sixth. After the UConn Huskies cut down the nets for the fifth time Monday night, the debate isn’t over whether or not they are an elite program, but how elite they are.
The deck is somehow even more stacked on the women’s side, where the lone national champion of the last decade that hadn’t won previously was 2017 South Carolina — and they were coached by Dawn Staley, a Hall of Famer and now two-time national champion. In fact, only Texas A&M and Maryland are one-time champs since the turn of the century. Connecticut has won a staggering ten championships in twenty-three years; there’s no debate about how elite that program is.
Yes, March Madness’ not-so-well-kept secret is that the system is stacked against all those teams that capture our hearts every spring. This year provided a live look at just how much that’s the case. Both men’s and women’s tournaments were among the most chaotic in recent years, and yet… the same few characters cut down the nets as always.
Let’s start with the men’s tournament, where an incredible three participants in the Final Four were making their first trip. For the first time ever, there were no #1 seeds in the Elite Eight, and there were no top three seeds playing on the final weekend. We were given a bevy of heroes and underdogs, where it almost became difficult to pick which unlikely squad we were pulling for. But Florida Atlantic was never winning the national title. San Diego State was never going home with some nylon draped around their necks. Even in this most upside-down of tournaments, a program with four national titles won it all yet again. Slowly, inexorably, the system won.
On the women’s side, the tournament saw a nearly unprecedented early exit for not one, but two #1 seeds, losing on their home courts to fairly sizable underdogs. No #1 seed advanced to the title game for the first time, and two schools each played for their first national championship. And still, still, the title went to a coach that now has four national titles and a school that had played in the Final Four five previous times. We may have had some new faces make deep runs, but one by one they fell to one of the most familiar faces in the game. March giveth, but in the end March will always taketh away.
It’s like Vegas.
Las Vegas, as a city, thrives on a very particular slice of the American ego — the part of us that feels that we, uniquely, can beat the system. The part of us that says we’re special, and everyone else is a step behind. That we can do it where everyone else has failed. The lavish hotels, opulent restaurants, elaborate attractions, and sprawling casinos are testament to just how powerful this impulse is. Everybody thinks they, among all the millions of people who will play place a bet in a year, are smart enough or lucky enough or persistent enough to take the house. But, even if we make small gains, win a hand or cash a ticket, eventually the ingrained disadvantages of the game take over, and the tide turns against us. Our dreams are dashed against cold, immutable mathematics.
Now, Vegas isn’t clueless — it can’t go so far as to never hand out a winning hand. The illusion that anyone has a shot at the jackpot must never be shattered, or it’s game over. Someone has to win at poker; the roulette wheel will land on either black or red. The art of the casino is in making a player think staying in the game longer increases their chance of profiting, of beating the system, of being the one person in a million that breaks the equation. That’s exactly what the NCAA Tournament does.
When two teams play on the same court, the simplest form of probability says there’s a 50-50 chance for each side. A fair chance. But of course the teams aren’t the same; there’s a year’s worth of data to tell us how each side should fare. Probability gets complex, and favorites look like safer bets. But it’s never a given; there’s always a chance the underdog wins. The “worse” team gets lucky or finds an advantage and their smaller chances hit. They advance. They win. Conceptually, if you just repeat this experiment six times, there’s a chance the underdog will win the whole dang thing. Maybe, just maybe, this will be the year that San Diego State, or St. Peter’s, or Loyola Chicago, or VCU, or Butler, or George Mason, wins it all.
But this isn’t a level court, and there is no fair shake. The odds are stacked, almost incomprehensibly, against the underdog. There has been maybe, maybe, one true Cinderella title in the history of the NCAA Tournament — and even 1985 Villanova was seeded in the top half of the field. At this point, the results are clear; March Madness has a wicked house edge.
So yes, UMBC can beat Virginia. Duke will lose more often than they win the whole thing. Even Geno Auriemma can miss a Final Four once in a while. But every underdog will lose the war eventually. There are no titles for the Atlantic 10 or the Missouri Valley. Each and every March we are reminded of how high the mountain is, how steep the slope, how treacherous the path. Eventually, there is someone from college basketball’s aristocracy to put the lower classes in their place. The question isn’t whether or not the rich will get richer, but which rich and how much richer.
The house — the powerhouses — always win.
So is every Cinderella run meaningless? Those giant-toppling upsets, joyous buzzer-beaters, heart-stopping moments — are they hollow? Well, maybe. The hard truth of the NCAA Tournament is that for 67 of the 68 teams, the year will end in heartbreak. Whether that loss comes in the first round or the Final Four, it will come for almost all. Yet every team is thrilled by earning the chance to prolong their inevitable loss, every team celebrates how long they lasted before going home.
Maybe the point, then, isn’t in what a win accomplishes, but in what it means happens the next day. The winner plays on. A win in the NCAA Tournament means you get to play another game. A win means you get another day with your brothers or sisters. Maybe that’s why there’s a purity to March that isn’t found in a casino, where a win more often than not means simply more fuel for the money-sucking machine. In both, a win means another game, but in Vegas that just means another chance to lose your money; in basketball, you have another chance to lose and go home, but you get to spend that much more time with your team. There’s another game.
Maybe, though, that’s somehow even grimmer, basketball becoming a struggle merely to make it to tomorrow. That the system isn’t just rigged but succumbing to it means we end. Or maybe it’s the opposite; maybe, the joy of a win means we have a moment we would never have had otherwise. Joy’s impact isn’t reduced by its finitude.
Who cares if it’s going to be over? The point is that it happened. There’s one more game, one more day, one more possession, one more shot, one more chance to do the impossible.
So that’s why we play on. A Cinderella run matters not because that team’s going to win it all, but because there’s some value in just playing the game. And hey, why not? This is basketball, not the Desert Inn; there’s nothing to lose here. Why not see if you can be the one-in-a-million?
You won’t be, of course. But that’s not the point. You get to try. You get to be a basketball team for one more game.
The system may be rigged, but we’ll be damned if there isn’t some joy in trying to beat it anyway.
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