The Little Gulfy That Could
People who don't love the NCAA Tournament—sniffy NBA hipster types, those who can't overlook the corporate-feudal sketchiness of the NCAA, Billy Packer during his last two decades of announcing NCAA Tournament games—can make some fairly compelling arguments against it. There's the argument that the tournament is too random and unrepresentative, its selection process too opaque and scientistic, and that the best team doesn't necessarily (and maybe necessarily doesn't) win.
The counterargument—not to the corporate-feudal-sketchiness bit, which is objectively true—is, essentially, “Stop, ugh, why can’t you be quiet while I watch basketball and eat dip for several consecutive days?” More vividly, the counterarguments are manifested by specific teams: manic, modest Virginia Commonwealth outworking and outplaying more talented squads en route to the Final Four in 2011, or the undersized/oversized misfits of George Mason making shots against teams stacked with future NBA millionaires who couldn't and didn't in 2006. This year's rebuttal is Florida Gulf Coast University, a school that didn't even hold its first class until 1997 and which just beat Georgetown and San Diego State—not just beat, blew out and mercilessly dunked on—to become the lowest seed ever to win two games in the tournament.
FGCU, in most every way, exemplifies the most effective case there is for March Madness—yes, the pomp and weepy-dad sentiment is bullshit and the wrong people are getting paid for the wrong stuff and the quality of the basketball is uneven, but anything can and always does happen in really emotional and exciting ways, which is beautiful, man. The cloud in the silver lining here is that you won't see or feel any of that if you don't watch all of it, which includes joyless early-round blowouts and the same four commercials—a heavily rouged Alec Baldwin chortle-sneering bits of opaque credit card jargon; attractive young people smilingly but a little rebelliously eating history's saddest 99-cent extruded-chicken pseudofoods; a Nissan driving khakily along a coastline; hideous, seething white people raging for better DVR options—six or seven times per hour.
Well, forget the ads, or try to, and focus on FGCU itself, which really isn’t the branded, chastely virtuous Cinderella story—hardworking VCU! Humble, disciplined George Mason!—that the NCAA is so clammily keen to sell. Instead, Gulfy, as I’ll call it from now on, because I feel like we're friends, is both a very good basketball team and a perfect representation of the difference between the sentiment college basketball sells and the mutant business thing that it is.
The “very good basketball team” part is what matters most at the moment. Where mid-major teams are supposed to beat bigger-ticket opponents with game management and button-down precision—those old purist Viagra virtues, allegedly so lost in this age of blah blah why do they all have tattoos now—Gulfy romped over two talented basketball teams in what looked like an AND 1 mixtape dunk-n-swag exhibition. In place of the grating announcer guy running up and down the court yelling "OH BABY" is Coach Andy Enfield, who deftly snagged under-recruited talents and has coached them up brilliantly. It helps that there are interesting little subnarratives in this story—the team is diverse and quotable; Enfield is married to a former Maxim model, which enabled the underboob slideshows that make the internet work. But the important thing about Gulfy, and the thing to know and care about, is that they're a ton of fun to watch, and legitimately good.
But where Cinderellas past conformed to and otherwise confirmed some sentimental college basketball narratives—and I'm running out of ways not to write “the team with all the white kids beat the one with fewer white kids,” so—Florida Gulf Coast's success almost satirizes them. FGCU was conceived as a scammy online-only school; its beachfront campus sits on (formerly) protected wetland, the permit from which was acquired when one of America's most ridiculous politicians made some angry phone calls to the Army Corps of Engineers at a campaign contributor's behest. The fan base makes spunky/silly homemade hip-hop tributes to the team, but also occasionally acts like a bunch of dicks. They're this year's team apart, and deservedly so, but they're also a college basketball program like any other, or every other. Except better at basketball than most, at this particular moment.
This is not at all a bad thing! If there's anything bad here, it's the cornball urge to rewrite every unexpected success along the same retrograde Hickory High template. And if there's a reason to cheer for Gulfy—beyond, as mentioned earlier, the fact that they're fun as hell to watch—it's for the way they refuse and defuse and otherwise dunk right in the face of all that familiar college hoops sanctimony, simply by being the goofy, grimy Florida-ass thing that they are.
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