Recency bias explains a lot of things: why you might hail The Force Awakens as the best film of the decade, Steph Curry as the GOAT, or this particular pizza, the one currently in your mouth, as the best you’ve ever had. And this bias towards what’s most recently in the rearview mirror seems to make March even madder.
March marches on, year after year. Goliaths topple and Davids rise as the Devil and God co-conspire to ruin your brackets. And we claim to love it, all this basketball. All this cheerleaders-and-pep-band-led student-athlete sporting. All this floor-slapping, office-pool pillaging, underdog-adopting hoops action. One-and-done or two-and-out or last-second threes to go to the Final Four: we devour it all, and giddily so.
By the third day our brackets are buried, assailed by Arkansas-Little Rock, gonged by Gonzaga, so we rend those brackets asunder and cry, “We’ve never seen anything like this in our lives!”
And we’re wrong: every March is comparably mad. That’s what makes us right.
Many are hailing MTSU’s stunning win over Michigan State as the greatest upset in tournament history. Northern Iowa’s Paul Jesperson hit an insane half-court buzzer-beater that is one of the wildest heaves in bracket annals. And yes, Yale schooled Baylor, Little Rock rocked Purdue, and Stephen F. Austin’s ruggedly handsome and 14th-seeded Lumberjacks ousted popular Final Four pick (read: my Final Four pick) West Virginia. This is all crazy. This is all wonderful. This is all madness.
But have we seen it all before? Well, pretty much, yeah.
15’s have beaten 2’s. Schools with names like an unplayable Scrabble deck or unhelpful directions have slayed basketball blue bloods. Unheralded undergrads have unleashed unforgettable shots. An eight seed won the title. George Mason made the Final freaking Four. Butler played in back-to-back title games. We have seen something like this in our entire lives: we see it every year. (Although this tournament, apparently, has matched 2001’s gauntlet as the tournament with the most first round upsets, with thirteen. Plus, Friday was the first time a 13-, 14-, and 15-seed has each won on the same day.)
But I am no bracket bemoaner, no basketball buzzkill, no fly in the 68-ounce bottle of Michael’s secret stuff. (I am, in fact, someone who’s constructed a career as a writer largely for the ability to take four straight days off in the middle of March to watch hoops.)
The most interesting thing about the NCAA tournament is that we have seen it all before – upsets, Cinderellas, one thousand and one shining moments – and yet, every year, we come back, eager and willing to once again excavate and celebrate the madness.
It is, then, a fantastic and miraculous event that would recycle and rejuvenate our joys each spring. And at its best, the NCAA Tournament, shrouded though by its own “student-athlete” chicanery and a dangerously enabling culture of sexual assault, is a champion of joy and hope.
But perhaps even more fantastic than the tournament itself are the fans, that we would re-up for the chaos year after year, that we would personally invest – by going to games, filling out brackets, and conveniently coming down with something on the first two days of the tourney – in the act of being amazed. By being open and willing, with our hearts and our wallets, we get to pretend we went to Yale for an afternoon, we get to fall out of our chairs when something extraordinarily cray happens, we get to experience joy or excitement or heartbreak or…something while watching basketball, which is about the best we can hope for when doing anything. March Madness is a safe place to feel extreme things.
By watching basketball, by taking four days off in a row, by bewilderingly watching the number of perfect brackets on ESPN.com cascade towards zero, we create opportunities for our own astonishment. And when you’re in the moment, when your home state school lines up a potential game-tying three with the clock waning, when you’ve co-opted Hawai’i along with everyone else in the bar, it becomes something that, yes, we have never seen before.
So sure, we’ve got recency bias and short-sighted memories and propensities for hyperbole, but we’ve also got an astonishing well of hope, an unshakable willingness to be amazed, and, well, I guess you could say we’ve got a bit of madness, too.