A friend of mine is well-connected within the elite hockey circles. Many of his friends have played at the very highest level of hockey. He’s been told, and he relayed this information to me that within every NHL locker room before every game, both teams are fairly certain of who is going to win that game. Of course, there’s a lot that can swing the outcome in either direction, but, true or not, this seems to throw a proverbial wrench in our belief that anyone can win on any given day.
College basketball fans are unified in what they don’t know. That’s what makes this tournament, in which a field of 68 can be reduced to 16 in a matter of a maddeningly exciting weekend, the most compelling sports programming of the year.
Millions of us play prognosticator, athletically-minded Punxsutawney Phil’s, in not-so-furtive pools in the form of Xeroxed sheets of paper handed to us by Dave in accounting or forwarded along in e-mail inboxes from personal accounts. We fork over our $10 or $20, nothing to steep to be exclusive, just low enough to include the shrewdest, but acquiescent-in-the-name-of-workplace-camaraderie person in the office; We pour over match-ups and guess at which tiny college will unseat the powerhouse or which #1 seed will be the first to exit the tournament and head back to campus to attend class on Monday. Ultimately, we choose a winner. Winning six games in a row is difficult at the highest levels of collegiate basketball, but one team does it every year.
But, in the end, these are just guesses. We don’t know and it’d be safe to assume, too, that even the coaches and players are clueless as the what the outcome of any contest will be. So much can go right and even more can go wrong in a game played by 20-year-olds, coached by mostly by unnaturally competitive and driven coaches, and governed by possibility the shadiest organization in organized sports. No one is infallible. Sometimes shot don’t fall; Sometimes world-class physiques fail themselves.
Kentucky’s presence hovers over this tournament like an omnipotent body. Every team is playing against the Wildcats even when there is no blue in sight. A win is judged against how well that same performance would have registered against the tournament favorite. In Kentucky’s 13-point win against Cincinnati on Saturday afternoon, the Wildcats were threatened, but threatened in the way threatened by the specter of no dessert: They knew that, ultimately, they’d get what they want. They’d just have to endure the annoyance of forcing down some vegetables, in this case, the constant cajoling and pestering of a tough-minded Bearcat team. Kentucky was never truly worried and never played with an urgency that suggested so.
So on one hand we have a tournament that is filled with uncertainty. Anyone, it seems, can win one game. In the professional basketball ranks, the playoffs are a series. The cream will, as it is said, rise to the top in a best-of-seven contest. But in a one-and-done format, the beauty is the unpredictability. On the other hand, the tournament produces much of the same. John Calipari, Mike Krzyzewski, Rick Pitino, Tom Izzo all have their teams poised for another shot at the crown. Kentucky is the most common pick to win the whole damn thing.
And so we know, but we don’t. It’s why we root for David, but why we bet on Goliath.