The appeal of ambiguity

I leaped up off the living room floor, wide-eyed in joyous disbelief at the sight of over 20,000 stunned BYU basketball fans plastered on the TV screen before me.

It was Jan. 16, 2013, and former Saint Mary’s point guard Matthew Dellavedova had just nailed a double-clutch 40-foot basket to win a nail-biter against BYU. The buzzer-beater resulted in a 70-69 victory for the Gaels — sending the home crowd at the Marriott Center into astonished silence as Dellavedova reveled in what was likely the most ecstatic play of his collegiate basketball career. This was the moment I realized that watching a bubble team is what draws me to college basketball.

For Saint Mary’s — and for my 17-year-cultivated fandom — the resonance of that play would extend far beyond a single evening. Dellavedova’s desperate 3-pointer not only solidified a thrilling victory for the Gaels, but also cemented his team’s place in one of the last four spots of the NCAA tournament. Without that shot in mid-January, Saint Mary’s would have likely never seen playing time at the Big Dance in mid-March.

It’s perhaps the crucial nature of every game that inevitably draws me to the narratives of teams that sit on that tenuous balance between NIT and NCAA qualification. Like an indie movie in which you can rarely predict the ending, it’s these squads that deliver a season in which the conclusion remains tantalizingly unknown.

Many fans discuss what their schools’ programs need to do to become the next Duke or UCLA. They’ll say SMU needs more young talent, that Clemson needs to climb its way into the upper echelons of the ACC. But in the meantime, watching a team struggle to the postseason brings its own type of excitement.

If Duke drops a game on the road to a middling opponent, or if it falls to another dominant program, the ramifications aren’t season-altering. Because these perennial powerhouses will have enough wins on their record to still head to the tournament, fans are left with a rather predictable path to follow.

As Cal loses some of its leading contributors from last year’s bubble-team season and welcomes only a few promising new recruits, it will likely face a 2014-15 season much like its last. The year will also mark Cuonzo Martin’s first season as the Bears’ head coach, leaving a lot of questions marks heading into the fall.

But maybe that is exactly the most thrilling type of season to follow. This past Selection Sunday, Justin Cobbs and Richard Solomon sat in front of a camera because people wanted to see their expressions as they were dealt their postseason fates. Audiences yearned to be part of the selection experience, because by that time, they considered themselves a part of the team.

They were there for the night that Cobbs sunk a 16-foot jumper that secured the Bears’ landmark upset of the season, and they watched the team fall apart to unranked USC. The mix left Cal’s postseason up in the air. Some people enjoy the anxiety that comes with following that kind of season, and I’m one of them.

Many might think of calendars with little four-leaf clover illustrations when they picture the month of March, but I think of college basketball. I think of narratives of heartbreak and buzzer-beaters, of Florida Gulf Coast and Gonzaga’s flop in its stint as the No. 1 team in the country. Mostly, I think about the strangely addictive process of holding my breath as I watch every game, knowing that each loss and each victory could ultimately make or break a bubble team’s postseason future.

Contact Dani Jo Coony at [email protected].

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