Trying to explain to non-college basketball people, especially up here, why March is the greatest month of the year is a difficult and often fruitless task, as I reminded myself before deciding to write a whole blog post on the point. For one, many elements of college basketball that separate its experience fundamentally from the NBA make it impossible to truly grasp it unless you know what it is to be a complete, all-in devoted identifier with a college sports team. The merits of that experience are thus better explained in anecdotal form, which hopefully will leave some time around April 3 as the proper date for me to explain exactly why March is the greatest month.
The primary element of the college game separating it from the NBA, in short, is the community and team oriented nature of college fan bases, as opposed to the individual-oriented fault lines of the NBA. More on that in a previous post here. This factor looms large when anticipating the potential late tournament match-ups of the historic programs, Carolina, Kentucky, Michigan State, Kansas, Syracuse, etc., not only because of the talent on the floor, but because of the programs, the coaches, the fan bases, things that comprise each team’s identity. But that doesn’t entirely explain why I want to watch Murray State v. Colorado, with whom I have almost zero familiarity, during my lunch break on Thursday, but you couldn’t pay me to sit through an NBA first round playoff game between mediocre Eastern Conference teams.
Part of it is the obvious explanation that anything can happen in a one-and-done scenario featuring teams that, in many cases, have not faced each other during the regular season. Fans are right to love when mid-major programs upset major conference favorites and make a run, and they love it more, of course, because of the additional dynamic of teams coming from different leagues, with differently sized-budgets, different facilities, different levels of competition, and different histories. But again, this happens in professional sports on occasion, but it just isn’t the same when the Marlins beat the Yankees in the World Series.
The missing explanatory factor, I think, is the innocence of the whole event, or at least the illusion of innocence (whatever happens in back rooms on the recruiting trail, at least the players aren’t all millionaire prima donnas), the most noticeable result of which is the passion and effort extended by these players. Though the quality of the sport is indisputably better in college, it is much more than that. Seeing that raw emotion on a national stage in a player who never before and never again will be on that stage leaves you attached to that player and his team in a way you never could be to anything associated with the modern NBA. NBA players, for better and worse, and rightfully so, are treated like professionals, with derisive criticism when they lose games; college players are treated like students, kids, and family members by their fans, who rejoice with them when they win and ache with them when they lose (see our supportive reaction to Tyler Zeller’s last two minutes in the Duke loss).
The sheer quantity of moments exemplifying that aspect of the nature of college basketball, with kids you can relate to on the biggest stage of their life, makes March, and especially the first weekend, the best time of the year. Only then can I watch four games at once, rapidly switching amongst them, and see a little man’s hero emerge at any point in a split second.