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Redefining the role of underdogs in March Madness

To anyone unfamiliar with the cultural phenomenon that is March Madness, welcome. You get to see Americans in a sports craze unmatched at any other time in the year (save, perhaps, the Super Bowl). Prizes may be won, friendships may be lost and, most importantly, brackets shall be busted throughout the month of March.

Each and every person who makes a bracket has a deep individual stake in the outcome of the tournament. More intriguing, however, is the tale of the tournament underdog, a team from a relatively unknown athletic conference that manages to catch fire under the biggest stage in college sports. For a few weeks, they become America’s darling, the David in a pool teeming with Goliaths.

The question remains, however, on what really makes a team a Goliath? Ascribing such status to a team’s tournament seeding in a given year does not paint the whole picture. For example, this year’s tournament features two of the more “low-key” No. 1 seeds in recent memory: Wichita State and University of Virginia. Wichita State, even with its perfect record this season, was regarded by some as only the second best in its own state (behind perennial powerhouse Kansas University).

Goliaths are made from pedigrees. We as fans are conditioned to root against the Dukes and Kentuckys of the sports world: The teams that put up banners year after year after year. These are the teams that get the most money, receive the most media attention and attract the highest quality recruits, all of which help them to keep their place at the top of the heap.

Rooting for the underdog is a form of anarchy in a world prone to dictators. Though we acknowledge that some teams will dominate for extended periods of time, we never cease to place our hopes on the scrappers because we appreciate their struggle. As Brian Phillips of Grantland writes in a recent article, “The narrative logic that dwells in our very synapses insists that a win is only meaningful if it involved a struggle, the more hopeless the struggle the better.”

We appreciate the struggle of the underdog more than anything else. As Phillips also notes, we don’t make movies about the consistently dominant program full of NBA prospects that win yet another tournament. We want to watch the more down-to-earth, more relatable ragtag team, the nobody who succeeds. The team becomes our David — scrawny yet somehow predestined to topple its enormous foe.

I love March Madness and, from the bottom of my heart, I love every low-ranked team that manages to claw its way into the later rounds of the tournament (University of Dayton, anyone?). But to be honest, I don’t love the David vs. Goliath framework through which we view many of the matches. Unlike the hulking Philistine of the Old Testament, teams we currently see as dominant have had their own battles to face in the past. Take Duke and Michigan, for example. The former had to go through five rebuilding years under Mike Krzyzewski himself before even getting a sniff at the NCAA tournament. Michigan, currently a threat to win it all, underwent brutal seasons of scandal and defeat after an NCAA investigation in the ’90s. Only recently has it bounced back and become a powerhouse in arguably the nation’s toughest conference.

I’m not trying to sway anyone into rooting for the one and two seeds for the entire tournament. That’s boring. And that’s not going to happen. I just wish to posit that great programs do not spring up out of nowhere. With exceedingly rare exceptions, every strong team has had its share of trials and tribulations in getting to where it is. Not one springs up as a fully-grown monster ready to take the NCAA by storm.

Instead of David vs. Goliath, I think we see more of a younger brother vs. older brother kind of sparring in the tournament. Just as a younger brother tries to assert himself against his older, stronger sibling, teams and coaches more fresh to the experience of the spotlight have to assert themselves against those who have been there before, those who are expected to succeed.

In the end, we want underdogs to win because there always ought to be some shift in this power dynamic. These shifts make for better games, and as fans, there is not much more we can ask than that.

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