NCAA Arizona Princeton Basketball

Princeton guard Matt Allocco (14) celebrates following the team’s victory over Arizona in a first-round college basketball game in the men’s NCAA Tournament on Thursday in Sacramento, Calif. AP photo

There are countless reasons why it’s so great to be a sports fan — but one of the very best is that the games never end.

Over time, you begin to associate times with seasons. Fall means Friday night lights, college football Saturdays and NFL Sundays; winter means high school basketball season; summer means baseball every night and mornings watching the World Cup, Olympics or whatever other international tournament is ongoing.

Then, there’s this time of year, one in which the first days of spring (well, on the calendar, at least) are nearly upon us. It’s a time of year that marks the arrival of the best two or three weeks of the year: March Madness.

It’s a time of year in which I’m absolutely unable to focus on anything else. I make every effort to take the first Thursday and Friday of the NCAA Tournament off work. If I didn’t, I know I’d be spending every hour in which I’m doing other assignments thinking about college basketball instead.

Yes, we’re in the midst of a weekend that’s something I live for. Part of that is because, no matter your background, it’s an overload of sports insanity in what is, at the end of the day, a short amount of time. Yet it’s also because college sports captivate me in a way professional sports never will.

I grew up in a college sports household. It was the Michigan Wolverines, not an NFL team, who were my first true love on the football field; it was the North Carolina Tar Heels, not an NBA squad, who had me glued to the TV in the winter and early spring. When I went to college, I forever became a fan of the Missouri Tigers in both.


It’s a different kind of connection, you see. My sports allegiances came primarily from my mom, who was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in the days of Bo Schembechler. She was later a med student at the University of North Carolina when Michael Jordan was on campus. Those experiences made her, someone who enjoyed sports but wasn’t exactly someone who lived and died by them, a rabid Wolverine and Tar Heel for life.

When I enrolled at the University of Missouri in the fall 2012, I soon discovered this for myself. It was, for the first time in my life, a feeling in which I was connected to the team for which is cheering by blood. I went to classes and shared a residence hall with the players, who were all about my age; I walked the campus every day; I attended nearly every game with Faurot Field and Mizzou Arena just a few blocks from my dorm.

You see, I cheer for the Green Bay Packers, but I will never be a Green Bay Packer; I cheer for the Washington Nationals, but I will never be a Washington National. That degree on my wall, though? It says that I am a Missouri Tiger, just as my mom’s say she is a Michigan Wolverine and a North Carolina Tar Heel. It’s a different kind of connection, one that you don’t truly understand unless it bonds you.

This time of year, that bond can send you to paradise or make your world come crashing down. Just ask the 3,000 students at tiny St. Peter’s University in Atlantic City, N.J., what it was like being on campus last year when they beat the Kentucky Wildcats. On the contrary, don’t ask those in Lexington, Ky., about the same game — it’s a subject Big Blue Nation would like to purge from its collective memory.

We’ve seen more of that this weekend. With the first round of the men’s tournament (and half of the first round of the women’s) complete, there are fans whose personal ties have led them to places of inconceivable joy or of downright shock. That’s because they are elated Princeton Tigers or dejected Arizona Wildcats, not simply fans of them. It makes the thrill of victory even sweeter or the agony of defeat even more bitter.

Yes, there’s a lot wrong in college athletics these days. The NCAA, which for years prohibited athletes from profiting from their own labor, is a corrupt mess; coaches such as Chris Beard, who should be the last people on Earth mentoring young men and women, are instead being paid millions to do so; conference realignment is ruining the age-old rivalries that truly make college sports special. If you’re exhausted by it all, you’re not alone.


On days like these, though, I’m reminded of why we’re still drawn to college sports amidst the mess. For me, the Missouri victory over Utah State on Thursday after 13 long years without an NCAA Tournament win was so special because it came from a place to which I’ll be bonded until my dying day. When you’re a part of that, it just makes you feel a little bit more.

NCAA Virginia Tech Selection Show Basketball

Virginia Tech players, from left to right, Kayana Traylor, Cayla King, Taylor Soule and Elizabeth Kitley react after their team was called during an NCAA college women’s basketball tournament selection show watch party on March 12 in Blacksburg, Va. AP phto

Then, there’s being on campus on the day of a big game. There’s nothing in any professional sports game I’ve ever attended that can come close to matching what I felt in Ann Arbor, Mich., Athens, Ga., or Knoxville, Tenn., on game day. Even for March Madness games, which aren’t played on campuses, the watch parties filled with your fellow students and/or alums have no NBA parallel.

Don’t get me wrong; professional sports are awesome. You’re watching the best of the best compete, and there’s a lot to be said for that. That is, after all, a big reason why America’s “big four” professional sports leagues consistently outdraw their college counterparts. That’s especially true here in New England, where the Patriots, Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins will always be kings.

For me, though? I’ll take college ball for the unparalleled bonds, passion and memories it brings. Give me the Saturdays of college football and complete immersion of March Madness over anything the pro leagues have to offer. The passion just comes from a place that can’t exist in pro sports.

No, in college sports, there’s blood involved — and that just makes the whole experience different.

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