U.S. President Barack Obama picks his winners for the 2009 NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
We moved from North Carolina, where the start of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament
is practically a public holiday, to Geneva, which doesn’t even have a European league (or any other quasi-professional team). While some of our friends are American, most are not. Some friends may know that something called the “Super Bowl
” exists. Heck, they may even know a bit about it. However, even basketball
fans over here don’t know about March Madness. We have found it is surprisingly difficult to explain to a foreigner the frenzy that overtakes America, why it’s such a big deal and how the NCAA Tournament
Basketball (Photo credit: mvongrue)
March Madness is a basketball tournament for college teams put on by the National College Athletic Association (NCAA). If you try to read up on it, know that it is also called “The Tournament,” “The Big Dance,” “The Road to the Final Four,” and even “The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.” While it seems basic, trust me when I say that using such lingo will trip up a non-native English speaker who hasn’t lived in the US.
The fun starts the week before the tournament when college basketball conferences play their tournaments to determine a champion. The winner of each conference championship tournament automatically gains entry to the NCAA tournament (“get their ticket/invitation to the dance” is slang used to describe this). This means that a team with a poor record who wouldn’t normally “get an invitation to the dance” can make it into the tournament by winning their league’s tournament. This is a huge opportunity for some teams. Almost every year, you see a team break down crying after winning their league’s tournament because that win just earned them a chance to compete in March Madness.
The “Madness” starts after the last league championship game when the teams that will compete in the tournament are announced. This always occurs on a Sunday evening in early March. This day is known as “Selection Sunday”. American TV will show teams huddled together in front of a TV waiting to hear their name announced as an entrant. The TV cameras show the teams cheering, hugging each other, dancing, or even breaking into song.
The winners of their respective conferences automatically make it into the tournament. A selection committee composed of select university athletic directors and conference commissioners choses the other entrants. They use criteria like the team’s record, the number of wins against ranked opponents, the number of wins on the road and the team’s ranking in determining which teams to invite. There is always controversy over teams people believe should have been invited or left out. Regardless, once they announce the Tournament entrants, things really get crazy.
To understand this madness, you need to understand how the tournament works. Originally, 64 teams received invitations to the tournament. 4 seeded regions are divided into groups of 16 teams each. In each region, teams are assigned a “seed” number 1 through 16 based on their perceived skills. The best team in each region is awarded the 1 seed and the weakest, the number 16. In each bracket, the number 1 team plays the number 16 team, the number 2 team plays the number 15 team, and so on. It is a single elimination tournament, so a single loss means you are out (unlike the World Cup). Each round cuts the number of teams in half (64 to 32 to 16 to 8 to 4 to 2). A win means advancing to the next round, a loss means crying and a trip home.
Each of the more advanced stages of the tournament has its own nickname. The second round of the tournament is known as the Sweet Sixteen. The next stage, with 8 remaining teams, is known as the Elite Eight. The following games, where only 4 teams remain, is known as the Final Four. The Tournament’s last game is known as “the final” or “the finals”.
Immediately flowing Selection Sunday’s announcement of the Tournament’s teams, papers and the internet publish the brackets. Almost as instantaneously, the gambling begins. The NCAA is proud that their athletes are “ametuers” and likes to tout it, but they (and the universities involved) make a lot of money off the tournament’s popularity. As a result, they do little to discourage it. Just about every office has a pool (or several). Families have pools. Friends have pools. It’s not unusual for people to enter multiple pools. Although there is a large about of informal gambling among friends, Vegas and professional gamblers really go nuts. There, you can bet on almost any aspect of the tournament. People pack Vegas’s sports betting parlors of Vegas casinos to watch the games on giant screens (and gamble).
It is extremely difficult to predict each game’s winners in such a large, single elimination tournament. Usually the winner of a pool correctly picks the final four teams. It helps to correctly pick most of the winners at the Sweet Sixteen level as well. Here’s another vocabulary term for you non-American English speakers, the science or art of picking the winning teams (in a bracket) is known as Bracketology.
In theory, a number 16 seed can win the tournament. In reality, it has never happened. While the 1 and 2 seeds typically survive into to least the third round, half of the number 3 seeds are typically eliminated in the second round. Inevitably a low seeded team (or two) will, unexpectedly, advance a few rounds. When this happens, they are known as Cinderella’s (like the fairy tale). Cinderella’s rarely make it to the final games, but they garner tons of attention and support as Americans love to root for an underdog.
The Tournament begins in earnest on Thursday. In recent years, to include more teams, the NCAA introduced play-in games. In these games, two teams play for to be a 16 seed. These games take place on Tuesday and Wednesday before the regular tournament.
Starting at 12:00 on Thursday, everyone is glued to the nearest television. On Thursday and Friday, teams play all the first round games. This means that there are 32 (mostly) outstanding basketball games in 36 hours. People gather to watch them and coverages switches from game to game televising the most exciting games.
Courtesy of Sports Illustrated
On Saturday and Sunday, there are another 16 games (the second round). People gather to watch the games together. One year we watched our low-ranked Michigan State Spartans battle it out to beat (upset) a more highly ranked opponent. We watched it in a room with over a hundred other fans and two projection TV’s. Each time our team scored, there were screams, high fives, and even hugging. This energy and comradery is one of the reasons we love the Tournament.
We hope to stay on speaking terms with our friends in Geneva (who are from Kentucky) after March. If not, it was nice knowing you.*
* Kentucky is a big-time basketball school and they are big-time fans. We are Michigan State fans. If these two teams play each other in the tournament, it could be the end of our friendship. 🙂