NCAA March Madness: Anyone But Kentucky - Rolling Stone
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NCAA March Madness: Anyone But Kentucky

Nothing against the top-ranked Wildcats, but what makes college basketball’s tournament so special are the underdogs

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The University of Kentucky's Aaron Harrison, Willie Cauley-Stein and Andrew Harrison after winning the SEC tournament championship on March 15, 2015.

Pablo Alcala/Lexington Herald-Leader/TNS via Getty

There are not many things in this world you can count on to occur 124 times in a row without fail, but if I had to wager – and you bet your ass I will, because this is the NCAA tournament we’re talking about, and what is it other than one great national excuse to engage in quasi-legal office wagering? – I would put my money on the idea that Kentucky, Villanova, Duke and Wisconsin will all win their first games in the NCAA tournament this week.

Those are the four No. 1 seeds in this year’s field; in the history of the tournament, the No. 16 seed is 0-120 against the top seed, and unless a handful of other small-conference schools somehow pull off the greatest upset in a sporting event that’s made its name on upsets, this remarkable streak will continue. But regardless of my bracket, I hope I’m wrong about at least one of these games. It is one of those startling anomalies that seems to point to the fact that a certain amount of bias toward major-conference teams when selecting the NCAA field is justified; it seems to scream out that the divide between big and small, between Wisconsin and Coastal Carolina, is enough to justify the committee choosing a school like Texas over a school like Murray State or Temple.

To their credit, the CBS television crew that revealed the bracket on Sunday afternoon criticized the selection committee’s choice of Texas, which was 3-12 against teams ranked in the top 50. And CBS’ Doug Gottlieb was also highly critical of the choice of UCLA, a team that went 2-8 against teams in the NCAA tournament field. This is good, because the one thing the NCAA tournament has that no other sport does is that sense of democratization; the thing that makes the NCAA tournament so great, even as college basketball struggles through a difficult period, is that it pits big against small, known against unknown. In an ideal world – OK, in my ideal world – the selection committee would veer toward the underdog in the majority of these cases, just to allow for the possibilities.

This is, after all, the one thing the NCAA tournament does so brilliantly. College football is better with a four-team playoff, but the fact that its selection committee refused to even rank a then-undefeated Marshall team in its top 25 is proof that the system is inherently undemocratic; the have-nots will always struggle to prove they belong with the haves. But in college basketball, it’s all there. Over the next couple of weeks, a team like Northern Iowa, one of those mid-majors that always seems on the verge of making a serious run, could play its way to the Final Four. Same with Gonzaga; the only downside to affording teams like this a chance, as Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel cynically noted, is that the mid-majors don’t pull in the money or ratings like the major conferences do.

This is something the committee should be constantly reconsidering. Even though college basketball is undergoing an existential crisis, it’s still foolproof largely because of what’s going to happen over the next few weeks; it’s still foolproof because it may be that Belmont beats Virginia, or Texas Southern knocks off Arizona.

But the best thing for the mid-majors would be to finally achieve full democratization. Someday it will happen; someday a 16-seeded Lafayette will beat a top-seeded Villanova, and the last brick in the wall will come tumbling down. And at that point, maybe the selection committee will realize a fundamental truth, which is that the thing that makes the NCAA tournament so profitable, and so highly rated, is not the name identification, but the inherent sense of possibility.

Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb

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