A Beginner’s Guide to March Madness

Image from bostinno.com

Image from bostinno.com

Well folks, it’s here. That most wonderful time of the year for sports fans – both casual and hardcore – is here: March Madness. Buzzer-beaters, 3-pointers, stifling defense, championship-level intensity; for some of us seasoned sports fan veterans, it’s the culmination of the long, arduous, often frustrating process known as the college basketball regular season. For those of you that don’t follow college basketball regularly, it’s just that month-long incubation period in which you can masquerade as a sports fan. Either way, it’s a great time to get invested, and it is always an enjoyable experience, provided that your obsession with your favorite team doesn’t border on the psychotic. But just in case you’re going into this year’s NCAA fresh, here’s a quick crash course on all things March Madness:

1) Filling out your Bracket – A time-honored March Madness tradition, this was perhaps my favorite part of the entire tournament when I was in middle and high school, as it meant being able to print out the field of 64 teams as many times as my heart so desired and simulating the tournament in any number of ways. Even our President has been known to get in on the fun. As for me, growing up as a devout believer in the mighty Tar Heels of the University of North Carolina, it was always understood that at least one of my brackets would project them to win it all, but during years when they weren’t odds-on favorites, I would augment my participation in the madness by filling out brackets with other choices, be they with more conventional wisdom or just choosing based on who tugged on my heartstrings the hardest.

Now, because this is America, capitalism reigns supreme, so even filling out brackets has become a money-making venture, and there are no shortage of sports websites, office pools, or betting opportunities that will present themselves. If you are new to the game, there’s no easier way to go from zero investment to WAY too much investment than include money in the equation. You will be surprised how quickly this saps the fun out of the ordeal, so DON’T DO THIS UNTIL YOU’RE READY. But if your competitive nature gets the best of you and you do participate for money, then…

2) Do Your Homework. The NCAA tournament is a field of 64 teams (68 including those who get to participate in “play-in” games, often determining which teams gets the honor of the annual bloodletting that is the opening-round 1-versus-16 game). In this field of 64, there are 16 teams, ranked 1-16 accordingly by a combination of talent, expectations, and regular/post-season success. The #1 plays the #16, #2 plays #15, and so on and so forth. Now, never in the history of EVER, has a #16-seeded team beaten a #1-seeded team in the NCAA tournament. So before you go choosing the Sisters of the Poor University Martyrs to upset The Huns of Attila College, consider that fact. While also highly statistically unlikely, #15-seeded teams have been known to occasionally shock #2 seeds, a fate that tragically befell my beloved Missouri Tigers just last year.

On the other hand, teams seeded 12th have “upset” teams seeded 5th so often in the NCAA tournament that choosing that trend borders on cliche. That’s not to say that you should never predict it to happen, but you wouldn’t exactly be breaking any new ground by doing so.

3) Cinderella likes to dance too! While on the topic of upsets, just know that momentum is a hell of a drug. As a point of reference, The 2010-2011 Rams of Virginia Commonwealth University (from my hometown of Richmond, Virginia!) barely squeaked their way into the NCAA tournament that year. When they were revealed as a #12 seed apart of the 68 team field (though having to earn their way into the field of 64 by way of the aforementioned “play-in” round), famed ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas famously blasted the choice, believing that they had no business in the field. 5 thrilling, statement-making wins and an opportunity that gave way to perhaps the greatest topical reference T-shirt of all time later, VCU became the nation’s favorite “little team that could.” VCU’s magical run included the slaying on college basketball giant Kansas, the team that was perhaps the favorite to win the tournament that year. The team’s journey finally came to an end in the Final Four, ironically losing to Butler University, another team that would have normally been classified as a “Cinderella” if it hadn’t been for their own unexpected run to the national title game the previous year.

In 2006, another small, relatively-unknown team from Virginia made noise in the NCAA as the Patriots of George Mason University took on the world as a #11 seed and also got all the way to the Final Four before bowing out. Seeing a team seeded in the double-digits make a run like that is definitely not common, but that’s the magic of March Madness: you never know who might catch fire and captivate college basketball fans the world over. In times like that, it’s not so much the final result but the ride that you want to catch.

4) Just have fun with it.  Again, including your money in your participation can change this for better or for worse. But at the end of the day, the allure of the NCAA tournament is that while all teams are not created equal, you never know how things will shake out. While I can not, in good conscience, suggest that any team could win it all, I will say that depending on style matchups, injuries, or unforeseen circumstances, most do have an outside chance. During March Madness, guys and schools that otherwise don’t achieve much notoriety can become small-scale legends. If seeing that sort of thing doesn’t enrapture you in all that is good about sports, then nothing will. No one says that you have to choose a favorite team or used any advanced-metric system to project winners. Indeed, office pools have often been won by people with little-to-no knowledge of NCAA basketball. Over-thinking the whole thing can drive you crazy.

But if you find yourself having to choose a favorite team, just know that in the age-old Duke versus UNC debate, God Himself gave one of these teams sky blue as a color. Heaven is generally associated with the sky. The other team is called the Devils.

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