A nation competitively divided watched on April 2 as the Tar Heels of North Carolina Chapel Hill took on the Blue Devils of Duke, playing for a spot in the national title game.
The arguably fiercest pair of rivals in the country squared up for the first time ever in March Madness tournament history. Stakes were heightened by the impending retirement of college basketball legend Mike Krzyzewski, more commonly referred to as Coach K, who has coached with the Duke program for 42 years and led the Blue Devils to the national title five times.
With North Carolina as an 8 seed, the lowest in the final four, and Duke as one of the early tournament favorites sporting a 2 seed and the ACC tournament title, fans remained split trying to decide which team deserved a storybook ending to their season.
For those who sided with Duke, it was simple. One last title for a legendary coach during his last season. How can’t that be beautiful?
As someone who watches a lot of sports contests and has a particularly strong love and passion for the vast beauty of college hoops, I couldn’t disagree with the Dukers more.
The premise of the argument for Duke makes sense. For North Carolina, this is a big game. But for Duke, it’s the last one and it’s fitting if they win it, right?
Let’s look at another perfect, beautiful, exactly what everyone should want story in basketball. Let’s say there’s a team who was poised to succeed in 2020 when their tournament got canceled. They went down and struggled the next year, missing the tournament altogether before bouncing back this season, working their way through a tough conference and snagging a high seed in the tournament. It’s the last shot for the seniors who were screwed by covid and stayed with the team through their down spell and worked so hard to get back up and finish what was left unfinished. And this team fights through a gritty tournament and wins it all to finish the last ever run for the team’s seniors.
The team in that “perfect story” was Kentucky. And that “beautiful story” didn’t happen, obviously. Kentucky, a 2 seed, lost a game against 15 seeded St. Peters that most people took to be a guaranteed Wildcat win in the first round of the tournament. The failure by Kentucky to make that story happen resulted in one of the most interesting, incredible competitive feats March Madness has ever seen; the St. Peter’s peacocks gave the nation a thrill, becoming the lowest seeded team ever to make it through three rounds of March Madness. Did they make it past the elite eight? No. Did they bring their season all the way to the championship? Of course not, and they were never going to. That’s not how Cinderella works. They did, however, ruin the seasons of three teams who should have won their game and moved on, and fans universally tend to recognize that this is the real beauty of March Madness – taking down the big dogs.
My point? Getting knocked out when it just doesn’t seem right or pretty is what makes the sport so amazing. If March Madness always went to the team’s who “deserved it most,” there would be a bunch of top seeds with great coaches and players in the final four every year. That’s how college football, hockey, and most other sports run, and that’s why March Madness is more shocking and wild and emotional than any other sport.
The fact that an undeserving, underwhelming, or underdog team can come in and ruin another team’s season at any given time is what makes March madness incredibly worth watching. And when a legend’s career can be undeservedly ended by his team’s biggest rival, it just becomes that much more meaningful and epically awesome.
I say this as a diehard Iowa fan. This tournament is incredible because of games like Richmond vs Iowa. Richmond upset a red hot Iowa in the first round before getting blown out by Providence in the second. Richmond was nothing special. They were never going to go anywhere in that tournament. But they ruined what could have been a beautiful story of a season for Iowa, who went from rags to riches so to speak and won the Big Ten tournament after starting out the season missing all of last year’s stars and with little success. Richmond destroyed the beautiful thing Iowa had worked so hard to create, and that was their job in this tournament as an undeserving underdog of a team.
If we went into the tournament believing that the most sentimental and meaningful story of hard work and dedication paying off should happen, who would want upsets? We would become bored rooting for the top dog every time and watching other teams struggle to match their level. Where would March madness be if upsets were not common miracles rallied around by the whole nation, but instead common disappointments? And where would the tournament be if wanting to end the guys who have been succeeding for so long wasnt a common goal of everyone rallying behind these upsets?
The idea that the most deserving should win every year and the idea that things “being the way they should be” is actually the way things should be is contrary to every reason for which people love this tournament.
For an ordinary North Carolina team with no flashy element or reason to deserve a win against Duke to take down their rival and end the career of a man like Coach K would be incredible, because taking down the big dogs and the powerhouses and the tyrants of college sports is what March madness is truly all about.