America's Tournament: Buttoned down

Dan Wetzel

As advances in technology go, the Internet's ability to broadcast NCAA tournament games has to rank up there with Johannes Gutenberg's movable type, Heinrich Hertz's Electromagnetic Theory of Light and the genius who figured out how to put bottled beer taste in a can.

Just last year American businesses lost an estimated $1.2 billion in worker productivity during the NCAA tournament, mostly during its first two days. And that was before the Internet feed was as widely available or of as high quality as it will be this year.

So this could be a milestone year when the tournament's early rounds go from a shared screw-off venture – people crowded into bars and huddled into break rooms – to a solo one with everyone quiet in their cubicles.

The good folks who run this thing have even programmed a "boss button" which allows the worker watching whether George Mason can upset Notre Dame to, with a single keystroke, dump the screen when their supervisor comes by looking for their TPS report.

No wonder we are in a recession.

America's Tournament begins in earnest Thursday, the start of the country's most unlikely, unruly and unbelievable championship chase. It's three weeks featuring 65 teams playing 64 games, some of which tip off during weekday mornings. It's a fitting conclusion for a sport so sprawling that 341 schools from 49 states (no Alaska) compete for the Division I championship.

Nothing against the Super Bowl, the World Series or the Daytona 500, all of which are bigger than the NCAA tournament in different ways, but nothing brings the country together like an event so vast and enthralling that people from Barrow to Key West, Fla., will find themselves temporarily pulling for groups of kids none of them can name playing for a school they've never heard of.

It won't just be on their computers, either. As great as this development is, the tournament is best experienced in groups crowded around TVs big and small, high def and rabbit eared, on tiny ones in fancy cars and those giant numbers in Times Square.

When a team with a big number next to its name gets up on a team with a little number – and it doesn't completely ruin their brackets – people will be cheering at sports bars in San Diego, high-fiving at house parties in Maine and passing secret updates of each trey courtesy of their Treo in business meetings in Dallas.

It doesn't matter where. It doesn't matter who.

For a little while you can forget about your big-market, big-city, big-revenue pro sports. This is about giving little towns and little places a rare local rooting interest. It's a tournament where even little Mississippi Valley State has a chance – albeit the chance of a 16th seed about to play mighty 11-time national champion UCLA, which means, what, a one-in-a-million chance?

According to some oddsmakers, try one in a sextillion.

So you're saying there's a chance.

There always is a chance in the NCAA tournament. On Feb. 4, the Coppin State Eagles were 2-19 against Division I competition, one of the worst teams in the country. After winning 11 of their last 12 games, they are in the tournament, just seven unlikely victories from becoming champions, a last chance for all the impossible dreamers out there.

Which is why no matter how good the boss button works, a 48-hour flu epidemic will sweep offices and classrooms around noon ET Thursday. (A word of advice, it's best to start complaining of a fever now to curb suspicions.)

The beauty is in the diversity of the participants. The schools come in all shapes and sizes, from 30 different states and the District of Columbia. This year's field includes giant public schools and little private ones; bastions of liberalism and conservative, religious institutions. They come from small towns (Rock Hill, Starkville, Emmitsburg) and giant cities (Los Angeles, Washington, Miami).

It's a tournament where there is a team from Manhattan, Kan., but not Manhattan, N.Y. – the Little Apple one-upping the Big Apple. Where terms such as Hoyas, Tar Heels and Hoosiers make sense, and it's great to be a Boilermaker, a Sooner or a Cardinal.

Because of America's obsession with underdogs and upsets, it is the time of year we gladly become Delta Devils and Toreros; when you can be a South Alabama fan even if you thought all of Alabama was south.

This is where atheists cheer for Oral Roberts, where everyone loves the Drake (or hates the Drake, if they screw up your office pool) and you might cheer for Kent State, even if you have no idea who Kent is or when exactly we named a state after him. It's an event so bizarre that a place such as Kansas, generally congenial, friendly, harmless Kansas, is to be feared.

Around now you can catch waitresses using the proper technique for a 30-second timeout to ward off impatient customers and overhear school kids debate the spelling of Krzyzewski.

Some big-school coaches and many of the analysts on ESPN would prefer the small schools were eliminated and the field simply was the best 65 teams, which is fine if they all also are willing to take massive pay cuts because the sports' signature event loses most of its popularity.

The first weekend is about the little guy beating the big one, the thrill of the pursuit of these kids' "One Shining Moment."

Besides, there's plenty of time for the heavyweight teams (Cinderellas rarely last past the Sweet 16) and big-time players. This is your one chance to watch the brilliance of Michael Beasley or Derrick Rose or O.J. Mayo before they jump to the bigger stage of the NBA.

What the NCAA never wants to admit is that much of the tournament's popularity is due to gambling and not just in legal Las Vegas sports books that are overloaded this weekend. It's the office pools that serve as a great equalizer when Maria from human resources gets the better of all those CSTV junkies because her dominant state flower formula magically predicts the 12-over-5 upsets.

We illegally wager the GNP of a small country on this tournament. But no one ever seems to do anything about it, probably because at this very moment inside the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington, home of the FBI itself, a bracket is getting passed around.

And if Belmont gets up on Duke or Austin Peay puts a scare into Texas you can bet there will be muffled cheers from their federal cubicles just like in every other office.

That's the magic of America's Tournament.

You can only hope their boss button works.

Dan Wetzel is the co-author of Glory Road, the story of coach Don Haskins and the history-making 1966 Texas Western Miners. Please note, Dan writes a column in this spirit each March and, by popular demand, repeats some of the jokes. He is allowed to plagiarize himself. Thursday and Friday he will be live blogging the NCAA tournament from the 24 Seconds sports bar in Berkley, Mich., for the entertainment of all the people with real jobs and/or important lives.

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