We're 13 days from Selection Sunday, but at 7 p.m. ET on Monday, in Fort Myers, Fla.; Jacksonville, Fla.; and Spartanburg, S.C.; the NCAA Tournament will begin. Not officially, but essentially.
I've said this before, but it bears repeating every year: There is no North American sport more democratically constructed, so fundamentally populist, as college basketball. There are college basketball teams everywhere, whether you live in Wyoming or Hawaii or New Hampshire or Mississippi. Here's a map of all of them. Professional sports teams need a major metropolitan area, but wherever you are, there is college basketball.
And anyone can win. A college football team can go undefeated and never even have the opportunity to play for a championship, and not only does no one seems to mind this, it's barely even mentioned as a potential problem. But in college basketball, every single team -- from Duke and North Carolina and Kentucky and all the blue bloods to Arkansas-Pine Bluff, the 347th-KenPom-ranked team from the SWAC -- can win the whole thing. All they have to do is not lose.
Sure, you say, there is no way that that Arkansas-Pine Bluff would ever win the championship, and not just because it is 7-23 this year. (Though, yikes...) And you're surely right. But it could. In fact, it still could. The Golden Lions have two SWAC games left, and if they can hang onto the No. 8 spot in the 10-team conference, they will begin the SWAC tournament just three wins away from the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. If they get there -- presuming they'd have to appear in a play-in game in Dayton first -- they'd be seven wins away from the national championship. Now, none of this is going to happen, of course: Sports are unpredictable, but not that unpredictable. But it could.
And that's the charm of it, and the fundamental fairness of it. Everybody in college basketball, all 351 teams, they all get to shoot their shot. If they want to win the national championship, all they have to do is not lose. Starting, essentially, Monday night.
Sure, there are teams that have already been eliminated from any chance at a title. Many leagues, like the SWAC, drop the lowest-finishing teams from their conference tournaments: Only eight of their 10 teams play in the conference tournament. A school like Eastern Illinois, for example, finished fifth in its half of the Ohio Valley Conference, so the Panthers don't get invited to the OVC Tournament, which means there's no postseason available, which means their season is over. They are the exceptions to this theory, and can I say that they are a blasted shame. Every conference should invite every conference team to its conference tournament. Because everybody should get this one last chance to make something beautiful happen.
You say there are 68 teams in the NCAA Tournament? I say we have more than 300, and the bracket begins Monday night. In Fort Myers, Jacksonville and Spartanburg, the Atlantic Sun tournament begins. Stetson will play at Florida Gulf Coast, Kennesaw State will play at South Carolina Upstate and Jacksonville will play at North Florida. (An hour later, the New Jersey Institute of Technology -- which is somehow in the same conference as all these teams -- will play at Lipscomb.) Tuesday, the Big South tournament begins, and on Wednesday, the Ohio Valley, the Northeast and the America East start. Thursday is the Missouri Valley. Next week, the rest of the conference tournaments begin. But they're not just conference tournaments. They're essentially preliminary rounds for the NCAA Tournament. They're the whole thing, starting Monday night, starting right now.
This is what we want from our world, right? An ability to erase all the ugliness of the past, to undo all the mistakes we've made in one grand, dramatic flourish? That's what conference tournaments provide, a chance for a team to create an eternal moment from whole cloth. The NCAA Tournament is the goal of any team: This week, and next, gives that opportunity to just about everyone. (This year, it even gives it to half the Ivy League!)
And, even if it's not functionally possible, it is theoretically possible that a team could come out of nowhere and win the whole thing. Again: It's not going to happen. College basketball has such a formidable power structure that it would be considered a big of an underdog upset if Gonzaga -- a team that has been No. 1 almost the entire season -- made the Final Four. But no other sport gives you the possibility.
Soccer fans will think of it like the FA Cup, in which every English soccer club, all the way down to tiny Sutton United, the club team so low on the totem pole that the backup keeper drinks with fans at halftime, has a chance to compete in a massive tournament, potentially facing the big boys like Arsenal. But the difference is that the FA Cup isn't the biggest event in the sport. The NCAA basketball tournament isn't just the biggest thing in college basketball, it's one of the biggest things in sports. If you play your cards right and everything falls your way, you could potentially play in front of the President of the United States and a very confused Prime Minister of England.
(Well, you could play in front of that president. Probably not this current one. God, that "he's gonna teach me cricket" line. That feels like decades ago, doesn't it?)
That's what these next two weeks can give us. It can take a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, with a bunch of kids who are playing the last basketball games they will ever play, and suddenly, gloriously, throw them on one of the grandest stages in American sports. There are some of us who believe that the March Madness is everything that is great and wonderful about being a sports fan. That Madness starts tonight. Everybody gets a chance. Everybody can be immortal.