Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

George Mason Saves the NCAA Tournament

The men's NCAA basketball tournament always has a couple of upsets that shock, and even delight, fans. Frank Deford thinks the inclusion of George Mason University in this year's Final Four tournament is a welcome surprise.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Commentator Frank Deford will be watching the semi-finals in the NCAA basketball tournament this weekend and excited about the prospect.

FRANK DEFORD reporting:

Surely the NCAA basketball tournament has such special appeal because it is, of all our great championships, so quintessentially illustrative of our national contradictions. It manages to be the perfect mix of illusion and reality alike, of democracy and privilege, side-by-side.

The NCAA's begin as the American dream, athletic division, boasting that every college team in the country has the chance to make the tournament. And the tournament itself is just down-home as commercials. It doesn't have a stylish name, no world-this, no cup-that. Rather it only goes by a schlocky tag line, March Madness, as if it were a kitchen product peddled by Madison Avenue.

By now, too, alliteration has run amok, classic American excess. Not only March Madness and Final Four but, the Sweet 16 and heaven help us, the Elite 8--classic American euphemism. We made the elite 8 sound so much better than: we got beat in the quarter-finals.

Many teams qualify for the tournament by winning their conferences. The others, those--at-large--so-called, must be selected. It's like being led into a fraternity or a country club. Teams are supposed to be admitted on the basis of merit, but the more connected colleges--that is those in the fancy conferences--always seem to snare the most positions even if they have lesser records.

The establishment-bracket experts are aghast whenever some tacky, little, nouveau, commuter school like George Mason, somehow gets chosen instead of a traditional basketball, white-shoe State U. And just as in the United States we don't want to admit that there are any class differences and everybody is in the middle-class, so too, do all the lower division conferences--like something known as the Colonial Athletic Association--call themselves mid-majors. We all feel so much better that way, don't we?

But then in the end, of course, justice in real life after all the hoopla about Cinderella; after the little Northwestern states, and Bradleys, and Bucknells have had their moment in the sun; the big schools that gave scholarships to all the high school blue-chippers are the ones that always win. You see, by then March is coming to an end and it's back to reality. The Final Four is April aristocracy.

Except, of course, this year. What George Mason of that Colonial Athletic Association has done, is not just be an underdog, a feel-good story, it has, after all these years, validated the sweet myth of March Madness. The Patriots of George Mason have made us believe again, in what's always been hyped, but which we've come to fear was really only another con.

So, if you really care for NCAA basketball and you don't live in Florida, Louisiana or Southern California, you have to cheer for George Mason. That's my Patriots Act.

MONTAGNE: The comments of Frank Deford, senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated. He joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford