Last Sunday, during the NCAA tournament, a historically undefeated Wichita State team faced off against a powerhouse Kentucky team that featured a lineup full of freshmen. But in the end, age and an undefeated record did not matter, as Kentucky beat Wichita State in a closely contested game that went down to the wire. As the camera panned the crowd after the game, fans were crying as much as the players, just as if they were the ones that had played the game and shared in the heartbreak. From watching games like this, I can see why many people prefer to watch NCAA basketball rather than the NBA, where players are paid and oftentimes have no loyalty to the fanbase. Oftentimes, the NBA teams themselves don’t have a loyalty to their fanbase either, instead just seeing them as walking dollar signs and creating a barrier from fans actually having a say in the team’s decisions.
Universities don’t pack their bags and leave their fans with broken hearts. For universities, it wouldn’t make sense. They recognize that their presence as a university is integral to the local population and sense of community, and they like that. Universities actually want to please their fans, while NBA teams will only go as far as to keep their fans coming to games. At NCAA universities, many of the fans are alumnae/i, which provides an opportunity for alumnae/i to feel connected to school. There is just something more to college basketball that is not experienced as often in the NBA, and that is the connection and care that fan bases have for their universities. So when teams take the floor in the NCAA tournament, they realize that they are truly playing for something bigger than themselves. Yes, there are the occasional players who are playing to impress future NBA teams, but for the most part, players are playing at their best for their schools and their teammates. The NBA features players who are playing for their own selfish reasons, like their legacy and a new contract when they reach free agency, which is understandable, but the association lacks the sense of purity that the NCAA tournament offers.
What makes NCAA basketball all the better is the fact that the players are our age, and come from a variety of backgrounds. They are students just like us, and it is amazing to see players from all across the country and sometimes across the world forget their differences, join together and rely on each other doing something that they love. A perfect example of all of this is last Sunday’s Wichita State and Kentucky game. I’m sure that fans of Wichita State were so proud of their underdog school from Kansas having a historical run, and playing a powerhouse school like Kentucky on the national stage. For me, it is almost unthinkable that Kentucky had a lineup full of freshmen starting in such an important game with 19,000 people watching. I’ve no idea how I would react, and I’m happy that I will never have to find out.
On the other hand, Wichita State went on a historic 35-0 run, but it was sadly ended, and the Wichita State seniors saw their dreams of a historic season crushed as a chance at victory clanged off the rim as time expired, but that is the beauty of the game; it is just a game. You can leave it out on the floor and at the end of the day, it doesn’t mean anything, and you can just be happy that you participated in such a fun and exciting event. For many players, this is their last time playing the sport they love competitively, so their driving passion for their sport is being put into every play because they need to and if they don’t, it could be their last game. In one month, there are numerous games that contain so much excitement…and we have the opportunity to join in as we watch people put their hearts out on the line, in a safe way. We share in their victories, and unfortunately, most of the time we share their heartbreak.
There can only be one winner, because in this tournament style championship, you know that the winner of NCAA tournament has played their best basketball every game that they have played; otherwise, they would have lost. There are no seven game playoffs like the NBA, no what ifs, only one game each day to decide the fates of these teams, and often enough, the dreams of players who have been playing basketball ever since they could hold the ball in their hands. Because of all of this, March in college basketball is aptly called “March Madness.” There are emotional highs and lows for people across the country, but at least in the end, it is just the game, and I’m happy that I’m able to sit back and watch it.