There is a lot to enjoy about March Madness, but it’s a difficult phenomenon to talk about if only because the language that most accurately describes it has been employed to death. It’s true the unhinged passion of the players in the NCAA tournament is part of what makes it appealing, but it also allows a walking Hallmark card like Jim Nantz to Leave It to Beaver-ize it. Upsets where colleges with locations you have to look up bounce the Syracuses and Kanases of the world are exciting, but it’s disappointing to then see the closing moments of those games repackaged as Aquafina Refreshing Performances. There is, in other words, the tournament itself, which is fun, and then there is what the tournament becomes once it’s run through a sepia filter and a sloganeering machine. That second thing is considerably less fun and makes the whole exercise feel like a live-action commercial.
This is a shame in the sense that March Madness is richer and stranger than any “One Shining Moment” montage would lead you to believe. There is, for example, the unrelenting priggishness of Mike Krzyzewski, which, like Bobby Knight’s rage, isn’t by itself a good thing, but serves to make the tournament more interesting. Krzyzewski’s latest bit of superciliousness was a claim that the ACC deserves more respect as the best basketball conference in America and that teams from other conferences — “like the Atlantic 10,” Coach K said, as if he had just plucked a random for instance from the air — would get beaten up if they had to “go through the meat grinder” of the ACC.
Krzyzewski was clearly politicking when he was throwing shade at the A-10, knowing full well that NC State and Pittsburgh were competing with A-10 bubble teams for final spots. (It turns out the A-10 and ACC both got six teams in anyway.) But Coach K was also speaking about something more important, which is to say he was speaking about the ACC as a reflection of Duke, in the same way Duke is a reflection of him.
You know everything that’s annoying and tired about college hoops? Fighting for the name on the front, not the back — boys becoming men and all that? I have no idea if Krzyzewski believes in that stuff as much as he lets on, but he publicly embraces it to the point that he has become a basketball saint, an embodiment of principles that don’t mean much of anything, but are observed because Dick Vitale types refuse to shut up about them.
Perhaps Coach K is like this because it’s a kind of moral superiority he seems to value. (Incidentally, this moral superiority is also at the core of Duke’s hateability.) A selection process that involves number crunching and fraught discussion is too messy for Krzyzewski. He knows the ACC is excellent and that is enough. It’s his conference, after all. You can see this in the scant logic he lays out: the ACC is the best because it’s the toughest, and it’s the toughest because Krzyzewski has, I guess, developed some special toughness metric that he keeps entirely to himself. He made no kind of argument when he implied the A-10 couldn’t stand up to the ACC. His complete case for Pittsburgh getting into the tournament: “Come on, man.”
One of the great things about the NCAA tournament is that the sort of attitude that typifies Coach K gets slammed face-first into the mud by some group of nobodies from Compass Direction Missouri Tech (or, if you prefer actual examples, Lehigh). Sure, Duke wins titles, but they also occasionally get run out of the gym. Krzyzewski’s barely suppressed rage becomes normal, pathetic rage. If he were right — not about the ACC being better this year, because, sure, that could be true — but about the supremacy of the way he and his team conceive of basketball and The Way Things Should Be, Duke would make the Final Four every year. But they don’t, because the tournament is entropic, and that’s what beautiful about it. It rejects whatever hard and fast rules you try to yoke it with, just by unfolding in its irregular and enthralling way.