Like everyone else, I have been greatly enjoying Virginia Commonwealth's run in the NCAA Men's Tournament. Beginning with VCU's beatdown of Georgetown, I've caught most of their games and have marveled at how the Rams' have maintained the same level of intensity throughout their upsets over the Hoyas, the Boilermakers, the Seminoles, and now the Jayhawks.
The Tournament is a terrific televised sporting event -- the large number of games in the early rounds allows viewers to find potential upsets or close games and, as the number of games begin to dwindle, the competitiveness of the matches ratchets up and you've got tension-filled contests where kids are playing at a level that defies explanation or understanding.
This was the second time in the last four years that early round games of both the men's and women's tournament were played in the DC metro area. Both in 2008 and again this year, I've had the good fortune to attend some of the games of both tournaments. Overall, as much fun as the men's tournament is to watch on television, it is not nearly as enjoyable to be sitting in the stands. On the other hand, the women's tournament is a fantastic live event and one that we have not missed at Comcast.
There is one huge exception to my general impression of live men's tournament games -- Duke vs. Belmont, still one of the single most exciting live sporting events I've ever attended. But the five other games were largely forgettable. I have no recollection of Xavier's twelve point win over Georgia, nor of Purdue's win over Baylor. The Wildcats' band's full rendition of Oingo Boingo's "Insanity" was more memorable than anything that happened in Arizona's loss to West Virginia, despite the fact that both Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill were on the floor for Arizona. And this year, although Cinci's win over Mizzou had its moments, I was uncomfortably bored for the bulk of UConn's dismantling of a totally overmatched Bucknell.
Part of it is the environment at the stadium. The single biggest fan base for the evening games this year came from Bucknell and they got thrashed. Despite the fact that UConn shows well for Big East matches against Georgetown at Verizon, Huskies' fans were not out in force for their first-round game, with alums sprinkled throughout the upper deck.
Even when supporters show up -- and West Virginia's fans turned out in droves in 2008 -- the ban on alcohol sales at tournament games means fans get smashed before entering the stadium. The net effect is brutal. While excessive binge drinking prior to a college football game may augment the emotion pouring out of the terraces, five hours in a basketball stadium can wear down even the most debilitating intoxication. Because Belmont came so close to knocking off Duke, the West Virginia fans had completely spent themselves by the time their game had started and endured most of it in a groggy stupor.
The significance of pre-game drinking was probably accentuated this year because of the games coincidence with St. Patrick's Day and nearly everyone I know who went to the evening sessions almost cut their night's short because of the number of "I Can't Believe How Drunk I Am!" cell-phone jibbering idiots in their section. I lucked out in sitting a section where the five kids who fit that profile were quickly quieted by threats of physical assault that they had no desire to test.
The combination of factors means that the prevailing mood is negative, the fans -- spoiled by the possibility of seeing something like Belmont-Duke for every game -- are, for the most part, disinterested until forcefully engaged, and the games themselves will, in most instances, fail to meet expectations.
The women's tournament games are fundamentally different. Although regular season games sometimes approach comic/tragic, with the Terps matched up against another side that doesn't take the sport terribly seriously, tournament games insure that both teams approach the game with the same level of importance.
In 2008, we caught Maryland and Nebraska's first round games against Coppin State and Xavier, respectively; skipped Duke and Arizona State's openers against Murray State and Temple, respectively; but returned for the second round games. This year, we watched Maryland beat St. Francis and then came back for the Georgetown-Maryland rematch.
Few fans, if any, get tanked before going to a women's tournament game and the absence of alcohol is unremarkable. Those that come out do not come for the event, they do not come out to brag to acquaintances about what they are doing, instead they buy tickets anticipating an entertaining game.
The resulting environment is of an entirely different feel than the men's tournament. And it has nothing to do with a team (Maryland) being able to play on their own home court. If Geno Auriemma is disappointed with his fanbase's apathy to the Huskies' tournament runs, Brenda Frese must be resigned to the fact that no matter what her program achieves, students cannot be bothered to show up to tourney games. At both of Maryland's tournament games this year, there were more students from St. Francis and Georgetown in the stands. The Red Flash's fans, in particular, put Maryland's student body to shame, with several dozen showing up and raucously supporting their team throughout the game.
The crowd is, nevertheless, heavily partisan as it is drawn from the surrounding community, but they are receptive to great performances regardless of the uniform she is wearing. This year, the crowds got behind Sugar Rodgers, who dropped 60 points in two games against Princeton and Maryland. Against Maryland, I think Rodgers had the single most impressive performance of any player I've watched live at Comcast. The three pointers she was draining (7 for 10 from beyond the arc) became increasingly ridiculous and despite good effort out of the Terps, Maryland didn't stand a chance.
And, yet, I have not bothered to watch a single one of the women's games on television this year. In years past, I've only managed to watch Maryland's later round games but have not tuned into anything else. I had intended, notionally, to remember to catch the Hoyas attempt to take down UConn today but remembered the game was on only after it was completed.
But I don't think that detracts from how much I have come to enjoy women's collegiate basketball. Maryland was a pleasure to watch this season and the student body's disinterest notwithstanding, I hope the school continues to bid on hosting the tournament in the years to come. Like Maryland's soccer program, the women's tournament is one of the most underrated, underappreciated gifts from the university to DC-area sports fans.