Our Best Stuff From a Week of (March) Madness
Plus: The latest from Ukraine, and reporting on the Georgia GOP gubernatorial primary.
Happy Sunday. When I warned you two weeks ago that I might take last week off, I said if you didn’t hear from me that it meant my NCAA March Madness bracket was either in excellent shape or in tatters. If you’re curious … let’s just say that I didn’t have tiny St. Peter’s in my Elite Eight.
I’ve long called March Madness the second-most wonderful time of the year, and I’m not joking. I remember as a kid waiting impatiently for Sports Illustrated to arrive in the days before the tournament kicked off so I could carefully remove the pristine empty bracket that served as the centerfold advertisement (and I think I remember it being sponsored by Camel cigarettes more than once, if you want to know how old I am) and fill it out with my predictions. Could I predict an upset that made me look like a genius? Would I ever predict the actual winner? (1. sometimes, and 2. not that I can remember.)
The national championship game was always special when I was growing up, because it was a rare school night that our parents didn’t try to send my brother and me to bed at a decent hour. I remember switching my allegiance from Houston’s “Phi Slamma Jamma” to Jim Valvano’s North Carolina State at halftime of the 1983 title game, and then watching Valvano run all over the court looking for someone to hug when his team pulled off the upset. I remember in 1991 doing my senior-year research paper—for English class—on the history of the NCAA Tournament and preparing to make a big to-do about the historical significance of UNLV winning back-to-back titles. And then having to scramble when Duke beat UNLV. That established a lifelong grudge against the Blue Devils that has been fueled by Duke’s consistent ability to recruit some of the least-likable players in the game, from Christian Laettner in the early ‘90s to Grayson Allen just a few years ago.
College sports have changed tremendously in the last quarter century, not always (or even usually) for the better, and the TV money generated by events like March Madness is part of it. We’ve seen coaches’ salaries skyrocket and watched them hop from job to job, leaving behind players they had recruited while staying one step ahead of the NCAA’s compliance police. We criticize college football players for sitting out bowl games that are largely meaningless but profitable, just because they don’t want to risk their own financial fortunes by getting injured right before the NFL Draft. We’ve watched the NCAA reap billions from big events while arguing for the importance of athletes’ amateur status (that facade has cracked, fortunately).
But there is something about March Madness in particular that still shows sports at its purest and most joyful. In making sure that each conference is represented by at least one team, it lets the little guys prove their mettle against the powerhouses. It creates folk heroes like Ron Hunter, who literally fell out of his seat when his No. 14 Georgia State team knocked off No. 3 Baylor in the first round in 2015—on a game-winning 3-pointer from Hunter’s son. It lets the nation fall in love with people like Sister Jean. Sister Jean is the team chaplain for Loyola University, and she was 98 in 2018 when she cheered the 11th-seeded Ramblers on to the Final Four thanks to a series of buzzer beaters. (I even felt a twinge of guilt rooting for Ohio State against Loyola in the first round this year.)
Sports, like the rest of the world, are complicated. But for a few weeks in March, college basketball gives us a break from all the unpleasantness and makes the world unpredictable in—at least briefly—delightful ways. You can hit the beach for spring break; I’ll be on my couch with remote in hand.
As for the rest of the world, there has been plenty going on, and we have you covered below. Thanks for reading.
Russian troops took over Kherson, a southern city of about 280,000 people, in the first days of the invasion of Ukraine. While there are few military clashes ongoing, a humanitarian crisis is brewing in the city. Charlotte details efforts to pass out remaining food and medical supplies, and how many residents are refusing Russian assistance. She also writes about how Russia envsions Kherson as another “breakaway state” on par with Donetsk and Luhansk. “Such a plan for eastern Ukraine was articulated during Moscow’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, but its planned reach might be much broader this time around. In an ‘expert analysis’ published by the Russian state-run RT news outlet, a Putin-friendly think-tanker proposed a ‘Novorussian people’s republic, with a capital situation near Kherson in the south.’” One thing the Russians didn’t prepare for: the strength of the resistance they would encounter.
Primary season is here, and we’re hitting the road. Andrew traveled to Georgia this week to check in on the gubernatorial race. Brian Kemp won the general election in 2018, but it was extremely close and his opponent Stacey Abrams’ turnout efforts mobilized voters and helped turn Georgia blue in 2020. She’s back and presents a formidable challenge—assuming Kemp wins his primary challenge over David Perdue. Kemp has solid conservative credentials, except for one little thing: He refused to indulge any of Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the election in Georgia. For now, though, Kemp is ahead comfortably. Andrew asks: “With a growing share of Republicans focused on affecting the future rather than relitigating the past, how far can a 2020 sour-grapes message and a stamp of Trump’s approval carry a candidate with few other natural advantages in the head-to-head?”
On Monday, a pro-Putin Russian tabloid published an article that claimed more than 9,800 Russian troops had died in Ukraine. That was almost 20 times the number that Russia had admitted to before, and the article was quickly deleted and replaced with a version that didn’t include the death toll while the paper said it was hacked. I reached out to Andrew Fink, a Ph.D. in the history of propaganda who lived in Ukraine for several years (you can see why he’s become a valuable contributor), to see what he made of it. He lays out a few theories—Ukrainian hacktivitsts, an honest mistake, even Russian sources providing real numbers and then blaming hackers. Then he dives into the different ways that we can judge what kind of casualties Russia has experienced without knowing a precise death count: a lack of significant victories, claims that five (now up to seven) Russian generals have been killed, and reports that Russia is rushing to bring in reinforcements.
And now for the best of the rest.
Inspired by a trip to Costco where he saw lines 15 deep of people sitting in their cars waiting for gas, Scott Lincome explains the concept of “opportunity cost” in his latest Capitolism (🔒) and how it affects both our individual choices and public policy. Takeaway: Too often we undervalue our time.
Earlier this month, David wrote a FAQ on Ukraine after one week of war. Since conditions on the ground have changed—to say the least—he used his Tuesday French Press (🔒) to publish another series of questions and answers after a month of war.
Giselle Donnelly writes that Russia’s stalled effort in Ukraine provides the West with an opportunity to help the Ukrainians. What do they need? “The Ukrainian military needs five kinds of capabilities: greater direct firepower, more mobility, longer-range weapons (both artillery and air defense), operational logistics, and nimble command-and-control arrangements to manage a more fluid fight.”
The House passed a bill to strip Russia of its most favored nation trading status, but it’s being held up in the Senate, largely because of Rand Paul. Is Paul just being his normal contrarian self? Haley explains that it’s a little more complicated than that in the Friday edition of Uphill (🔒).
On the pods: On Good Faith, David and his co-host Curtis Chang discuss the war in Ukraine and how to pay meaningful attention without falling into the trap of perverse enjoyment. Steve interviews Taras Byk, who is working with the Territorial Defense Forces in Kyiv, about conditions on the ground in Kyiv for The Dispatch Podcast. On Advisory Opinions, David and Sarah recap the confirmation hearings for Ketanji Brown Jackson. And I’ll recommend Jonah’s conversation with Kevin Williamson on The Remnant even if Kevin disses my home state of Ohio.