NCAA Tournament 2015: Sentimentality and Its Discontents

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UAB! Georgia State! Davids slaying Goliaths! Brackets busting!

The tournament has started and we’re already falling out of our seats – metaphorically, of course, although Georgia State coach and new Internet icon Ron Hunter actually did as much when the Panthers won. We know the upsets are coming but we still find them thrilling even as they demolish our brackets.

It becomes complicated when sentiment is involved. I’m talking about alma maters, of course, but not exclusively; it could be a childhood favorite, or even conference loyalty. How much does emotion get in the way of calculation?

That question becomes especially challenging when sentimental favorites play each other. I found myself in such a position on Thursday night, when fourth-seeded North Carolina took on the No. 13 seed Harvard in one of the West region openers. I grew up a Tar Heel fan for the many of the same reasons everyone who grew up outside North Carolina does: the signature players, the tradition, the colors, the argyle. I went to Columbia, and so I rarely find myself in the position of rooting for my alma mater in the Big Dance. The Tar Heels help me vicariously experience the thrill of cheering for a dominant athletic program. At the same time, I always like to pick the Ivy League champion to win at least one game in the tournament out of conference loyalty. This year, the Crimson were the only game in town.

So, who to pick?

History, of course, dictated that UNC was the obvious choice. According to the Washington Post’s tournament database, the No. 4 seed has won 79 percent of the games it has played against a No. 13 seed since 1985. Empirical data was hardly necessary in this case, though. UNC is a nationally top-ranked program in a power conference that handily made the tournament and boasts NBA talent up and down its roster. Harvard became the Ivy League’s lone representative only via a buzzer-beater in a one-game playoff against Yale, who would have won the conference outright had they been able to defend an inbound pass.

But the matchup also highlighted another sentimentality for those of us who love college sports: the concept of student-athlete.  Harvard exudes academic prestige as part of conference that doesn’t offer athletic scholarships. UNC, of course, is currently embroiled in an academic fraud scandal on par with an extinction-level event – or, at least will be assuming the NCAA sees fit to actually enforce its own rules.  

For a Tar Heel alum like my friend Matt, who I went to graduate school with and who now lives in Raleigh, the scandal does complicate the way he feels about college basketball, including the tournament. Prior to the tournament he told me that it has to do with identity. As he puts it, alums "have personal connections with schools and conferences that professional leagues cannot have, and these shortcomings say something about the integrity of institutions to which you 'belong.'" 

His bracket, however, was secular.  He picked the Tar Heels because it was the smart play: they were favored to win and Marcus Paige versus an Ivy League defense is brutally unfair.  Nor would it in any way factor into my friend Koma choosing to pick her alma mater Harvard to win.  “If we beat them, I won’t feel any more excited” that the Crimson had won in the midst of UNC’s looming academic scandal, she said. “I’ll just be happy we busted brackets.”  Once the tournament actually begins, it’s about basketball. 

So I penned in UNC, choosing one sentimental favorite over another, a team over a conference. And I squared that by crossing my fingers that Harvard at least didn’t get played off the court.  

Perhaps surprisingly, they didn’t, although that didn’t seem too likely at the start.  The game itself was slow, then sloppy, then streaky. Only toward the end did it got exciting, with UNC squandering a 16-point lead only to grab on to the very last bit of rope before it slipped all the way through their fingers: Harvard missed a game-winning three, and the Tar Heels advanced.

The Crimson did, however, score a bit of a sentimental win for the Ivy League. Specifically, they further advanced the case that the Ivy League belongs in the Big Dance. For instance, between 1985 and 2009, the Ivy League champion only got past the first round three times. They’ve matched that tally in the last six years alone, including a Sweet Sixteen run by Cornell in 2010. Harvard couldn’t add to that streak but they did contribute to the conference’s overall legitimacy.  As Koma texted me after the game, "gone are the days when the Ivy League winner is an automatic loss."
And this is the case across the mid-major conference teams, too. We saw a pair of three-seeds felled by 14s, and enough widespread turmoil that only a single bracket on ESPN remained spotless going into the second round. The various David and Goliath contrasts make a great narrative for the matchups in the bracket.  Sometimes, sentiment really does pay off.

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