I say it every year but it warrants an annual mention: the NCAA Basketball Tournament is the best three weeks in American sports. March Madness is the one sporting event that blurs the boundaries between work and play; between personal and professional. For three weeks straight it invades lives and environments, crosses cultures, while continually dominating the moment.
The common thread? Brackets. For anyone working in an office, going to a school, frequenting a bar, or generally not living in a hole, brackets are waiting to be filled out.
Within a specific populace, the ensuing conglomeration of completed brackets gives way to “the pool”. This pre-tournament ritual helps jump start the madness before the ball even goes up. Since the field of teams is set a full three days before the competition begins, this limbo period allows “the bracketer” ample time to abandon normal activities and research teams with the intention of locating potential sleepers and duds. Sometime within this process comes the moment of conception: a vision of the outcomes of 63 basketball games, unique unto the bracketer.
While a bracket will ultimately not sprout arms and legs, upon completion it without a doubt takes on a life of its own. There is a natural moment of pride associated with the first glance at a just-finished bracket. That feeling of satisfaction then shifts to one of angst, with the realization that the bracketer actually has no freaking clue what’s going to happen. However, confidence returns. The bracketer is by nature cocky. And defense of a bracket in hostile, divisive environments like offices or bars is a must.
You see, some brackets can be made or blown before the tournament even kicks into high gear. Due to the fact that nobody will ever produce a perfect bracket, defending one’s picks is almost as vital as picking the games themselves. Because of this notion the Madness can be divided into two phases: the first weekend of games, and the rest of the tournament.
There are 48 games the first weekend, and the bracketer has a vested interest in every one of them. Which is why over that four day period there are 48 battles to be won or lost, each frequently being decided by a single bounce of the ball. Ideally the bracketer emerges from that first weekend beaten, but not defeated; amazed, but not exhilarated.
While everyone wishes and believes that their picks could theoretically and miraculously all come to fruition, those first four days decisively extinguish that utopia. By this point the hope is that the bracketer’s Elite Eight and Final Four are still relatively intact. This is where the second phase takes over. After the cyclone that blows through the first two rounds, what’s left of one’s bracket becomes cherished. Highlighters, creases, and stains (not to mention buzzer beaters and upsets) have compromised its original crisp and flawless form.
Now there are 16 teams left. The bracketer in you has now become you. You start to see exactly what must happen for your bracket to prevail. Scenarios are playing out in your head. Questions are forming. The angst is returning. Inevitably each game in the Sweet 16 and beyond will become an individual showdown against one of your bracketing competitors. You will adopt schools, fan bases, and basketball traditions you couldn’t have cared less about in February.
After withstanding the whirlwind phase of the first weekend, you discover that from the remnants has emerged an agenda. It’s an agenda of hope, realism, and odds, all simmered together in a stew of March mayhem. And of course directly tied into the fates of the 16 remaining schools.
From this point on the basketball takes over. Teams still playing the second weekend of the tourney fall into two categories, contenders and cinderellas. Contenders are the national powers that found a way to escape the bedlam of the first round. Cinderellas are the little schools that pulled off a shocker or two. Both fall under the general heading of “smokin’ hot”. And any college team that is sizzling in March carries with it an air of invincibility.
Naturally, the level of basketball played is unrivaled. You’ll see guys hit threes from unfathomable distances. You’ll see others sacrifice their bodies, and leap five rows into the stands just to preserve a possession. With bigger venues, NCAA Regionals attract upwards of 25-30,000 spectators, all embodying the passion of their teams.
The Final Four? Only 50,000 people in a football stadium, layered on top of each other and surrounding a 94 foot hardwood court. They’ll be chanting in unison by the ten thousands. And there you’ll be, in front of your TV, crinkled bracket in hand, slippery highlighter in perspired palm, feeling the electricity of the moment, waiting for that one play that will advance that one team you need in order to beat that one friend who’s been pissing you off since fantasy football season ended.
Make no mistake about it, there’s something special about winning your pool; knowing that your bracket was the closest to the actual outcome of this utterly unpredictable, massive sporting sensation. And of course it’s always something special when your forecasting has given you the right to talk loads of smack to your friends and/or associates.
In that light, I’m introducing the first Ballgames Points Bracket Challenge. This will not be the conventional hoops pool. Since my readership is stretched far and wide (and evidently thin), I welcome anyone to submit their picks, and talk all the necessary trash throughout. There will be no blank bracket provided, so fill out your own and post all winners round by round, and attach whatever inflammatory hogwash you see fit throughout the tourney.
Three weeks, 63 do or die basketball games, and a whole lotta s**t talk. That’s what March Madness is all about.
***For more on s**t talk, check out the new CBS/CSTV March Madness promotional initiative. The New York Times summed it up (and legitimized it) best:
Here’s my taped bit on the BC Eagles: