There is a small flawed thing, always, in smaller-time college basketball, even if it doesn't make itself immediately apparent during warmups. Usually, it's right there --something too human or just not superhuman enough in the players, too normal and insufficiently strange. So: shortish frontcourt players with shorter arms; bouncy, athletic bigs who catch entry passes as if wearing buttered oven mitts; small forwards the height of point guards; point guards the height of Penelope Cruz.
In other instances, that insufficiently strange/too-human thing emerges only upon watching closely -- that polished-seeming big man, it turns out, will only pass when handed the ball by a ref on an inbounds play, and grudgingly even then; that quick, slick scoring guard's inability to dribble with his non-dominant hand slowly reveals itself through insistent, uni-directional overdetermination. If there's no apparent reason why a player suiting up for a sub-Mid-Major college basketball team is playing there instead of for some team bigger, more televised and better known, what's left is an un-apparent reason: A wish to stay near home, or not to; a struggle with the required standardized tests; an excuse circumstantial or personal or otherwise compelling enough. All of it, inevitably, is hugely human in its palpable limitations and its wild struggle within those. This is why college basketball's conference championship season is so worth watching, regardless of the conference.
If there are exceptions to that, they're bigger conferences. The best reason to watch the SEC tournament this season, for instance, involves some sort of elaborate dare. The early rounds of the Big East tournament invariably collapse into a halting, grunty Rutgers-punishing ritual that does viewers no great or small favors. But while the Northeast Conference tournament -- my local lower-end college basketball conference, and home to the flawed, fantastic team I've adopted over the last few years -- will probably not produce much more than a sacrificial 15 or 16 seed come tournament time, that bracketological reverse-engineering is exactly the wrong way to understand it.
The frustration that basketball aesthetes (those sometimes slagged, both rightly and wrongly, as NBA hipsters) have with college basketball is that it is just not good enough. That is, there are too many mistakes, too much mess and not enough of the fluency and casual, pyrotechnic virtuosity that can be found even in a decent regular season NBA game. This is a mistake, I think, and March -- and not necessarily just the part of it that includes the NCAA tournament -- is when that error is revealed most fully.
The problem is not that college basketball is too slack, silly or otherwise lacking in quality. Relative to the NBA, it inarguably is. That's not the problem, though. The problem, if there must be one, is that our expectations are fundamentally out of order, and that the rampant human error and immersive emotional overage of college basketball are misunderstood as failings that dilute or diminish a game that is somehow supposed to be perfect. But perfection is a pursuit for the players, finally. Perfection is nice enough, but it's dull, and the rest of us -- those watching at home or in less comfortable and more expensive seats much closer to the game -- are after something else, and we might as well admit as much and pursue that.
We are looking, whether we say it aloud or not, for something more complicated, the same sort of vicarious sensation and unself-conscious lift and light that we find in music and movies and books, and we might as well not limit ourselves to only one narrow, polished type of transcendence. We might as well, that is, become fans of the Long Island University Blackbirds. Anyway, it's worked for me.
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Long Island University plays its home games in Brooklyn, and has for a long time: LIU's Brooklyn campus had been open for 27 years before there ever was a Long Island University on Long Island itself. As with many old New York City basketball programs, the Blackbirds were huge when the game was small -- they were one of the sport's dominant teams during the Depression under Hall of Fame coach Clair Bee, and likely would've medaled at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin had the team not boycotted the games due to who was in charge and what was already going on in Berlin in 1936. The game grew around LIU without LIU basketball quite growing alongside it; from 1963 until 2006, the Blackbirds played their home games at the Brooklyn Paramount Theater, a grand and high-ceilinged ex-movie palace with a bank of seats on one side of the floor and a decommissioned movie screen looming blankly on the other. They moved to a modern facility -- if one that smells faintly of chlorine in the lobby, due to the Olympic-size swimming pool directly below -- seven years ago. For the last two seasons, the Blackbirds have been the best team in the Northeast Conference.
But while LIU has dominated the NEC of late, they're still too small -- too marginal, too obscure, too thoroughly NEC -- to be any kind of dynasty. All that success has meant, in those two dream seasons, a pair of quick and lopsided exits from the tournament: a 15th seed and 15-point loss to North Carolina in 2011, and a 16th seed and a 22-point loss to Michigan State last year. That, and coach Jim Ferry was hired away by Duquesne after last season.
This year's team returned the most important players from the previous two, but last year's conference player-of-the-year Julian Boyd (the NEC's answer to Kenyon Martin, less the neck tattoos) went down with an injury early in the season, and the team has not quite repeated its dominance. The rugged, bouncy senior wing Jamal Olasewere, once a prized D.C.-area recruit, won NEC Player of the Year; point guard Jason Brickman, a Texan computer science major whose listed height and weight are roughly the same as your author's (I'm taller) and whose decision-making and poise are superior to just about any Division I point guard I've seen this season (I'm serious), currently leads all of Division I in assists per game. But the Blackbirds had to win last Saturday even to secure a home game in the NEC Tournament; they did, and so will host last week's opponents, the Quinnipiac Bobcats, on Wednesday night. If they're going to make the NCAA tournament, they'll need to win out, and win their last two games on another team's home court.
Which, in the grand scheme of this magnificently batshit college basketball season, is in many ways not that important. The outcome of this game, or the next, or the one after that, won't impact eventual NCAA tournament seedings or, most likely, the NCAA ournament itself. All true enough, and all absolutely irrelevant to why I'll be at LIU's Wellness, Recreation and Athletic Center on Wednesday, and irrelevant to why anyone would or should ever watch a college basketball game in March.
In terms of prestidigitation and bracketologic projection, the Blackbirds are, even if they win their way into the tournament, supremely beside the point. They're not good enough: not big enough or deep enough or skilled enough, at least relative to the reigning land-grant giants. But in every way that matters, or ought to matter, the Blackbirds are exactly the point, the point of the whole thing personified -- college basketball's great, goofy struggle to more gracefully inhabit its permanent state of graceful, youthful imperfection. I could explain, but it would be easier to understand if you'd been there on Saturday.
You would, for one thing, have had room to sit. You would also, around the midway point of the second half, have gotten some free food -- the Applebee's a few blocks away handed sagging steam trays of chicken quesadillas into the crowd as part of a giveaway, then sent representatives around with coupons; one cheerfully explained what a "dessert shooter" was ("It's like a cheesecake, but it's in a glass") to a friend's skeptical father in-law, who finally took the free dessert shooter voucher. You might have noticed the four-year-old, in full Disney princess regalia, who sat happily doodling, with periodic breaks to nibble at a soft pretzel, next to her father at the gap-toothed press table. You would have clapped for LIU's mostly-in-sync dance team and wondered why they didn't let the very excellent band play more. If you were sitting where I was, you would have done your best to be discrete while checking out the goofus uncle-types sitting behind you, narrating the game to themselves aloud in studiedly Bill Raftery-ian cadences. When LIU's senior guard C.J. Garner -- a transfer from South Alabama and formerly Olasewere's high school teammate -- converted a tough lay-up in transition, one of the Raftery Uncles giddily yelled out "Garner, ROCKFORD!" If you were sitting where I was, you might have not-quite-stifled a laugh, too.
Garner started slowly against Quinnipiac, then was unstoppable for a decent portion of the second half. It was Senior Day, and he and Olasewere could well have been playing their last home games with LIU; both scored over 30 points. At some point during his giddy, out-of-his-body second half Garner nailed a three-pointer and delivered himself of a brief shimmy. It was The Bernie, the same shake done by a delirious Stephen Curry during his 54-point game for the Warriors at Madison Square Garden earlier in the week, and by Denver's Ty Lawson the night before after hitting a game-winner on ESPN.
It's a goofy dance, and as it turned out the court was a little too small for Garner to quite pull it off. He turned, post-Bernie, right into the press table, jostling some papers but not disturbing the girl in the princess outfit even a little. And then he bounced back smiling into the basketball, and there was no time to wonder if it was that he was suddenly too big or the court too small or anything else, because the game was still going, alive and in its own weird pursuit and perfectly, imperfectly right.
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Roth is a co-founder and editor of The Classical, the co-author of the Wall Street Journal's "Daily Fix" blog-column, the sole author of Vice's "Mercy Rule" column and a writer of things at GQ, New York Magazine, The Awl and some other places when there's time. He lives in New York, and is on Twitter.