credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

A March Madness Manifesto

Why the NCAA Basketball Tournament is My Favorite Event of the Year

It is officially my favorite time of the year: March Madness — the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Ever since I was a young boy of single-digit age, I have loved March Madness. It is everything that makes sports great, all in one crazy, two week event. 68 enter, 1 leaves. It is crazy until the end. But as with so many things I love with feverish zeal, not everyone is convinced. So here is my official manifesto: The March Madness Manifesto.

The Road is Long, Rocky, and Unforgiving

There are 351(ish) NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball teams. More continue to trickle in each few years, each representing (ostensibly) the entire student body at an institution of higher learning. They battle it out throughout the year, at first visiting schools they have rarely or never played against. As January rolls around, they settle into their respective conferences — there are 32 of them — to play each other and jockey for position.

As early March approaches, each conference (with the exception of the Ivy League) holds its tournament, the winner of which is automatically in the NCAA Tournament — no matter how bad their season has gone up to then. These tournaments promise a mad scramble of crazy plays, buzzer beaters, and upsets — almost every year. The end result is 32 guaranteed teams entering the big dance of 68 teams. The other 36 teams — the “at large” teams — are decided by a selection committee, which is perhaps my favorite part leading up to the tournament.

The NCAA tournament selection committee is made up of athletic directors and other administrative people in the NCAA. They pour over the records and stats of the teams near the top of the heap, and decide who deserves to be in. It’s subjective, and not without faults, but it maintains an air of mystery and excitement in the weeks leading up to the tournament. It allows for endless speculation and arguments. It makes otherwise inconsequential games really fun to watch.

Then, some Sunday in mid-March, the committee gathers and lays out the bracket, which is revealed to the public in dramatic fashion. They rank the teams they have chosen from 1–68, and place them into four regions. Then the madness begins. Here’s why there’s no better sports event in the country.

Underdogs Rule — as A Rule

Once the 68 teams are chosen to face off, the lowest seeds (16) play the highest seeds (1), and it goes down from there, with the 2 seeds playing the 15 seeds, until you get to the 8 seeds playing the 9 seeds. One would think that the highest seeds would pretty much always win, but that’s only been a given in one case: the games between the 1 seeds and the 16 seeds. A 16 seed has never beaten a 1 seed, though there have been a few close calls. Other than that, there have been a few 15 seeds that beat 2 seeds (in fact, it happened twice in the same year, on the same day!)

And these underdogs don’t just win one game by luck, they have made deep runs in the tournaments, upsetting all of the oddsmakers’ projections. Two great cases come to mind:

  1. The George Mason University team made it to the Final Four in 2006 — as an 11 seed. Technically, that means there were roughly 40 teams that had a higher probability of making it over them. They plowed through 4 of the nation’s best teams on their way to being the lowest seeded final four team in history.
  2. The 2013 Florida Gulf Coast team became the only 15 seed to make it to the Sweet 16, beating #2 Georgetown and #7 San Diego State — both teams by decent margins — and looked super fresh doing it. This was the first year the team was in the NCAA tournament, and they floored everybody — both because they played so well, and because they pulled off alley-oops and dunks that you rarely see in the big dance. They were having fun, and as a result, they were fun to watch. I still haven’t had as much fun watching games as I did watching them handle Georgetown and SD State.

Last Second Antics and Comebacks are the Rule, Rather than the Exception

With 63 games going on in such a short period of time, and each one meaning so much to so many, the players tend to just leave it all on the court. So when it comes to crazy comebacks and last-second “unbelievables,” the tournament always delivers.

Case in point: what is perhaps the craziest comeback in tournament history — the one that proves that it truly isn’t over until it’s over. In the play-in game — to decide which of 8 teams will enter the official 64-team bracket — Brigham Young University was down by 25 points with less than 20 minutes to play. They came back to win. It was crazy.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are the numerous nail-biters — the games that are tied most of the way or see numerous lead changes. They come down to the last seconds, and those last seconds are where the magic happens. The paradigmatic example of this is Christian Laettner’s literal last second shot in the 1992 regional game between Duke and Kentucky. The game was a nail-biter the whole way, and high-scoring, to boot. With 2.1 seconds remaining in overtime, and Duke down by one, they had to inbound the ball from full court. Somehow — seemingly by magic — the ball got to Christian Laettner, allowing him to sink what is referred to as simply “The Shot.” Duke went on to win the championship that year.

You can run all the numbers and use all the prediction methods you like — and people sure do — but it has proven to be thus far impossible to predict winners accurately in the tournament games. In large part, that’s what is so fun about it. It is many things, but always unpredictable. We know there will be upsets, but it’s always a question of who will do it — and it almost always comes from an unlikely team, in an unlikely way. Once that happens, some teams that people have picked to go deep into the tournament end up gone — the brackets have been busted.

In nearly every year, 99% of brackets have been “busted”, and are no longer perfect after just the first day of games. It just gets worse after that — but also way more fun to watch. No one has ever — at least to the knowledge of the public — made a perfect bracket. In fact, in 2015, Warren Buffet offered $1 billion to anyone who could pick the perfect bracket. This year, he’s offering any Berkshire Hathaway employee (or employee of one of its subsidiaries) $1 million a year for life if they pick a perfect bracket through just the sweet 16 this year. With one day of games done, and more upsets bound to happen today, it looks like Buffet will get to keep his cash. But that will never take the fun out of trying — at least not for all of us involved in office pools. We all try our best to predict the winners, but in the end — just like in the tournament itself — the underdogs often end up with as good a chance to win as the favorites.

My Love Affair

Every year now, for the past 5 years, I prep for the Madness by pulling data on each team — as much as I can get. It goes into a spreadsheet, and I try to figure out the best way to compare stats: effective field goal %, turnover rate, 3-pointers attempted per game, fouls per game, and on and on. In the end, I spend so much time doing that, and never perfecting it, that I pick half with stats and half with my gut. By the end of the second day, my bracket looks like a 4-year-old could have picked just as well. But I friggin’ love it.

I will continue to try to find the secret sauce, to search for the method that will help me predict the upsets that no one else sees, and give me an edge in picking the brackets. I know that my chances are infinitesimal, but somehow, that motivates me even more — because wouldn’t it be crazy awesome if I did it?

Long after my bracket has no chance of winning the office pool, I still love watching the games. I almost always root for the underdogs. It’s just so much fun to watch them take it down to the wire and win it when they weren’t supposed to.

Ultimately, there is a larger phenomenon at work: sports is the last bastion of entertainment that is truly live and unscripted. Reality TV has now perfected the air of suspense, shock, and crazy outcomes on live TV — but it is all predetermined. When The Voice or Survivor airs, someone knows who has won — it has to be that way in order for the show to happen. But in the games we watch, it is literally unfolding in front of our eyes. No one has inside knowledge, no one knows how it’s going to end. It is literally as real as it gets. I guess for me, when 80% of the players are just college kids — like I once was — most of whom will just go on to live a life much like mine, it’s fun to see them participate in something so crazy and awesome.

It’s madness, and I’m mad for it. Let’s play some ball.

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