March Madness was one of my favorite times of year. Conference tournaments consumed many of my evenings, followed by speculation of who would make the field of 64 (as it was then), which region teams would get placed in and, most importantly, whether or not my favorite team would get a number one seed.
I spent countless lunch hours analyzing brackets and filling out my own "tester" brackets until I finally decided on and filled out my very own "Bracket of Integrity" - the one I would use to track my progress. I was so confident in my abilities to sort through the field and predict the matchups that I only used one bracket for any pool I decided to enter. That's right. I played the same bracket against my sister, the same bracket in the work pool, and the same bracket online. Every year.
Not that I'm tooting my own horn, but I was pretty good at filling out brackets. At one of my previous jobs, I won our office pool every year except one - and the one I lost came down to the final game. My sister called me an "almanac." But looking back, I think it was something else. It wasn't any special skill. I just knew the teams and the players. At one time, believe it or not, players used to stick around for more than a year.
You might notice that I used past tense in my first sentence. March Madness WAS one of my favorite times of year, not IS one of my favorite times of year. It's not like I still don't have a favorite team - I do and that won't change. But it seems like rivalries are diluted now, so it's a lot harder to find teams that are your least favorite, and that in itself is something that makes the tournament great. It's almost as much fun to cheer against your least favorite teams - and less stressful too.
How are rivalries getting diluted, you might ask? One of the worst problems I see is this new "one and done" mentality embraced by some schools. Schools recruit kids who are most likely jumping to the pro level after one year in order to win a championship now and then attempt to reload the following year with all new kids. That's all fine and dandy if your only goal is to load up championship banners in your gym - and who doesn't want that? - but by changing team members every single year, schools create a disconnect between their team and their fans. How can you possibly fall in love with a team like you used to when you barely have time to learn anything about the players?
I remember when my favorite team, Duke, won its third championship in 2001. The team was led by a senior who was forced into a leadership role after his more bally-hooed teammates left a few years early for the pros, and I absolutely fell in love with this team. I liked other Duke teams over the years, but I can definitely say that this was my favorite all-time Duke team. Watching that senior change from someone who only got minutes while the better guys rested to the team leader who made big shots and big speeches was relatable and heart-warming. Who doesn't enjoy watching an underdog of sorts rise up and become a great leader? These are the kinds of stories college basketball fans latch on to and can relate to. Cinderella stories are great if you have a bit of a back story to go along with it.
But those days are long gone. While the early escape to the pros hasn't affected my team as much as it has others, the entire atmosphere surrounding the game has changed. I used to know most of the players at all the other schools in the ACC, Duke's conference. But with so many players coming and going, it's impossible to keep track anymore, and as a result, rivalries suffer. It was fun to dislike a team who had that one player who always got under your skin, the kind of player that made you roll your eyes and whine, "Didn't he graduate yet? He's been on the team for eight years."
We don't get that anymore. We don't get to watch too many good freshman players mature into great senior leaders. Any player with even a glimmer of pro ability races off to the next level, and many of them are never heard from again (or wind up playing in the European leagues, which is about the same as never being heard from again).
And what happens if, because a team had to reload with new players in the offseason, your brand new freshman star suffers from a season-ending injury? It suddenly becomes "the end of the world" for the team because since they placed more importance on cycling in new one-year stars each season, there are few or no veteran players left on the team capable of carrying them into the tournament or to a championship.
Think that couldn't happen? Why not ask the fans of the Kentucky Wildcats? Last year's champs were looking good until mid-February when their freshman star tore his ACL. With him out for the season, the bottom fell out for the Wildcats, as they had no veteran leadership to hold them together. They failed to make the tournament field this year.
The other problem hurting college basketball is the shuffling of all these conferences. Football schools got this rolling, mostly because of money, and our rivalries are suffering because of it. I don't even know which teams belong to any of these bigger East Coast conferences anymore. I watched with sadness last week the final Big East Tournament game ever. And it wasn't even all the Big East teams as most of us knew them - West Virginia left for the Big 12 after last year. Realignment might make sense if it's geographic, but I hardly understand how a team based in Morgantown can fit into a conference dominated by teams in the Plain States.
I watched the selection show Sunday, and like always, I will be tuned to the television during all the tournament games. But March Madness is just not the same. I think, for the first year ever, I'm not filling out a bracket, because at this point, I'd just be guessing. And chances are good that the star players of this year's tournament won't be around next season.
But I suppose I should enjoy the tournament for what it is. And it is enjoyable in its own right. Still, I can't help but think back even 10 years to how great the tournaments used to be. Maybe this is March Madness for some, but I feel like I should coin it March "Sadness" for me.