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: Brandon Rush (#25) and Julian Wright (#30)
Conference: Big 12
The lowdown: The Jayhawks are the product of one of the most successful basketball programs of all time (only the University of North Carolina and the University of Kentucky have more wins.) They're also athletic and strong defensively, but their outside shooting is suspect and may be problematic against great offensive teams.
The Tar Heels, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill
First Round Opponent: Eastern Kentucky
Players to Watch: Tyler Hansbrough (#50, may be wearing a plastic mask) and Brandan Wright (#34)
Conference: Atlantic Coast Conference
The lowdown: A Tar Heel is a resident of North Carolina. In early American history the state was the source of tar. There is a legend that a group of British soldiers waded through a creek filled with tar during the Revolutionary War and began calling the people of North Carolina Tar Heels. UNC is one of the most storied programs of all time, and the alma mater of Michael Jordan. The Heels have had some ups and downs this year, though they only lost six games. Hansbrough was a playa at the beginning of the season, but has not lived up to the hype. Still, they have a good chance of going all the way.
The Buckeyes, Ohio State University
First Round Opponent: Cental Connecticut State
Players to Watch: Greg Oden (#20) and Mike Conley (#1)
Conference: Big Ten
The lowdown: The team starts and stops with Greg Oden. A new NBA rule requires that players wait one year after high school before going pro. The Buckeyes are one of the biggest benefactors of that rule. Oden, naturally right-handed, has been playing, for all intents and purposes, with his left hand all year. All better now and ready to dominate. He plays intuitively with best friend Mike Conley. Look for the Buckeyes to go as far as Oden can carry them.
The Fighting Irish, Notre Dame University
First Round Opponent: Winthrop
Players to Watch: Russell Carter (#43) and Colin Falls (#15)
Conference: Big East
The lowdown: The Fighting Irish may be seeded too low. Though they lost to Georgetown in the Big East conference championship, the Irish are fighting back right now. Their streakiness may be their undoing. Senior Colin Falls is a great shooter but plays hot and cold, and the team’s fortunes may rest with his ability to score. A first-round match-up with a strong Winthrop team could be it if they don’t pray, er, play hard.
The Rebels, University of Nevada – Las Vegas
First Round Opponent: Georgia Tech
Players to Watch: Jo’Van Adams (#1) and Wendel White (#5)
Conference: Mountain West
The lowdown: First of all, we think it’s admirable that students can go to college in Las Vegas and still make it to class. UNLV has had very talented programs in the past. They won the title in 1990. Senior guard Kevin Kruger is uninjured for the first time this season and is looking to lead the team into the tournament. (Worth mentioning: Jo’Van Adams’ nickname is Wink, and Wendel White was Russell Crowe’s characters’ name in LA Confidential.) The Rebels are likely going to have their hands full with first-round opponent Georgia Tech.
The Blue Devils, Duke University
First Round Opponent: Virginia Commonwealth University
Players to Watch: DeMarcus Nelson (#21) and Josh McRoberts (#2)
The lowdown: Duke is the basketball equivalent of the New York Yankees: reviled or loved, with little leeway in between. Without mincing words, this is a down year for the Blue Devils. Their lack of athleticism was routinely exploited by other teams. Their play at point guard has been fair at best. However, the Blue Devils have the best motivating coach in the game, Mike Krzyewski (or Coach K, as the kids call him.) It’s foolish to ever count them out, but God will be in the details for the Devils this time, and the haters are loving that.
The Longhorns, the University of Texas
First Round Opponent: New Mexico State
Players to Watch: Kevin Durant (#35) and DJ Augustin (#14)
Conference: Big 12
The lowdown: The Longhorns are another team with players able to clinch the championship. Kevin Durant is all things to all people. He can shoot, dribble, pass, jump, and play defense as well as anyone in the country. Texas will be successful as long as no one figures out how to defend him, though his injured ankle may cause the whole team to hobble. If they advance to the second round, they may face the University of Southern California, a match-up worth watching.
The 49ers, Long Beach State
First Round Opponent: Tennessee
Players to Watch: Aaron Nixon (#55) and Kejuan Johnson (#1)
Conference: Big West
The lowdown: Okay, cards on the table, we don’t know much about Long Beach State, but it seems like a great place to go to school: It's the only college in the United States with beach in its name. The 49ers beat Cal Tech to win the Big West Conference and advance to the tournament. With a good game from Nixon, it’s not inconceivable that the 49ers could upset Tennessee in the first round. Making the tournament would be a major victory. In short, an underdog worth betting on.
Interested in the other 55 teams? Check out www.sportsline.com/collegebasketball/teams/mayhem