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march sadness
by dirk cotton

March Madness ends tomorrow night in Houston with a game between UConn and Butler that one sports headline today called “David vs. David”.

Even Kentucky fans who thought two weeks ago that they had little chance of getting past top-ranked Ohio State and then Carolina to reach the Final Four are now devastated because they didn’t win it all.

Isolated from most UK alumni here in Chapel Hill, I follow Twitter and FaceBook, and sometimes John Clay’s LiveBlog during basketball games. In some ways, it’s the modern equivalent of watching the game on TV surrounded by friends in someone’s family room.

Often, though, it makes me long for the days before social media when fans who whine anytime their team doesn’t have a 20-point lead, and people who never even played the game insist on offering coaching advice, could only annoy their spouses.

My wife won’t watch UK basketball games with me. It’s not that my screaming or jumping off the couch to punch the air frighten her as it does the cat (Marco won’t watch games with me, either), it’s that she is totally convinced that the Wildcats will lose any game she watches.

Instead, she wanders the house and when I come upstairs for a beer, she shakes her head and says, “It doesn’t sound good. It doesn’t sound good.”

She knows that if I’m not screaming, we’re either losing or we’re so far ahead that another basket doesn’t excite me. She’s inclined to always assume the worst, so as to be rarely disappointed, so she interprets quiet as bad news.

Sometimes when we have a big lead, I scream just to let her know we’re not losing.

My wife is not alone, of course. Several UK fans complained on FaceBook that it was bad luck for UK to cut down the nets after they won the East Regional.

Another suggested that I shouldn’t have bought a Final Four t-shirt, because that would make it less likely that I would get to buy a national championship t-shirt a week later.

Madness. I don’t buy into that superstitious crap.

When my son, Cary, comes over to watch the game with his fiancée, Jay, we jump off the couch, scream and bump fists. (It’s a much more effective maneuver when there are two of you.)

Jay won’t watch the games with us, either. She sits upstairs with my wife watching the game on a small TV in the kitchen and trying to calm the cat.

An interesting online discussion erupted after UK’s one-point loss to UConn on Saturday. And when I say interesting, I mean odd. Kentucky sportswriters were asked why they thought the Cats lost the game.

In case you didn’t see the game, let me set up the final few seconds.

UK trailed by two points in the waning moments, but had possession. DeAndre Liggins, perhaps the player who had done the most in postseason play to bring UK within one possession of the title game, took a three-point shot that missed by a fraction of an inch and bounced off the rim. UConn got the rebound.

Had Liggins’ shot gone in, UK almost certainly would have won the game. It didn’t fall, making UK’s loss also nearly certain.

Sportswriters blamed the loss on poor foul shooting, a poor performance by our point guard, a less-than-stellar game from our center, poor shooting from the field, and Muammar Gaddafi’s refusal to turn over the Libyan government to a democratic successor, but the cause of the loss seems straightforward: Liggins’ shot didn’t fall.

If that three-pointer falls, it doesn’t matter if UK played the worst game of its storied history or the best, UK wins. And, if it does not fall, point guard play doesn’t matter, nor does free-throw percentage. We lose.

It’s difficult to identify a cause for a team’s five- or ten-point loss, but it isn’t difficult to determine the cause of a one-possession loss. Your team either won that possession (and the game) or it did not.

U.S. law has dealt with a similar question for some time. The term “proximate cause” acknowledges that events have many contributing factors, but at some point there is a last person in a chain of events who could have changed the outcome. In court, that’s the guy who is most liable.

Yes, the outcome of the UK-UConn game might have been different if Brandon Knight had played better, Shabazz Napier’s outrageous flop had been caught by the referee instead of just the cameras, or Kemba Walker’s parents had never met, but none of these deserves to be called a “cause” for the loss.

Otherwise, you could blame the loss to UConn on UK’s having beaten Princeton, West Virginia, Ohio State and North Carolina. Without those wins, UK wouldn’t have lost to UConn.

One analyst suggested John Calhoun out-coached John Calipari. If Liggins’ shot had been a half-inch to the right, would Calipari have out-coached Calhoun?

Absolute madness.

You really can’t ask for more from a game against an evenly matched opponent than to have the ball at the end of the game with the opportunity to win. UK had that situation and didn’t score and that is the cause for the loss.

Ken Pomeroy seemed equally mad on Saturday evening. The statistician who claims that he only works with probabilities tweeted that he didn’t understand why people thought UK would win this game, UK having lost to UConn last November and not really having improved that much. Yet, his website ranked UK 4th and UConn 12th and estimated a 58% probability of a Kentucky victory, based purely on probabilities, of course.

Calculating the probabilities and then arguing something entirely different. What is he, the Fox News of college basketball?

Cary told me before the UConn game that he would be glad when the tournament was over because he couldn’t take the stress a lot longer. Have to admit that I felt the same.

There are several signs that things have gone too far. Some Kentucky fans are upset over a Forbes magazine article calling John Calipari the most overpaid coach in college basketball. Yeah, Forbes. I get all my sports analysis and insight from Forbes. And I can't wait for Sports Illustrated's annual ranking of hedge funds.

But I really knew things had gotten out of hand when I read a newspaper column saying that if you ask a lot of men about their most valued possession, you'll be surprised how many guys name something their grandfather gave them. So, I asked my FaceBook friends if this was true and what was their most valued possession.

One said a gold watch from grandpa and one said grandpa's bible, but one of them answered that his most valued possession is "the final one of the second half".

Now that it’s over for UK and North Carolina, my UNC baseball buddies are somewhat civil again. Brimming with southern hospitality most of the year, several of them turn into total asses at tournament time. Afterward, they act like it never happened.

“Sorry I was an ass during the tournament, but it’s all good now, right?”

Hardly. Your symptoms may have subsided, but you’re still infected.

So now I sit alone at the baseball stadium in a UK baseball cap and a Carolina t-shirt, cheering for someone else’s alma mater because mine is too far away. Feels like freshman year of high school.

I get to sit in the warm April sun, watching college baseball in a relatively sane environment, and dream about next year’s NCAA tournament. A reprieve from the exhausting madness.

Last year we made the Elite 8. This year the Final Four, missing the title game by a single point.

I’m seeing a trend.

Maybe I won't buy a Final Four t-shirt next year, though.


Dirk Cotton is a retired executive of a Fortune 500 Internet company who loves to spend time with his family, fly fish, shoot sporting clays, attend college baseball games, sail, follow the Wildcats, and write. Everything else he does is just for fun. A computer programmer-cum-marketing executive-cum-financial planner who now wants to be a writer, he apparently can't decide what he wants to be when he grows up. He and his family moved to The Southern Part of Heaven in 2005 and couldn't be happier with that decision.

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