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NCAA fans' rule: Don't ask questions


EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The maddening Madness rolled on last night out here in the wasteland west of Manhattan: a rowdy house the Meadowlands, four teams from three conferences colliding in a by-God doubleheader, bang, zoom, shooting for the moon. . . .

Ah, yes. March Madness in full rim-hanging, three-pointing, buzzer-beating glory. It's something else, huh? Is there a better event in sports? An event that more faithfully and relentlessly sweeps you into its thrall?

Honestly, is the NCAA basketball tournament ever anything less than a revelation? How could it not be? It promises that there will always be a George Washington still around when a Duke is gone. A Santa Clara sending home an Arizona. A buzzer or three being beaten. The best teams separating the hype from the substance. Who isn't seduced by the sheer democracy of it all? The intrinsic drama of single elimination?

Did you see Kentucky in the first half against Wake Forest the other night? Flat out took your breath away. Whoever winds up winning this tournament will have to beat the Wildcats, that's for sure.

Did you see Cal's Jason Kidd checkmate the last feints of Bobby Hurley's college career last weekend? The stuff of poets.

Did you see Virginia make a run at Cincinnati in the second half here last night, and Cincinnati respond with seven minutes of high-pressure brilliance to shame anyone who ever said they could play defense?

March Madness. As the old bromide goes, it doesn't get any better than this, sports fans. There's just one caveat, one rule that the average couch-spud viewer needs to heed to maximize enjoyment:

Don't ask questions.

None. Zero. Don't think. Please. Just watch.

There are too many questions you could raise that might cause you to view the whole enterprise less favorably. Questions with answers you really don't want to know. Not if you plan on buying into the Madness without reservation.

You don't want to know how the players got into school, for instance. There are a lot of deans of admissions out there who would prefer that, well, that you just didn't bring it up, OK? OK.

You don't want to know what courses the players are taking, either. Courses and grades are strictly taboo. Verboten, pal. You don't want to see any transcripts. You don't want to know.

To repeat the shatteringly simple question Howard Cosell asked years ago, frustrated by what he saw in the college game: What are they actually learning? Hey. Don't ask.

There's more, of course. You don't want to know what kinds of cars they're driving. Whether their teachers are getting harassed on the phone. Whether the handwriting on their term papers matches from page to page.

You don't want to know who is whispering into the kids' ears. What promises are being made, and broken, and by whom. What the campus police know.

You don't want to know what the players saw as they passed through the recruiting war zone. What they already knew when they were 15.

You don't want to know what a last-second free throw can be worth to a university. How much a coach is making off his shoe contract. How many periphery people such as Billy Packer are making a fortune off games played by kids who are not getting paid a dime, at least not over the table.

You don't want to know how many real-live, tuition-paying, term-paper-writing students are actually in the stands at these made-for-TV games played so far from campus. (A hint: Not many. It's strictly a high-rent alumni gig. Amateur sports, professional entertainment.)

There are teams that don't require such a moratorium on questions, of course, teams that can be watched without having resort to a white-out of reality. You know them. North Carolina. Duke. Indiana. They play by the rules. So do plenty of others that don't get as much pub for doing it.

But the point is that far too many fall on the other side of the line. The institution is tainted, horribly compromised, a major-league mess. That's not a secret, of course. It's been in all the papers. It's just easy to forget in March, when the games keep coming, springing wild endings, big upsets and sudden heroes; when everyone is in an office pool and filling out a bracket becomes a national obsession. When we all get sucked it. How can we not? Hey, the NCAA tournament is a blast. Just don't inspect it too closely.

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