Sunday, March 21, 2010

The All-Upset Squad

Here at The Humboldt (the classy Victorian establishment just off Highway 101 where young men of good quality may take boarding-rooms), we spent the weekend watching basketball. We've no sustained rooting interest; I believe the Stanford Men's basketball team is currently the practice squad for the Stanford Women, so even I have nothing personally invested. We just want to watch good games, and the NCAA Tournament has provided quite a few so far. Fresh upsets trickle in every day, as mid-majors find a way to squeak out one win against superior competition.

On one hand, this is the same trend we've seen in other college sports over the past decade: a flattening effect. The fact that huge numbers of college games get broadcast on television spreads out the talent more evenly amongst schools. But the fact remains: were this tournament to be played in a series format, the upsets (uncommon at the best of times) would become vanishingly rare. As I know from my college Ultimate career, upsets are fundamentally rooted in the element of surprise. You can say "we were the best team today" after it's all over, but that's not really true. The other guys were the best team. You came out swinging, made a couple big shots and kept it rolling. You knocked them down early, jumped on top of them and wailed away until the last whistle. Your team wasn't great, but your effort and execution was. The moment was special; the team just made it possible. And since the St. Mary's of the world (on whose bandwagon we have eagerly jumped) aren't legitimate threats to win the whole tournament, isn't the moment what really counts?

I've tried to process the games I've seen and understand the crucial elements of these shining moments. If I could build an NCAA Tournament All-Upset squad--the combination of players and archetypes that best lend themselves to upsetting traditional college basketball powers--how would I do it? And would I place my findings in the context of RPG gaming? The first question was difficult. The second was not. I don't actually know how many kids are allowed on an NCAA roster (that Wikipedia page is much further away than other Wikipedia pages and I don't feel like driving), but in practice only 8-9 kids actually play during most Tournament games and we'll stick to that. Roster slots 10-12 wouldn't have been funny anyway. I'm convinced that all successful basketball teams can be explained in terms of RPG parties, so we'll look at the tournament through that lens. For clarity, when I say "RPG parties" I mean the groups of characters in a role-playing game, not a party where dorks congregate to play RPGs. I may have a disease, but I'm not that far gone.

Center: The Tank
Class: Warrior
Primary Attribute: Strength
This kid is simply the biggest thing on the court. He isn't terribly athletic because if he were, he'd be playing for the very same Cobra Kai motherfuckers you're trying to take down. This is your Omar Sanham, who looks like some goon at the local blacktop court but is really goddamn good nonetheless. So he becomes the tank: the guy up front who takes the punishment and deals out enough of it to keep himself the opposition's focus. If you can support him with solid healing (point guard; we'll get to that) and offense (shooters; later) you can ride his mighty shoulders and doughy bulk to victory. This player is an old-fashioned bruiser and the quick, athletic guards employed by powerhouse schools just can't deal with him. He has too many Hit Points, and they'll eventually get picked apart by the supporting cast. Who we will get to eventually.

Power Forward: The Barbarian
Dual Class: Warrior/Rogue
Primary Attributes: Strength/Dexterity
I can't really think of a perfect example off the top of my head because I don't know anybody's names in college basketball. How can I, when all the best players leave every year and there's like 80 decent teams? But this guy is the sort of player who never quite had the talent to wow the NBA scouts, but he does look the part. He functions in a damage-dealing role (scoring point) and has the physical tools to overpower the aforementioned small athletic guards. Additionally, his lousy NBA prospects means he's stayed in school. He's 21 years old with years of high-level basketball experience, and he's not intimidated by anyone. His attitude and copious tattoos add flavor to his role as Barbarian.

Shooting Guard: The Sharpshooter
Class: Ranger
Primary Attribute: Dexterity
Not one of those lame animal-focused Rangers that have pets and build traps. Real Rangers have big goddamn bows and they shoot things with 'em. This year's Platonic ideal for the Sharpshooter role has to be Ali Farokhmanesh, who hoisted an incredibly ballsy (and ill-advised) three at the end of the Kansas-Northern Iowa game. His shot was a horrible brain fart up until the point where it went into the hoop and became an absolute dagger in Kansas' collective hearts. Mickey McConnell from St. Mary's banked in a deep three at the end of their win over Villanova, which was ridiculous because nobody banks in a three. At the same time, he never flinched or made a face like you'd expect if that wasn't how he meant to shoot it. In any event, these guys make up for poor size and athleticism by shooting the lights out. White people had to create the three-point line so our shots could count for 50% more than black players' shots. "But Tony, black players shoot threes all the time." Yes, but we didn't think of that. There were plenty of things back then we didn't think other races should be able to do. Like vote.

Small Forward: The Druid
Dual Class: Mage/Warrior
Primary Attributes: Intelligence/Strength
The Druid adapts to the situation and the needs of the party. If the Tank is swarmed with opponents, he rains fire from the perimeter. When the subs are in, he picks up the slack and drives to the rim. He does a lot of rebounding and passing. He isn't the glue that holds the party together, but he has some unique capabilities that come in handy. Like if a giant ferocious beast appears, the Druid can use his magic to lull it to sleep. I don't know what the basketball equivalent of that would be. The Druid isn't the cornerstone of the party, but he smooths out the kinks and plugs the holes.

Point Guard: The Captain
Class: Priest
Primary Attributes: Intelligence
The point guard is the beating heart of the team, because it is through him that the ball flows. His relationship with the Tank is crucial, as he makes the centerpiece of the team more effective. For the All-Upset team, the point guard should be a scrappy little guy who's on the edge of losing control at all times. There was a moment during the St. Mary's-Villanova game where the Mary's point guard tripped and fell, but kept his dribble going. He got to his feet and hoisted a three because clearly God wanted him to take that shot. Of course it went in.

The Bench: Flavor!
Classes and Attributes vary
First, you need a sixth man. It's best if he's a white guy who's really excited to be in the game. This makes him a fan favorite because normal jackoffs identify with him. They too would be excited to play some basketball on TV. Let's do it! As for the rest of the bench, their most important function is cheering on the good players. Their psychotic jumping, cheering and bench rituals propel the guys on the court to greater heights. The bench prefers to keep their mouthguards in, so they look like Sloth cheering on Chunk whenever The Sharpshooter bangs in a three. They represent an aesthetically-pleasing ethnic paella of scrubs--since they're not going to play or contribute much of anything to the actual game, we can afford an entertaining cast of characters. Maybe one of them has a terrible tragedy in his past that he's playing through, like a basketball fell out of a plane and killed his sister, but he stuck with the team and his strength inspires everyone else. We're all so proud.

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