Little Lion Men: Why We Love the Underdog in March

Natalie ChladekContributor IMarch 13, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS - APRIL 05:  A general view of the Butler Bulldogs playing against the Duke Blue Devils during the 2010 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball National Championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium on April 5, 2010 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

On Selection Sunday, 68 teams will hear their names announced on national television.  Some of these teams already know they will be participating in the NCAA tournament by virtue of winning their conference tournament, others know simply by finishing the year with worthy records or national rankings. 

The rest perch precariously on the bubble, attempting to play their way into the tournament during Championship Week.  The bubble teams hear about their invitations at the same time that the rest of the country does, and the selection show ends in heartbreak for some and jubilation for others.   

The real drama starts the following weekend, though, as Selection Sunday is just the precursor to the NCAA tournament. And for the sports fan, there is no better event than March Madness.  The tournament has it all: suspense, intrigue, heartache and happiness.  The first four days are all basketball all day long, and in the following weekends the games only get better.  And when the final buzzer sounds and the confetti falls, only one of those 68 teams, through some indomitable combination of luck and skill, gets to cut down the nets.   

American companies will lose millions of dollars and hours of productivity this month as employees surreptitiously update ESPN box scores on their computers or take long lunches that correspond with the tipoffs of big games.  Brackets are painstakingly filled out, and regardless of whether you fill yours out after hours of research or if you choose winners based on mascots or school color, the teams you pick instantly become your favorites.  Money is collected for pools, but even for the winners, the real prize is not the money but the yearlong bragging rights, and you can’t put a price on that. 

The great thing about the tournament is that all sorts of teams are invited to participate.  There are the perennial contenders like Kansas and Kentucky, North Carolina and Duke.  There are the no-names like Murray State and Belmont who end up in the tournament more often than not despite lacking the pedigree of the major conference teams.  And then, of course, there are the Cinderellas, the Butlers and George Masons that make devoted fans of us all. 

We never know who will take on the role of giant-killer when the first round begins, but invariably there is at least one, and they are the reason we love the tournament.  We watch March Madness to see the upsets, because it is the rarest of times that the little guys get the chance to take on the powerhouses, and sometimes they even pull off the impossible.  Their faith inspires us, their spirit is infectious, and their unabated enthusiasm reminds us why we watch and play sports.  

We don’t root for George Mason because we know where in the country it is located (Fairfax County, Virginia) or even who George Mason was (American revolutionary and founding father).  Most of us don’t know if they play a zone or man, if they are a half-court team or if they run every time they get the chance.  We root for them because we all love the underdogs, and the Big Dance gives the underdogs the opportunity to shine on a great stage.

2010 was a banner year for the underdogs, with only one No. 1 seed making the Final Four and little-known Butler University making it all the way to the championship.  Led by Gordon Hayward, the baby-faced forward with the skill set of a guard, and Brad Stevens, the brilliant but humble young coach who was mistaken for a team manager during the tournament, the Butler Bulldogs played their way into the hearts of college basketball fans across the country during their magical run that came one three-pointer short of a national championship.  Everyone outside of Durham, North Carolina was rooting for Hayward’s desperate last shot to fall as time expired, but, of course, it did not, and it was heavyweight Duke who hoisted the trophy. 

The underdog has won it all before (the 1985 Villanova Wildcats won the tournament as a No. 8 seed), and someday it will again.  Someday Northwestern, the only BCS school to never make the tournament, will go dancing.  Someday a team will make history as the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 seed.  Someday each of our beloved teams could make a deep run, and we’ll keep watching every March so we don’t miss it when they do.