The Ides of March are upon us. Actually, not exactly. The Ides of March are technically March 15th and originally referred to a day in the Roman Republic that was associated with various religious observances and became infamous for the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. The phrase is also the title of a 2011 film directed by George Clooney starring Ryan Gosling about a political scandal. I’ve never seen the movie, but I bet it’s more about the Caesar thing and less about March 15th.
So we just missed the Ides of March with this column, but it plays nicely into what I want to talk about today. (Stay tuned for similarly timely bits about LiveStrong bracelets, Tamogotchi pets, and Heely’s.) But the Ides of March in the 21st century bring something almost as ubiquitous as most religious observances: the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
March Madness bridges many cultural divides and makes for the perfect excuse to do nothing except watch basketball for a few glorious weekends every year.
The tournament is, however, unique to many other sporting events. Rarely is the team that wins the team that gets the most coverage or is the most beloved by the fans or even the most memorable participant in the tournament. It’s the underdogs, the lower seeds upsetting perennial contenders from Power Five conferences, that make us race to our computers, find out more about them and get on the edge of our seats for their next game — a modern day David and Goliath match up.
In no other arena in is this even conceivable. No one would be satisfied if a 7-9 team in the NFL made the playoffs by winning its division and played its way into the Super Bowl past teams who, nine times out of 10, it’d lose to. I can’t imagine many people would root for the Hawks or the Pacers to take down the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Playoffs and deprive the fans of a rematch of last year’s incredible NBA Finals.
For some reason, we have a much higher tolerance for this upsets and chaos in college basketball than in any other major sport — or, really, in most other aspects of life. This naturally leads us to two questions. The first of which is, of course, why? The second is: is this underdog affinity is good, bad, or indifferent?
To the first question, there are likely a myriad of answers for different people and groups. Maybe it’s because we believe these kids from small schools deserve their moment in the spotlight while the majority of their work in the sport goes largely unnoticed. Who knows how George Mason did in 2004, two years before their miraculous run to the Final Four as an 11 seed? How many Xavier basketball games did you watch this year? How many times were there to watch Xavier play?
In a lot of ways, mid-major basketball teams share the experience of less popular sports in collegiate athletics, where athletes put in countless hours, knowing full well their playing clock runs out as the last second ticks away in their senior seasons. I would like to believe most people would find something inherently endearing about those kids getting an unbelievable experience in their sport.
Perhaps it’s a more idealistic, ethereal reason. Perhaps its because most of us see ourselves as the underdog protagonist of our own life, and the storylines in March give us the ability and the license to expand our idea of what's possible, even if it’s just by a little. Perhaps it’s that small instance of the improbable that convinces us to “shoot our shot” next time we get the opportunity and might otherwise balk.
Or maybe it’s the exact opposite, and we want to see those around us put in their place by seeing all the red lines on their bracket come the end of the tournament. It could be that, combined with our individual smugness that we always know what others don’t when filling out our brackets, seeing your pick (read as: guess) of an underdog be vindicated gives you more satisfaction because of the “exclusive” nature of picking that team.
Both are reasonable explanations and probably apply to substantial parts of the college basketball community. Both can be true at the same time, and maybe you can start with the vindictive one and end up inspired. It could just be the sheer glut of basketball available. But sports have a habit of inspiring people, and that is the source of a lot of their magnetism.
The second question, of whether this magnetism of the long shot team is inherently good, bad, or nothing at all, gets at something much deeper, and perhaps something we can learn from as a society and a culture, especially at a place like Penn.
The very label “mid-majors” evinces a sense of mediocrity, inferiority, passibility — words so derogatory on campus that even racking my brain for these synonyms was stress inducing.
These words aren’t inherently pejorative, even if they evoke a visceral reaction in Penn students. For some reason, skepticism of mediocrity is suspended from the popular consciousness for the month of March. The mediocrity of teams like University of Rhode Island, Vermont, and Florida Gulf Coast was overlooked at a surprising rate by people on ESPN's bracket predictions — teams no one has paid attention to all year, and teams that probably wouldn’t make the tournament had it not been for their automatic bids for winning their conference tournaments.
Vermont had the 176th toughest schedule in college basketball this season. Bucknell was at 185th and Florida Gulf Coast comes in at 243rd. Yet, these teams were some of the more popular upset picks in the tournament. With the exception of Florida Gulf Coast’s 15 minutes of fame for their “Dunk City” run in 2013, most college basketball fans, even the more devout ones, are not regularly seeking out these teams' games to watch, let alone are they advocating for these teams to make the tournament over a team like Colorado State, with just two fewer wins but who played a schedule much more difficult than all the teams mentioned above.
Few high school basketball players are turning down big time programs like Virginia and Maryland to be a Middle Tennessee State Blue Raider or a New Mexico State Aggie, therefore, it would not be insane to say the smaller schools' players were mediocre prospects.
