2011 NCAA Tournament primer: Saved by the Bell Lessons That Are Still Relevant

As of today, we are only one day away from the start of the 2011 NCAA Basketball Tournament and the best 4 days of continuous sports in any given year. Technically, the tournament started with these First Four games that are going on right now, but who cares? They don’t affect anyone’s bracket and no one got tricked into thinking that they matter. The First Four are like previews for the Saw movies. People might watch them, but nobody thinks they matter, and even if they pay attention, it isn’t because they get any satisfaction, it’s only to get in the spirit for the real show later. It’s really just a chance to give another couple of teams the experience of not actually making the NCAA Tournament, but compounding that despair by forcing them to not even make the NIT. But really, after losing yesterday, all the guys from Arkansas-Little Rock went home and crossed their team off their brackets, in which all 12 of them picked Pitt in the first round. What’s even more embarrassing is that to make sure these teams understand the full extent of the First Four’s uselessness, the bracket creators forced each First Four team to share the same bracket line with their opponent, so they only get to cross off a half a line after they lose.

Anyway, the reason for this post is not to bash the First Four, it’s to take another drink from the Saved by the Bell Lessons That Are Still Relevant well, which is overflowing. Today’s lesson comes from Zack’s War, arguably the most athletically competitive episode of SBTB.

In case you don’t remember the specifics, the Bayside gang gets a visit from an Army Cadet Corps officer, whom he mocks with his trademark nonchalance. After Zack causes too much trouble, Mr. Belding cuts a deal with Zack in which he can avoid a month of detention by getting students to enroll in the Corps program. I’m sure you remember it exactly: Zack is told that the only way out of the Corps is to lead a team of cadets to victory in a sort of skills challenge against another team, led by Slater. And here’s the kicker — Zack gets to pick the teams!

The ever-cunning Morris stacks his team full of great athletes (Butch, Rocko, etc) and loads Slater up with nerds (Alan, Screech, etc.), only to get surprised when the officer turns the tables on him and switches the teams. Zack gets angry and quits, but a rousing speech by Screech inspires him to come back and lead the team in the competition. After an unfortunate rope malfunction in the tie-breaking tug-of-war, Screech (a surprising pick for the obstacle course, because Zack is still a part of the team) edges out Butch in a rigorous tunnel-slide-tires obstacle course and the scrappier nerds have won. We all learn several lessons about loyalty, effort, stick-to-it-iveness, and the like.

Anything can happen, especially in slow motion.

Can you see the NCAA Tournament comparison dots beginning to connect? I hope so, because I’m about to hammer them home in bullet points for you.

  • The underdog can win — Did Screech have an athletic-sounding name like Butch? No. Did he wear his sweat pants with the waist too high? Absolutely. Did he kind of have the inside lane in a one-loop race with no stagger? Certainly. But the real moral of the story is that in any competition, anyone can win a Morris is involved. Luckily for us, there just happen to be a couple of them playing in this thing.
  • It’s all about matchups and coaching — Sure, Screech beat Butch in the final event, but it only got there because there was a 2-2 tie in the first 4 contests. You have to wonder what Slater was thinking matching Kelly up against Zack in the joust and Jessie up against Lisa in the monkey bars. Slater left Rocko sitting on the bench for all 5 events. In the end, the worst coach got punished for his decisions and Zack’s team had the right matchups, and ended up beating a team that looked way better on paper.
  • Good leaders make good teams — Could Zack have beaten Butch in that final obstacle course? Please, he’s Zack Morris. But he ended up giving the final shot to Screech, who was inspired by the selfless display of sportsmanship so much that he drained it. The real lesson is about knowing your own strengths and those of others.
  • Seal the victory early — The final obstacle course shouldn’t have even been necessary for Slater and the blue team to win. They should have matched up against the non-Zacks of the red team and won even without the need for a tie-breaker. And even then, if they could have won the tug-of-war (they had a huge advantage) before the rope split, they would have locked it up right there. Slater’s blue team is a classic example of the perfect way to overlook an opponent and end up losing because they waited too long to seal the deal. The moral of the story is that if you let it run down to the final seconds, anything can happen.
  • Motivation speeches are a must — The big turnaround in this episode was Screech’s poignant verbal abuse directed at Zack and his disrespectful attitude. Without it, Zack doesn’t come back and we certainly don’t see a victory for his team in the skills contest. When it comes to a basketball game, players and coaches need to be able to dig deep to pull out the touching material that will rally everyone together.

If you spent some time with this episode, you could probably learn a lot more, but the I’ve outlined the important parts above. These lessons are crucial to any team that takes the tournament seriously, and if I were a head coach somewhere, you can take it to the bank that I’d be showing my team this episode on repeat until tip-off. Happy basketball watching. Don’t forget to tell your friends to read me and keep checking back for new updates, I’ll be posting all the time.