The Mercy Rule

The Old College Try

By David Roth

Sex, one of the world's dumber sayings goes, is like pizza, in that it's great when it's great and still good when it's bad. There are adults who say this—right now, a ponytailed manager at a GameStop is saying it to his young employees in hopes of convincing them that he has experience in both; Dr. Drew, who is technically an adult-appearing marzipan-skinned insincerity droid, wrote said words in Oprah's magazine; there are thousands of people in a Facebook group celebrating the expression.

For people who exist on a diet comprised exclusively of bad sex and bad pizza—Adam Carolla, Jay Mariotti, reality-show contestants on VH1—this may seem witty or true. But it's not true: bad sex is sort of terrible, and bad pizza is incalculably worse, especially those slices with ziti on them. Sex is not like pizza in the way pizza is supposed to be like sex. The week before the NCAA Tournament, however, is like pizza in the way pizza is supposed to be like sex. That is, it's sometimes—even often—sort of terrible, but it is also and always enjoyable, and sometimes great. There is also a disconcerting association to be made here with regard to Papa John's, whose founder often shows up during college basketball commercial breaks, testifying to the camera how much fresh peppers and "real meats" mean to him personally, in an earnest tone most people reserve for proposals of marriage. But back to our metaphor:

Just as there is such a thing as bad pizza—cf. above with regard to the melty nightmares purveyed by the orange CEO who cares so much about fresh ingredients that he actually can't help it and cries sometimes—there is very much such a thing as bad college basketball. Most college basketball, in terms of the actual basketball being played, is at least semi-bad. The players on the floor are generally teenagers or something very much like it, and are basically giant nervous children with some very incorrect ideas about the world and their place in it, although many of them are indeed able to dunk. Some of these players will earn millions in the NBA, and a select few of them look like they could do so right now—Anthony Davis, Kentucky's poignantly uni-browed gangle-beast of a big man, is as fun to watch as any college player in recent memory; Kansas forward Thomas Robinson plays like an unusually athletic refugee from an unrealistic late-90s video game. Most players, though, won't.

In the most important and inescapable ways, the gentlemen gunning three-pointers and doing their utmost not to fuck up are obviously and inescapably kids. This is most glaringly true during the pre-tournament week given over to conference championships, when the future maybe-professionals of the big conferences cede the airwaves to the future super-competitive-rec-league-guys of Every Other Conference, with even commuter-school conferences like the NEC and sprawling shitshows like the Sun Belt Conference (which includes both the University of Denver and Florida International) getting prime-time television turns. This can and does, as you might expect, lead to some bad basketball—missed jumpers and assignments both, and unwise, too-determined, terrified-cum-optimistic teenage decision-making. But because every game means so much—and because even a crappy game between two balling-out-of-control teams can still be a blast to watch in the final five minutes—every game, even and maybe especially the very bad, has a ragged grace and urgent emotion to it.

This is the week for random runs from teams with losing records, the high-grade goofiness of mid-major haircuts and weird apostrophe-enhanced hybrid names—"Hi, my name is De'Mon"—and, if you're very lucky, unexpected emotive Dikembe Mutombo cameo appearances. Mostly, though, this week stands out for the baffling little blips of grace and brilliance delivered by teams from Directional Illinois or Right To Work State Tech or Upper Midwestern Land Grant University at Smallish City, playing out of their minds and better than they ever have, giving their collective all for the right to get flattened by Michigan State in some Midwestern field house next Thursday.

It's futile, but it's not. In the long run, most things we do are futile, just as the way that we chase what we care about as teenagers is kind of silly. But so much of why we watch sports is to borrow some emotion or transcendence from the games and players, and with all these games and all these players, there is a lot of emotion—and sometimes a little transcendence—being thrown off. That's no small thing, and it's why, at least in March, even bad basketball is better than basically anything else.

Previously – All-Star Weakened

@david_j_roth

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