March Madness has Begun
The annual championship for men’s college basketball in the United States has officially begun. March Madness, as it is known as, features 68 teams from all over the country trying to become the champion. But this event is perhaps unlike any other in all of sports, and its level of popularity in the United States has grown to a level that other sports would be jealous of.
College sports are undeniably popular in the United States, more so than in any other country. College football stadiums regularly pack more than 80000 fans to see a game, college basketball games are on primetime, national television and even less popular college sports like baseball and ice hockey have their respective championships watched by millions of people. The business of college sports managed by the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) is a multi-billion-dollar business with college stadiums and teams having sponsorships from major corporations and multi-million-dollar donations from former students. Often, the highest paid public employee in each state is the coach of a college football or basketball program, with many coaches earning well over a million dollars per year. Although the NCAA and its operating structure has been the target of severe criticism over the years, with many people advocating for a boycott of the entire organization, all of these concerns seem to fade away every March. So, what is “March Madness”?
March Madness used to just be a nickname. But now it is the official name for the Men’s Basketball National Championship, a three-week long, epic competition between 68 teams across the nation to choose a national champion in basketball. It is called like that because a majority of the tournament takes place in March (the national championship game itself takes place in April) and the tournament is so wild and crazy, that the only word to describe it is madness.
Teams are chosen for the tournament in two ways: Automatic bids or at-large bids. In college basketball there are around 350 universities and colleges competing in 32 conferences. Some of these conferences have teams that are the best in the nation like the Big 10 or the Big East, while some, like the NEC (Northeastern Conference) and Big Sky, have teams that are smaller, and perhaps not as good as the ones in the big conferences. As a rule of thumb, there are five of these major conferences (known as the Big 5): The Big East, ACC, SEC, Big 10 and Pac 12 (Occasionally the Big 12 is considered as a major as well, bringing the total number to six major conferences). For the college basketball tournament, these conferences have multiple teams make it to the tournament, based on how good they were coming into the year (This year the Big 10 for example has nine of their teams in the tournament). For the other conferences that are not the majors, usually only one team per conference earns a spot in the tournament, through what is called an “automatic bid”, meaning that this team won their conference championship and now, regardless of their record, earn a spot in the national championship. These teams are often called “mid-majors”, since they are not as good as the “major” teams.
The teams are seeded in a bracket by a selection committee to find out who they will play against. The teams are put in four different “regions”, meaning that each region has 16 teams, ranked 1-16, with the number one seeds being the best and the 16 seed being the worst (In the nearly 90-year history of this tournament, a 16 seed has only beaten a 1 seed once). This year the four number one seeds are Gonzaga, Michigan, Illinois, and Baylor. Only Gonzaga, who is the best team in the nation, does not come from one of the five/six major conferences, a rare feat in college basketball. The team that wins their respective region makes it to the Final Four, where the two winners of these two matchups play in the National Championship Game.
The bracket of the tournament has become a sort of national pastime in America, with nearly everyone, even those who know nothing about the sport, filling out their bracket with their predictions on who will win (see mine below). Most of the time, people enter into “bracket pools” with their friends or business colleagues and the person with the most accurate bracket wins money. Large sports websites like ESPN and the NCAA itself have a bracket challenge where the person with the best bracket in the country wins one million dollars. But the chance of having a perfect bracket is essentially the same as winning the lottery, with so many different variations of matchups and outcomes possible. It is therefore never the goal to have a perfect bracket, but rather just the most accurate possible.
The second round of the tournament begins today! The first round, known as the First Four, consists of four matchups from teams who just barely made the tournament and must play a “play-in” game to get to the main tournament. Listed below for your reading pleasure are the winners (in bold) of the four play-in games:
1. Texas Southern over Mount St. Mary’s
2. Drake over Wichita State
3. Norfolk State over Appalachian State
4. UCLA over Michigan State
You can watch March Madness internationally via the NCAA app for free, or if you are in the US, on the family of networks owned by CBS. March Madness is an experience like any other, and this year will be no different. Because of COVID, the teams will all be playing in a bubble in Indiana, presenting yet another challenge to the teams participating.