The Upsetting Nature Of March Madness

It's March Madness — college basketball playoffs! NPR's Rachel Martin talks with Slate.com's Mike Pesca for his take on the week in sports.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: That music means it's time to talk sports, specifically college basketball. And to do that we're going to have to talk about a lot of teams most people didn't think we would be talking about. The story of March Madness so far seems to be all the upsets. Upsets everywhere. The whole thing is so darn upsetting. To guide us through this turbulent time, we're joined by Slate.com's Mike Pesca. That just rolls off the tongue. Hey, Mike.

MIKE PESCA: I thrill to it. I don't find it upsetting. Well, I have equity already.

MARTIN: You love it. Yeah, yeah. OK. So, there were a lot of games, but what are the big headlines from last night if we didn't stay up to watch them?

PESCA: Sure. Well, the very last game, the highest seed to fall in the tournament - Villanova - number two seed is gone. Now, Villanova lost to Connecticut. If you asked me before the tournament who's going to win, I'd say probably Villanova, but UConn's a really good team. So, it was an upset by seed but maybe not by quality of teams. And also there's an 11-seeded team, Dayton. They beat Syracuse. Syracuse was a three seed, and they started the season, you know, 25-0, but they had been reeling as of late. So, I think the upsets of the teams that are now in the field of 16 is more a case of - I will have to say it - the teams that won are great are deserving but they did play opponents who are ripe for the plucking.

MARTIN: OK. So, you know, everyone seems to have been stumped by a lot of these. But the official NCAA rankings, the seedings seem to be especially off, right?

PESCA: Yes. That is true. And so I was talking about Syracuse. You have to seed them high over the overall strength of their body of play during the season, but everyone knew they were reeling coming in. But the NCAA committee goes by this thing called the RPI, the Ratings Percentage Index. It's just a really flawed way to see the tournament. And the crowd, the wisdom of the crowd, including Las Vegas, where people put their money on this, kind of rose up this year and said, no. The favorites aren't the one seeds and the two seeds. We're going to make Louisville one of the favorites of the tournament. We're going to make Michigan State, and those are four seeds. So, the tournament are saying these are best the 13th-best team in the country. But the people who bet their money say, no, we think they're going to win the whole thing. And it's just because the guys who seed the thing and decide who's going to play have this antiquated method. There are so many methods out there. But I guess they don't care, because the NCAA postseason tournament makes more money than any other sports postseason tournament, including the culturally dominant NFL.

MARTIN: Which is why this next subject is so flummoxing - if that's a word - to me. Because you mentioned to me...

PESCA: Yes, it is. (Unintelligible) so, yeah, I'm taking it.

MARTIN: Off the radio, you told that college basketball is actually not very popular, and I still don't really understand how that could be if the tournament is such a big thing.

PESCA: Exactly. It's the structure of the tournament is exciting. And, look, the teams are exciting and they all have their fan bases, plus there are 65 games in the tournament. So, there's a lot of action and a lot of inventory - someone who programs television would say. And it's betting. People love to bet on the tournament, which is a big thing. But, you know, the major issue here is I think that NCAA, if you look at Harris poll, every year they ask what's your favorite sport? Football comes out first and then there's a question of if college football or baseball is the second-best sport. NCAA basketball polls at like 5 percent, and they haven't been at even double digits. I think one year they popped at 10 percent in, like, 1990. It just is not a popular sport for a lot of reasons, but it's an extremely popular tournament. Maybe other sports can take a lesson from that.

MARTIN: Seriously.

PESCA: No, no matter what your boring sport is, if you have this, like, excitement of a one-and-done tournament with a lot of mascots and cheerleaders, people will tune in.

MARTIN: Funny that. OK. Curveball - you got one?

PESCA: I do. I have isolated the worst question in sports, possibly the worst question in journalism. Now, it's not - this isn't the worst 'cause it's one ridiculous question, what kind of tree would you be? It's the worst 'cause it's always asked and it has never gotten a good answer.

MARTIN: Tell me.

PESCA: Here, let's play a clip of this question being asked after North Dakota State won their first game.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Your thoughts going into the second round and how much confidence you have going into the second round now and if you prefer one opponent over the other between New Mexico State and San Diego State.

PESCA: To which Marshall Bjorklund, who you're hearing there, said, you know, we're just happy to be here. We're not going to choose who we want to play. What if we get the wrong guy? This is asked all the time. Johnny Dawkins was asked, hey, who'd you rather play: Kansas, this team loaded with NBA players, or Eastern Kentucky? Dawkins, coach of Stanford said:

JOHNNY DAWKINS: And both those teams are great. You know, neither one of those teams would be here if they weren't very good at what they do.

PESCA: Maybe the team with the NBA players would be harder, but no one - I am telling you, I've been in so many press conferences - no one has ever said we'll pick that team.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You never ask that question. Mike Pesca of Slate.com. You can hear him every week on his "Hang Up and Listen" podcast. Thanks so much, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome.

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