A Feudal Attempt 

The NCAA's peasants stage their typically glorious, though short-lived, March uprising

The NCAA's peasants stage their typically glorious, though short-lived, March uprising

We've seen all this before, you know. In fact, some historians would say the precedent for this year's particularly feverish brand of March Madness goes all the way back to 1381. That spring, in England, the peasants went nuts and turned their world upside down.

With demand for labor outpacing supply in the aftermath of the Black Death, workers had been able to name their price—until the king and Parliament passed laws to hold down wages artificially. Finally, the grunts rebelled with a vengeance.

Almost spontaneously, it seemed, mobs assembled in the north, south and east of England. They sacked castles and big estates. They took hostages. In June, they converged on London and elected a yokel named Wat Tyler as their leader.

Within the city's walls, they burned the law houses of the Temple (perhaps prompting Shakespeare's line about killing all the lawyers first thing), went stomping into the Savoy Palace, beheaded the Archbishop of Canterbury while they were at it, and then presented a list of their demands.

The young sovereign, Richard II, readily agreed to repeal the offensive laws, impose rent control and even abolish serfdom. He promised to meet with Tyler and other peasant leaders.

But it was all a setup. Almost as soon as the summit began, the king's men whacked the luckless Tyler. The rebellion that still bears his name quickly collapsed, many of the mob that anointed him were summarily slaughtered, and the promised reforms were quietly forgotten.

As if in tribute to Tyler, the NCAA sponsors its own short-lived Peasants' Revolt every March. Just as in 1381, the underclass run amok for a long weekend, wrecking the best-laid plans of their on-court betters (and off-the-court bettors) and living momentarily in the delirium of the conviction that they are going to prevail.

This year has been no different, though perhaps a tad bloodier than most Marches for the bracket-owning class. Of the top 16 seeds in the men's tournament, only eight remained alive after the first weekend. Two No. 2's, Wake Forest and Connecticut, fell quickly—the latter to West Virginia, which (let's be honest) is about as Wat Tylerish as you can get.

On the tournament's second night, No. 3 Kansas was beheaded by Bucknell's five scholarship players, who earned the very first NCAA Tournament victory for the low-born Patriot Conference they represent. Equally stunning, the unheralded Catamounts of Vermont—the civil union state that caused Buster the Bunny to be banned by the Bushrods—toppled big bad Syracuse and their coach, Darth "Jim" Boeheim.

A 12-seed, as usual, scrapped all the way to the Sweet 16. Not as usual, every last one of the sacrificial 15-seeds made each of the No. 2's sweat with fear before finally losing.

Inevitably, though, the nobles regroup and the ancien régime reasserts itself. Look at the Round of 16, and, in spite of all the chevaliers who have fallen, the brackets are almost entirely populated by the usual suspects. There's Kentucky and Duke and Carolina, Illinois and Louisville. In the 'Cuse's place we have overdog Michigan State. Where Kansas fell, Wisconsin filled in.

That's the perennial pattern in Bracketville. For all the celebrated upsets and the delightful, Forest-of-Arden madness that prevail in the first two rounds, there's a numbing sameness to the concluding two tournament weekends.

Not since the 1987 Providence team led by Billy Donovan and coached by Rick Pitino has a true roundball peasant managed to penetrate the Final Four citadel before being crushed. And you have to go back even further, to Jim Valvano's North Carolina State team and Villanova's Georgetown-killers, to find a Cinderella that really managed to live happily ever after.

Maybe that's why, in most years, the NCAAs get noticeably less fun after the first, lost weekend. (The official burning of my red-ink-stained brackets is another reason.) For all the uproar, only three teams seeded below sixth remain. Two of them, West Virginia and N.C. State, have decent chances to survive for one more round.

But if they don't, it's not the end of the world. For most of us, seriously overturning the established order was always too much to hope for. Marching into town with pitchforks and spiking a few of the nobles before we die is enough. Getting one weekend of pure madness in exchange for another year of rule by the same oligarchs is an acceptable trade for us.

Were Spartacus actually to rule over Rome, now that would be the end of the world.


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