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A Different Perspective on the NCAA Tournament

The first two days of this year's NCAA Tournament will go down as two of the best in March Madness history, but the players likely do not share the same feelings.  (John Furlong: WFUV Sports)

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I love March Madness. In fact, I love it so much that its first four days in particular are my favorite days of the sports calendar, over events such as the Super Bowl and World Cup.

Despite my love for March Madness, however, I had never seen a tournament game in person. That changed this weekend when I covered the four first-round and two second-round games played in Brooklyn.

The games were just as exciting as I had hoped they would be. They had all the ingredients that makes March Madness so intoxicating: dramatic comebacks, buzzer-beaters, and a cinderella team coming oh-so-close to making a legendary run. With all of the magical ingredients present, one would think my love for the tournament would be strengthened after having covered it.

Oddly enough, it did not. If anything, my love for the tournament has waned.

(And no, it’s not because my bracket was busted before 4 p.m. on Friday.)

It would be useless to give game recaps from this weekend because all of you reading this certainly know the results by now.

What I will do instead is provide a recap of the weekend from the perspective of the players, and prove why, despite all the thrills it gives its fans, March Madness is an utterly cruel way to decide a national champion.

The games I saw were certainly exciting, but it’s not like that was unexpected. I know how exciting March Madness is. But what was unexpected is just how difficult it is for the losing players to come to terms with the fact their season is over. Regardless of how much they achieved in the regular season, no team likes to end their season on a loss, and for all but one team, it’s a sobering reality that their season will end in certain disappointment.

Temple, who lost to Iowa on Friday afternoon, is a perfect example of this. They had a tremendous season, finishing second in their conference and entering the tournament as a #10 seed, a fine improvement for a team that could only qualify for the NIT last season. Yet, junior guard Josh Brown did not want to hear that his team overachieved, nor did he want to hear how a small graduating class of seniors could lead to a strong season next year. No, the loss to Iowa meant the season was over and he was upset. He made it clear in the post game press conference that he needed some time to get over it. “I don’t want [to] think about next season right now," he said.

After his team’s stunning loss to Stephen F. Austin Friday night, West Virginia Coach Bob Huggins summarized how horrible his players, who were tipped as contenders for a national championship, must be feeling. “[The team’s] worked so hard to make a run at this deal," he said. "I feel bad for them."

Stephen F. Austin’s cinderella run is a perfect example of the cruelty of the tournament. In the aftermath of knocking off West Virginia in one of the more shocking upsets of all-time, the SFA players did not celebrate openly, but rather exhibited a confident contentment. To college basketball fans who fell in love with them, it seemed as if Stephen F. Austin’s upset victory would have capped off their season perfectly. But that’s not the way the Lumberjacks saw it. They, just like the other 67 teams in the tournament, felt that anything other than winning the tournament would be a failure.

Many people don’t realize how important basketball is to these players’ lives. The end of the season means the end of the careers of the team’s seniors, players who spend four years putting their blood, sweat, and tears into playing for their school, all to have it come to an end in an instant.

And for the players who are lucky enough to return, it means they must start all over again, in the hopes of getting back to the same spot next year. They want to get back to winning.

But the players don’t do it for the wins. They don’t do it for the popularity or the exposure. They do it for their teammates, the group of guys they forge an unbreakable bond with over the course of the year. Thomas Walkup, the SFA senior who gained national popularity after his 33 point outburst against West Virginia, was asked after the loss to Notre Dame what he’ll miss most about playing college basketball. It certainly wasn’t the popularity.

“The brotherhood,” he said.

The NCAA tournament has been criticized for being an awful way of picking a national champion; critics argue that often times, the team that wins the whole thing is merely the luckiest, not the best. I completely agree with that criticism: the team that wins is the luckiest. The luckiest not because they experience the joy of victory when it’s all said and done, but the luckiest because they’re the only team that doesn’t have to experience the agony of defeat.