Why this year’s NCAA basketball tournaments could be the most unpredictable ever

Why this year’s NCAA basketball tournaments could be the most unpredictable ever March 21, 2024

The 2024 NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments kick off today, so if your office seems a bit more sparsely populated or email responses come slower than usual, now you know why. And the lengths to which some will go in order to watch the tournament’s opening days of chaos speak volumes to the place it has within our cultural psyche:

  • A reported 37 percent of Americans are willing to call in sick or skip work to watch March Madness.
  • One in five have canceled dates or birthday parties in order to catch the games.
  • Those not willing to skip work will watch an average of six hours of tournament play while on the clock (and that was the estimate before working from home became more common).
  • For men not willing to fake an injury or illness, March Madness is the most popular time of the year to get a vasectomy and have a legitimate reason not to leave the couch.

One of the primary reasons for the tournament’s popularity—especially its opening days—is the fact that it truly feels like anything can happen in most of these games.

As I wrote last year,

Upsets are common and, unless they happen to your school, we get to embrace the seeming randomness of each game’s outcome without being personally invested in the results. We can root for the underdogs without any sense of disappointment when they lose. There aren’t many other areas of our lives where we can emotionally invest in something without any real risk if it doesn’t go our way.

And considering the ways in which the sport has fundamentally changed over the last few years, this season’s tournament could be as unpredictable as any before it.

NIL money, transfer portals, and the chance to choose

As Billy Witz notes,

Three years ago, under mounting legislative and judicial pressure, the N.C.A.A. changed two major rules. It allowed athletes to make money from so-called name, image and likeness payments, and it eased restrictions on players transferring from one school to another. Those changes — prompted in part by a Supreme Court ruling that weakened the N.C.A.A.’s authority — have upended the top levels of college sports.

As a result, previously unseen levels of parity exist in a sport that used to be dominated by the blue-blood programs that routinely recruited the nation’s best prospects. Now—for better or worse—those players often go to the programs where they can get the most playing time while padding both their résumé and their bank accounts in the process.

While it would be naïve to assume that paying players is new to the sport, the ability to do so in the open has changed the way many of these young men and women have come to view their time in college. And given how much can ride on finding the right fit and opportunity, many of them are better off for it.

Consider this: Of Krysten Peek’s eight players who could help themselves the most in this year’s tournament, five of them started their college careers playing somewhere else. And before the tournament even started, a little more than 10 percent of players on the men’s side of Division I entered the transfer portal with the hopes of finding a better situation for next season.

For some, it will work out well. For others, it will not, with some losing the scholarship they had in the failed pursuit of a better opportunity.

Either way, though, most players seem to relish the chance to make that choice for themselves. And there is an important lesson in that reality for us today.

The consequences of free will

One of the fundamental truths of what it means to be created in the image of God is that we possess the freedom to choose how we will use the life he’s given us.

Now, that doesn’t mean we can do anything, as all free will exists more as a menu of options than the absence of limitations. But our heavenly Father created us to go through life with the ability to decide how we will approach it.

Ideally, we would use that freedom to choose to love and obey him. That is far and away the best approach, and Scripture makes that abundantly clear across its pages. But Scripture is also clear that the gift of freedom requires us to own the results of our decisions (Galatians 6:7–8).

We don’t get to make a choice and blame God or anyone else for how it turns out.

Ultimately, those consequences belong to us, and it’s a sign of maturity—both emotional and spiritual—to be able to accept those consequences and move forward. That doesn’t mean we have to like the results. But whether it’s a busted bracket or something of far greater consequence, when we choose to live in the past, we greatly reduce what the Lord can do through us in the present.

So choose instead to learn from your experiences, then move on to wherever God leads next. That’s how we grow, both as people and in our walk with the Lord.

Where do you need to experience that kind of growth today?

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