Gonzaga is not the best team in the country. Gonzaga may not even be one of the ten best teams in the country. Gonzaga’s record against the AP Top 25 is 1-2, which includes losses to two teams that have since fallen out of the poll, Butler and Illinois.
Yet Gonzaga is now ranked #1 in the AP poll. Despite having beaten only one top-25 team and feasting on what analyst Ken Pomeroy rates as the nation’s 94th-hardest schedule, that number-one ranking is not wrong. It’s not right, but it’s not wrong. No college basketball regular season event is right or wrong. The college regular season is nihilism. The AP poll means nothing, Lebowski.
Think of it this way: the regular season is life, and March Madness is Death. March Madness/Death overwhelms all that comes before it. In human civilization, most systems of morality are predicated on the idea that we should care about what happens during life because it will affect what happens when we die — that we will be rewarded or punished in the afterlife for what we do here. The college basketball equivalent of this belief system is the idea that the regular season is important because good lives (good regular seasons) are rewarded in the afterlife (the Tournament) with high seeds.
But a high seed is far from a ticket to heaven. A single-elimination, six-round tournament is a preposterously random way to determine a champion. All that faith, all those good deeds, all those impressive victories over teams with top-50 RPI, can go right out the window in the blink of a 5’11” walk-on’s lucky three-pointer, while some goofballs who didn’t even have a winning record in their own conference — the basketball equivalent of a life spent lying and cheating and coveting neighbors’ goods — go skipping away with the title.
One becomes disillusioned. One realizes that the Selection Committee cannot be both all-knowing, all-good, and all-powerful.
But this is simply the cost of having a playoff system that generates excitement through randomness. The significance of any given sport’s regular season exists in an inverse relationship with the uncertainty of the playoffs. On one hand, you have college basketball; on the other, you have international soccer leagues, where the regular season is basically everything because there are no playoffs at all — the sporting equivalent of secular humanism. In soccer, it is possible to create meaning out of merely a life well-lived/a season well-played. (This explains why soccer is the most popular sport in France.)
But this is America, a land of extreme ethical divergence, of Puritanism and Las Vegas. Where good behavior is either rewarded in the afterlife with home-field advantage and bye weeks, or everything comes down to single-elimination coin flips. College basketball, needless to say, settles on the gambler’s side of that dichotomy. And if there is no God, Gonzaga at number one is permitted.