Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Rooting Interest

Originally published on AOL Hometown

On Selection Sunday, as the brackets for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament were being revealed, the grim reality gradually sank in that my school, the University of Maryland, would not be invited for the first time since 1993.

Once I finished sulking about that, I faced the next logical issue—figuring out who I would root for during the tournament. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t need a rooting interest in order to watch a basketball game, but it does enhance the experience for me, and I gather many other fans. If I can buy into a game emotionally, I can reap greater rewards if my team wins. I can also suffer greater consequences when they lose, but it’s that uncertainty that is at the very heart of the experience of watching these games.

This concept can work two different ways. As I viewed this year’s NCAA tournament brackets sans Maryland, I focused on three groups of schools. First, there were teams I liked—Illinois, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Southern Illinois, and Boston College.

The second group consisted of schools I didn’t have strong feelings about but I predicted would advance on my bracket sheet—Connecticut, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, (yes, folks, I drank the kool-aid for the Big East and it led to my demise), Florida, and Gonzaga.

The third group I looked at was the teams I rooted against. This rogue’s gallery was headlined by Duke and also included North Carolina and Texas Tech (any team coached by Bob Knight makes this list). One standard topic of debate at this time of year among college hoops fans is the issue of rooting for or against teams from your school’s conference.

In the “for” camp, the argument is often made that the success of conference opponents will ultimately improve the stature of every member school including the one you cheer for, therefore you should cheer for them. Accepting this point would have required me to root for Duke and North Carolina in the tournament.


I have pitched my tent in the “against” camp on this issue. I just don’t see how you can have an intense, even nasty, rivalry with a team throughout a season only to flip a switch in the post-season and cheer for them because of some intangible benefit your team could receive.

At Maryland, fans have turned hating Duke into a passion bordering on a religion. Carolina has also been a huge thorn in the Terps' side over the years. I will not condone the outright hatred of any team or player or coach (boy, that’s not easy to write) because God doesn’t want us to hate or judge anyone. He does not, however, say I have to root for everyone either, so I have no problem joining my fellow Maryland alumni and fans in rejoicing at the early demise of the Blue Devils in their Sweet Sixteen loss to Michigan State.

Sadly, I did not see Duke’s loss. I was at a Good Friday church service while the game was being played. As soon as I left the service, I hustled to my car and turned on the radio broadcast, which was in the post-game wrap-up. As soon as I heard the score, I giggled and squealed with delight like a little girl. I figured, okay, I did my part by choosing the service over the game, and the Big Guy did his part by seeing to it that the evil ones (Blue Devils) were vanquished.

Isn’t it interesting (or pathetic) to see how a fan can take credit for something he had absolutely no influence over? Or didn’t I? Did any Duke fans give up watching the game to attend church? Hmmmm.

Like so many college basketball fans, I reveled in the drama and high quality of play in the Elite Eight games last weekend. You didn’t need a strong rooting interest to appreciate the amazing shot-making of West Virginia, the gutsy comeback by Illinois, and the drama in the Michigan State-Kentucky game. My only concern going into those contests was having a clear rooting interest in the Final Four matchups. After all, it’s harder to justify spending Saturday night in a sports bar if I don’t care who wins the games.

Fortunately, I’m all set for the Final Four. I have Illinois to root for in the first game and North Carolina to root against in the second. I had a similar situation last year, when I was cheering for Georgia Tech and against Duke and went 2-0, and I hope for the same results this year.

Here’s something else to think about; if North Carolina goes all the way and wins the title, can the cosmic balance withstand Phil Mickelson winning the Masters, the Red Sox winning the World Series, and Roy Williams winning a national championship, all within 12 months of each other? Personally, I doubt it.

You’re all welcome to pitch a tent in my camp and root against it.


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