If you’re like me, you never watch regular-season college basketball, and then when the NCAA tournament rolls around and nobody can talk about anything else, you have to root arbitrarily for certain teams and against others, since you have no idea who the players are on either team or what they’re like.
Yet it strikes me that my March Madness favorites are perhaps not totally arbitrary after all: certain college programs are “likable” or “unlikable” irrespective of the specific basketball rosters they currently happen to field, and this likability (or lack thereof) relates to perceptions about the school itself, its student body, the region it serves, and other factors. Apart from the obvious appeal of major underdogs, the process by which we form intense attachments to sports teams we hadn’t cared about the day before is not easy for me to comprehend—but I can try.
Here I propose a few rules to bring clarity and assistance to other bandwagon-jumpers:
In general, public universities are more likable than private universities. For me, it feels more democratic to root for our embattled public education system than to cheer for the self-serving elitism of places like Davidson College. If you root for private schools, you’re basically rooting for the kids from “Dead Poets Society.”
Wealthy and/or academically accomplished private schools are the worst of all: for this reason and a multitude of others, Duke will always and forever be the least likable team in any NCAA tournament. Notre Dame is almost equally despicable. The only exceptions to this rule are Villanova (for its heroic ’84-’85 team), Georgetown (because Allen Iverson went there), and any prestigious university whose sports teams, including the basketball program, are traditionally horrible. Obscure, unimportant private schools like Robert Morris University are almost always OK.
If you’ve never heard of a school before, cheer for that school. (This is also known as “the Florida Gulf Coast rule,” after the high-flying team whose 2013 run managed to override another important rule: “Never root for a team from Florida.”)
In addition to Florida, certain other states just don’t deserve our love, and these include Texas, Maryland, Utah, Ohio, and Arizona. All teams from these states are, for our purposes here, “bad.”
Having a whimsical mascot is worth a few points, but one shouldn’t root for a school solely for the novelty of its team name: to do so would trivialize a contest in which the hopes and dreams of thousands of college kids of presumably varying worthiness are significantly wrapped up. (For the record, this year’s best mascots are the Terriers of Wofford College, the Lumberjacks of Stephen F. Austin State, the Great Danes of Albany, the Shockers of Wichita State, and the Anteaters of UC Irvine.)
Schools located in “the middle of nowhere” (like North Dakota State) are typically more likable than schools in big cities (like St. John’s).
Root for teams from the MEAC (which, this year, means Hampton).
Root for Butler every year.
With these rules and various other stuff in mind, the teams I like this year include Coastal Carolina, Georgia State, Valparaiso, and Kentucky.
I’m rooting for Coastal Carolina not only because it’s a 16-seed but because it’s located right next to America’s dumpiest vacation destination: Myrtle Beach, S. C., a place so palpably stupid that the idea of a university in its vicinity bears an intriguing suggestion of tragicomedy. I’m rooting for Georgia State because, despite a student population of 32,000 in downtown Atlanta, I’ve never heard of it. As I recall, UGA’s rival is Georgia Tech, and “Georgia State” sounds like a made-up college from a TV show.
Valparaiso is an easy one to like because the only association it conjures for me and for everyone else in the country (I assume) is Bryce Drew’s buzzer-beater over Ole Miss. I have no idea even where the school is; I wouldn’t be surprised if it were located within some U.S. overseas territory like American Samoa.
Kentucky makes for a tougher decision because it is the ultimate “overdog,” a team of superstars whose apparent invincibility fuels an understandable desire among sports fans to see them upended in shocking fashion. But if we agree that the NCAA (a billion-dollar operation that inexplicably does not pay its workers) is wrong and stupid, then we must support John Calipari and his professional army of evil teenage basketball cyborgs in their destruction of the sanctimonious spirit of college athletics. Kentucky’s one-and-done recruits have made a mockery of the already risible “student-athlete” ideal behind which the NCAA hides, exposing the pointlessness of the current system while trouncing other teams so thoroughly that maybe they’ll all eventually give up so that we can have a real minor league system for our young basketball pros.
Unfortunately, by the time you read this, Coastal Carolina, Georgia State, and Valparaiso will in all likelihood have been eliminated from the tournament. My own bracket has Kentucky and Villanova in the final. “Go Wildcats,” I guess.