The Road to the Final Four, aka the Big Dance, March Madness, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament begins Thursday, March 15th. 65 teams get a shot at basketball immortality (the winner of the Ivy League regular season meets the winners of 30 conference tournaments plus 34 at-large teams decided by the Selection Committee on Sunday, March 11th.) Whew. That's a lot of hoops.
A mathematically astute reader may question how 65 teams can play in a single-elimination tournament. Cinchy: The two lowest seeded (read: crummiest) teams have a play-in game. The winner of the play-in earns the right to take on the highest seeded team in the country. Now we’re talkin’.
This year’s final is to be played on April 2nd in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome. That’s a Monday, should you want to watch, or schedule to be otherwise occupied. Many of your male coworkers have been known to call in sick with acute cases of the Final Four flu. Below, everything you need to know while they're out faking it. (Or skip straight to the March Madness: good-excuse-to-throw-a-party section. Your choice.)
While it’s a little late to get tickets, you will be in good company watching from home. Approximately 23 million households tuned in last year to watch the University of Florida defeat UCLA. The basketball tournament is the closest thing the US has to the World Cup. By and large, college sports inspire the kind of fierce loyalty and bitter enmity that can, otherwise, only be found in international competition; This is another prolonged state of "our guys vs your guys, and I dare you to beat us." Minus the headbutting.
The 34 ‘at-large’ teams are selected by a secretive cabal known as the Selection Committee. The Committee’s choices are part science and part art. Efforts exist to make the selection process purely objective, but too many variables exist to make that possible. The 65 teams are seeded based on their performance over the season. The teams that have been the most dominant over the regular season are seeded highest and given, in theory, the easiest path to the championship game. The tournament is split into four regions (East, Midwest, South and West). The region only references where the games are played, not where the teams are from, though strong teams are often assigned to a region near home. The participants in each region are ranked one through 16. The combined rankings of the first round opponents always adds up to 17 (i.e., the 8th ranked team plays the 9th ranked team, and so forth.)
A Fighting Chance
One of the most endearing things about the tournament is its unpredictability and meritocratic nature. Any team has a chance to win any game (though a 16th seed has never beaten a 1st seed). To win, a team need only play inspired basketball for about two and a half weeks. Last year a relative unknown, George Mason (seeded 11th), made it all the way to the Final Four, so anything is possible. Just like on The Swan. Because of the truly competitive nature of tournament, it is not considered an upset unless a team beats another that is ranked four seeds higher.
Like ‘the pill,’ everyone knows what you mean when you talk about completing ‘your bracket.’ Between now and Thursday morning, people across the country will be trying to figure out what advantage Creighton may have over Nevada. Though this math may be a bit impressionistic, an estimated $3.8 billion dollars was lost in productivity last year due to tourney play. A huge number of websites provide not only the bracket, but also the ability to electronically track results. A few companies even allow users to “white label” the service; this way your office bracket can be the Dunder-Mifflin Tournament Challenge rather than being brought to you by randomsportswebsite.net.
While all 65 teams have a more or less equal chance, we thought we would give a rundown of ones to watch. Especially handy if you’ve got money at stake.
The Gators, the University of Florida
First Round Opponent: Jackson State
Players to Watch: Joakim Noah (#13, crazy hair) and Al Horford (#42)
Conference: South Eastern Conference
The lowdown: The Gators won the title last year with a team made up of mostly sophomores and freshmen. Most of the club came back for this season, so there’s no reason to think that they couldn’t be back this year, especially the way they have been dismantling opposing teams lately! The Gator’s football team won the National Title this season, marking the first time that a school has won the football and basketball title in the same 12 months, they could make it back to back to back.
The Jayhawks, the University of Kansas
First Round Opponent: Florida A&M
Players to Watch: