I am nothing if not conflicted about March and its Madness. For those of you outside the US, or unfamiliar with the term, "March Madness" refers to the annual college men's basketball tournament. The tournament starts with a field of 64 teams and whittles down to the eventual NCAA champion, crowned incongruously the first weekend in April.
March Madness falls nicely after the football season and before the baseball season, which accounts for much of its popularity in sports-crazed America. For years I was unaware of the tournament - until 2005, the only game I had ever watched was the one in which underdog Villanova knocked off Goliath Georgetown in 1985. Then in 2005, my alma mater, a number 14 seed (translation - only invited to the big tournament because they won their league championship) defeated Kansas, the preseason #1 pick. It was a stunning defeat for Kansas and an improbable win for Bucknell, which had only ever made it to the NCAA tournament twice before. In each of those games, which were back in the 1980's, they were hammered both times, losing by more than 20 points in each game. Kansas, in contrast, had not lost a first round game in 21 years.
But I digress. Catching March Madness fever was a mixed bag for me. I enjoyed watching exciting basketball but I was disappointed that so many of these college players were practically professional. I was more familiar with players from the Patriot League, profiled by John Feinstein in his book "The Last Amateurs." Feinstein refers to the Patriot League colleges as among those who can label their basketball players as "student-athletes" with a straight face.
Not every school playing in the NCAA has lower academic standards for its athletes. A source close to Villanova's head coach, Jay Wright, maintains that he is proudest not of his won-loss record, but of the graduation rate of his players. So I was pleased to see the alternative NCAA bracket a friend sent to me this year; it ranks the teams, not on basketball ability, but on the NCAA's academic progress rate. It was a nice tongue-in-cheek dig at the poor academic performance of some of the best basketball teams.
This week I saw another interesting alternative bracket - this one is based on the college's alumni's average salary, post-graduation. Teams "advance" based on which one has the higher alumni salary. Remarkably, the "winner" in this bracket, Duke, is one of the final four teams left in the actual NCAA tournament. Duke also has one of the highest graduation rates. Perhaps this year the college that wins it all will also be one that does its best by its players.