Sidelines: Events like March Madness are why college sports can’t be beat

Princeton guard Matt Alocco (14) celebrates after the team’s win over Arizona in a men’s NCAA Tournament first-round college basketball game Thursday in Sacramento, California. AP photo

There are countless reasons why it’s great to be a sports fan, but one of the best is that the games never end.

Over time, you begin to associate time with the seasons. Fall means Friday Night Lights, college football Saturdays and NFL Sundays; winter means high school basketball season; summer means baseball every night and mornings watching the World Cup, the Olympics, or whatever international tournament is going on.

Then there’s that time of year where the first days of spring (well, at least on the calendar) are almost upon us. It’s that time of year that marks the arrival of the best two or three weeks of the year: March Madness.

It’s the time of year when I absolutely can’t focus on anything else. I make every effort to take the first Thursday and Friday of the NCAA tournament off work. If I didn’t, I know I would be spending every hour I’m doing other tasks thinking about college basketball instead.

Yes, we’re in the middle of the weekend, it’s something I live for. Part of that is because, regardless of your background, it’s an overload of sports madness for what is, at the end of the day, a short period of time. Yet it’s also because college sports captivate me in a way professional sports never will.

I grew up in a college sports household. It was the Michigan Wolverines, not an NFL team, who were my first true love on the football field; it was the North Carolina Tar Heels, not an NBA team, that had me riveted to the TV all winter and early spring. When I went to college I became a Missouri Tigers fan forever in both.

It’s a different kind of relationship, you know. My athleticism came mainly from my mother, who was a student at the University of Michigan during Bo Schembechler’s time. Later, she was a medical student at the University of North Carolina when Michael Jordan was on campus. Those experiences made her, someone who enjoyed the sport but wasn’t exactly one to live and die by it, a rabid Wolverine and Tar Heel for life.

When I enrolled at the University of Missouri in the fall of 2012, I soon discovered this for myself. It was, for the first time in my life, a feeling where I was connected to the team for which I was rooting for. I went to lessons and shared a dorm with the players who were my age; I walked around campus every day; I attended almost every game with Faurot Field and Mizzou Arena just a few blocks from my dorm.

You see, I cheer for the Green Bay Packers, but I will never be the Green Bay Packers; I welcome the Washington Nationals, but I will never be a Washington National. That degree on my wall though? It says that I in the morning A Missouri Tiger, just like my mom says a Michigan Wolverine and a North Carolina Tar Heel. It’s a different kind of connection, one you don’t really understand unless it connects you.

This time of year, this relationship can send you to heaven or make your world come crashing down. Just ask the 3,000 students at the tiny St. Peter’s University in Atlantic City, New Jersey, how it felt to be on campus last year when they beat the Kentucky Wildcats. On the contrary, don’t ask those in Lexington, Kentucky, about the same game — it’s a topic Big Blue Nation would like to erase from its collective memory.

We saw more of that this weekend. With the men’s first round (and half of the women’s first round) completed, there are fans whose personal connections have brought them to places of unimaginable joy or outright shock. This is because they are Excited Princeton Tigers or the dejected wildcats of Arizona, not just their fans. It makes the thrill of victory all the sweeter or the agony of defeat all the more bitter.

Yes, there are a lot of things wrong with college athletics these days. The NCAA, which for years has prohibited athletes from profiting from their own labor, is a corrupt mess; coaches like Chris Beard, who should be the last people on Earth mentoring young men and women, are instead paid millions to do so; conference realignment destroys the age-old rivalries that truly make college sports special. If you’re exhausted from all of this, you’re not alone.

On days like these, though, I remember why we’re still drawn to college sports amid the mess. For me, Missouri’s win over Utah State on Thursday after going 13 long years without a win in the NCAA Tournament was so special because it came from a place that I will be associated with until my death. When you’re a part of it, it just makes you feel a little more.

NCAA Virginia Tech Selection Show Basketball

Virginia Tech players, from left, Kayana Traylor, Kayla King, Taylor Soule and Elizabeth Kitley react after their team was called during an NCAA women’s basketball tournament selection viewing party March 12 in Blacksburg, Virginia. app photo

Then thereis on campus the day of a big game. There is nothing in any professional sports game I have ever attended that can come close to what I felt in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Athens, Georgia, or Knoxville, Tennessee, on game day. Even for March Madness games that aren’t played on campuses, the watch parties filled with your fellow students and/or alumni have no parallel in the NBA.

Do not get me wrong; professional sports are great. You’re watching the best of the best compete, and there’s something to be said for that. After all, it’s a big reason why America’s “big four” professional sports leagues consistently outperform their college counterparts. This is especially true here in New England, where the Patriots, Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins will always be kings.

But for me? I will embrace college ball for the unparalleled connections, passion and memories it brings. Give me college football Saturdays and the full immersion of March Madness over anything the professional leagues have to offer. The passion just comes from a place that can’t exist in professional sports.

No, there is blood involved in college sports – and that just makes the whole experience different.

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