Going to the School Dance: For This Alumnus, It’s Personal

I didn’t grow up cheering for a particular college basketball team. When it comes to college sports, my father is a Penn State fan, but that basketball “team” only ever consisted of transplanted football players who were weirded out by Jerry Sandusky. Fortunately, it’s easy to latch on to any old squad during March Madness. Any team with double digits next to its name can burrow its way into my heart (particularly if that name contains five syllables or more). So while I’m fully expecting to claim a temporary membership card to the Stephen F. Austin fan club, things are different for me this year.  You see, in addition to having been banned from several colleges, I also graduated from one three months ago. George Washington University, to be specific. This year, George Washington will be playing in the NCAA Tournament along with Stephen F. Austin, which seems anachronistic, but whatever. The point is, this year’s tournament is uncharted territory for me, because I finally have a compelling reason to care about its results.

I didn’t grow up cheering for a particular college basketball team. When it comes to college sports, my father is a Penn State fan, but that basketball “team” only ever consisted of transplanted football players who were weirded out by Jerry Sandusky. Fortunately, it’s easy to latch on to any old squad during March Madness. Any team with double digits next to its name can burrow its way into my heart (particularly if that name contains five syllables or more). So while I’m fully expecting to claim a temporary membership card to the Stephen F. Austin fan club, things are different for me this year. You see, in addition to having been banned from several colleges, I also graduated from one three months ago. George Washington University, to be specific. This year, George Washington will be playing in the NCAA Tournament along with Stephen F. Austin, which seems anachronistic, but whatever. The point is, this year’s tournament is uncharted territory for me, because I finally have a compelling reason to care about its results.

I have to confess that, even though I’m someone who very much enjoys what the British call “sport,” I never paid much attention to GW basketball until this year. If you had told me a season or two ago that the Colonials would appear in the 2014 NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament, I would have assumed this resulted from clerical error. But a funny thing happened during my academic career: the typically middling GW team got a new coach, a tall guy, and a not-as-tall guy who could shoot, transforming itself into a damn good basketball operation. I witnessed three games in person this season, all of which were part of the team’s 24-win total for the year. Watching the team shoot, rebound, and pass (in that order) its way to victory, I think I caught a touch of Colonial fever, though that may have been from the free hot dogs the cheer team chucked into the student section.

GW’s presence in the field of 68 will change my tournament-watching experience. It’ll be nice to root for a team based on something other than the fact that its chances of winning are low, a state of affairs that almost causes remotes and/or nachos to go flying across the room. Nine-seed GW faces off against eight-seed Memphis Friday evening, so, although the “underdog” label could be applied, this first-round* encounter is essentially a coin flip, and promises to be a good game. I should be happy that the Colonials won’t immediately be thrown to the wolves like some less-fortunate teams. Cross-town rival American University, a 15 seed, faces the daunting task of defeating Wisconsin in the first round. Friday evening’s game on TBS will probably be the most fun I’ve ever had watching a tournament game. It should be even better than the time a fellow sports bar patron vomited on my shoes during Norfolk State’s 2012 upset of Missouri.

But even amidst the on-campus frenzy and cries of “#RaiseHigh,” I can’t help but see the small but obtrusive downsides to GW’s tourney bid. A win over Memphis would all but certainly set up a game against Virginia, our one-seeded neighbors to the south, who just topped Duke to win the ACC’s automatic bid. I know that we’ll have to play an incredible game, and probably get some good luck, to extend our road past the Cavaliers. That’s okay, though. A one-win tourney appearance is commendable, and can be a launching pad for even deeper runs in the future. What bugs me is when I think of what the game-time atmosphere in Raleigh will be. The NCAA reserves about 200 tickets for each tournament-bound school, a number that falls well short of the demand from students who come out to the Charles E. Smith Center for home games. Students who don’t come off the waitlist will have to contend with the sky-high pricesoffered by secondary ticket brokers. On top of that, it’s tough for the students, whose urban campus environment renders car ownership impractical, to make a five-hour drive to North Carolina on four days notice. When I see an arena full of empty seats that indifferent Virginia fans vacated, I’ll be wishing one of my classmates could have sat there.

Still, though, GW’s at-large berth is a blessing for current students, and for recent graduates too young to have any nostalgia for the Pops Mensah-Bonsu era. The rest of the tournament will still be just as fun as it always is. A one-and-done showing from GW won’t throw me into some face-reddening rage that causes me to swear off the rest of the tournament, or at least I hope not. Because even if GW falters, Mount Saint Mary’s, North Dakota State, Western Michigan, or Louisiana-Lafayette should stick around long enough for me to do some auditing, right?

*As most fans know all too well, the expansion of the tournament field from 65 to 68 led media types to refer to the Round of 64 as “second-round” games. Let’s not tolerate this anymore, guys and girls. The play-in game was never called the “first round,” and having four play-in games shouldn’t change that.

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