Most people wouldn’t vote for the mediocre American Idol contestant (shout out to William Hung and those of you reading who were looking for another extremely dated reference in the piece), or go to the store to seek out a mediocre ice cream flavor. We deem those things as not necessarily bad, but they’re not the best option. But for some reason, come tournament time, the double digit seeds make us root for that more mediocre option.
Of course, it would be completely unfair to say that these teams are all mediocre with exclusively mediocre players. But teams like Wichita State in 2013 or Davidson in 2008 are notable because of their exceptionality, not because these things happen all the time.
What makes the NCAA Tournament isn’t an outlier because upsets happen — upsets happen in sports all the time. It’s an outlier because we don’t just expect these upsets to happen, but we crave it.
Our aversion to mediocrity is suspended for one month a year for a bunch of 18 to 22 year olds to shoot a ball into a hoop.
This is incredible, when you think about it. As a culture, no place more than at Penn, we have become increasingly intolerant of mediocrity. From our schoolwork, to our extracurriculars, to the Netflix shows we consume, mediocrity is unacceptable, let alone seeking it out and praising it.
And yet the tournament gives us some of the sports highlights of the year, and, for the athletes in these memorable moments, highlights they will never forget. All because they got a shot that most other “mediocre” parts of our society don’t get.
Most underdog teams do exactly as they are expected to do: lose by double digits, make a couple people mad because they thought they were geniuses for picking the upset, then get forgotten and go back to business as usual. The players go back to grinding through careers full of ups and downs outside the spotlight. Eventually, they will take the lessons their learned playing the game they love and go on to do something other than sports.
Some teams, though, become legends.
The NCAA Tournament highlights a major way in which our society gets “mediocrity” wrong.
We are so incredibly quick to condemn mediocrity from the minute we see it. While going through high school, I feel like I can speak for most Penn students when I say most of us feel incredible pressure to be great at something. But at the same time, we are all told throughout our entire lives that we have to practice something to be good at it. In high school and even in to my college career, trying to find something I can distinguish myself in has been an incredibly daunting task. I attended an extremely competitive high school and, I don’t know if you guys have noticed, but Penn is pretty competitive as well.
I found, and still find myself being hesitant to keep trying things after initially not being great at it. I came into Penn wanting to be a doctor and not really considering anything else. In my first biology class my first semester I got a 36 on my first midterm. "Like … out of a hundred?" I thought, before the panic started and the dread started to sink in. The second midterm didn’t go much better and I had to drop the class and effectively abandoned the idea of being a doctor just months after being in college.
Now, I’m extremely happy doing what I do now (whatever that is). But I, like many other kids here, were weeded out of that path so early on because we were not originally the best at it.
This, on its face, is ridiculous, and athletics is a great example. Think back to your youth sports teams, whether it be basketball, soccer, Little League, anything. Think about which kids were the best players in that league, or even among your friends. How many of those kids are still playing? How many of them played college ball? How many are even the best players when you play pick up? Odds are, not many, if any.
It’s impossible to identify talent with any kind of accuracy in such early stages of development, in athletics or otherwise. Very rarely is someone a “natural” who will continue to excel in that field because they have the talent and the work ethic from wire to wire and are lucky enough to not burnout.
Most people have to pass through mediocrity to get to greatness. Greatness is not a binary, where you can expect someone to flip a switch and expect them to be the best off the bat and continue to grow beyond that original level of success.
I vividly remember having an essay for history class scorched by my father (who is a history teacher) in my sophomore year of high school. “Your writing has really gotten worse," I remember him saying as I stood next to the couch as he read it. In his defense, it wasn’t great, and in my defense, he said that three sentences into the essay.
But I kept writing, despite hating it because — well, they make you write a lot in high school. And it wasn’t all pretty, but I got better. I nailed my junior year English class. I wrote a college essay that I am still proud of today.
I got to college and my first essay was covered in more red ink than black. I got a C. Literally the definition of average. I talked to my professor, again panicked and filled with dread as I was after my biology debacle, and she gave me a blueprint on how to improve, and I did. B on the final. Progress.
Today, I am in an MLA class, was trusted to write multiple important guides and papers at my internship last summer, and I’m on word two-thousand something of this article and all you suckers are still reading it. By no means am I making the case that I have achieved greatness as a writer. I turned this article in nine days late and still made a very time sensitive joke. This article was supposed to be 750 words long. But I spent a long time being mediocre before I became good at writing, and who knows when, if ever, I’ll be great at it.
The longshot teams full of players deemed mediocre are no different. Players deemed not good enough, but undeterred continued to hone their craft, just waiting for their shot. They had coaches that understood that success is a process — and if they trusted the process, if you will, with the right guys, success would come. They were players forgotten and discarded by the basketball world, and now, the George Masons, the Butlers, and the Florida Gulf Coasts of the world are back with a chip on their shoulder.
This has all been a very roundabout way of saying that mediocrity is not inherently bad, because it is by no means does it have to be an end point. Hell, usually it’s a starting point. Almost always you have to go through mediocrity to become great. And, for some bizarre reason, we give ourselves permission to realize this for a couple of weekends every March to absolutely exhilarating and inspiring ends.
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