How To Explain March Madness To A Foreigner

U.S. President Barack Obama picks his winners ...

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 works.
Basketball

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. 🙂

 

 

 

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Courmayeur

Courmayeur is an adorable town nestled in the mountains.  We have visited Swiss ski towns (Zermatt, Grindelwald), French ski towns (La Clusaz and Contamines) and now an Italian ski town.  Each country’s towns seem to have their own flavor despite being geographically close.

Even non skiers could happily spend a day enjoying Courmayeur‘s charming, car free streets.  Shops, bars and restaurants fill its stone buildings.  Whether you want to buy upscale apparel, outdoor gear, art, antiques, modern design items, wine or any special Italian food, you can find it in Courmayeur.  In the evenings, people stroll the narrow, but chic streets.  People were shopping, window shopping, people watching and on their way to the bars for a drink (a football game was about to start).  The activity gave the town a cheery, festive but relaxed ambiance.

No Italian town would be complete without a church and religious statues.  They look even more beautiful when surrounded by stunning mountains and the shadows they create.

As the evening progressed, people settled into its cozy cafes and restaurants.  The vivacity continues on into the evening as Courmayeur has a lively nightlife.  On our stroll home we saw bars were still packed.  We also saw a man walking his miniscule pooch; they were wearing matching shiny puffy jackets.  Sorry it was too cold to get out my camera (I would have had to take off my gloves).

Courtesy of Courmayeur.com

Courtesy of wheretoskiandsnowboard.com

Snow Report Geneva

“First we’ll make snow angels for two hours, then we’ll go ice skating, then we’ll eat a whole roll of Tollhouse Cookie Dough as fast as we can, and then we’ll snuggle.”- Buddy the Elf.
They don’t have Tollhouse Cookies here, but we finally have snow!  It was our first time seeing snow in Geneva.  Winter in Geneva, it is grey and cloudy.  The beautiful snow was a welcome change and no one seemed to mind the mess it made.
I didn’t bother getting dressed or putting on makeup, but downed a quick cup of coffee, put on snow pants, tied up my snow boots and ran out quickly with my camera.
Severe snow storms covered southern Europe and extremely cold temperatures are forecasted in the upcoming days.  North and east from where we are, people have gotten stuck in cars.  A few have actually frozen to death.
There was already a good amount of snow in the mountains, but it’s always nice to have more when you are skiing.  It snowed into the afternoon.  We got quite a bit, but I’m sure the Alps got even more. Unfortunately, they have also warned of strong avalanche danger in the alps.  Last week, someone was killed by an avalanche in Chamonix.
Today’s newspapers did not make it into their boxes.  At 8:00, the boxes were still empty.
Genevans were sledding, having snowball fights, and walking their dogs in the snow.  I didn’t see anyone on skis.
The city busily cleaning up the snow (a nice change from cleaning the streets) and by mid-day, the worst of the mess was over.  Although I didn’t see a single snow blower, people were out with salt and shovels, clearing the walks in front of every building.
 

Les Incompetents Vol. 8 – Inappropriate Attire For The Slopes

We are going skiing in Italy this weekend.  After our first time skiing here, it became clear that I could use a lot of practice and more than a few lessons.  Last week, Hokie, Wildcat and I snuck out of Geneva on a weekday for a lesson.  We wanted to take advantage of the quieter, less chaotic slopes to get some badly-needed practice.
Thanks to The Huges’ for documenting stupidity on the slopes.  I suppose these folks from Mammoth Mountain were embarrassed by their attire too.
Although you see people walking around Geneva in ski attire, I didn’t put my ski pants on over my tights until we arrived.  I was afraid of roasting and waited to don my ski pants until we arrived.
We rent our skis and keep our other gear in a giant bag filled with ski accoutrements like helmets, gloves,   etc.   To make it a bit smaller, I removed his things and left them in a pile on the hall floor.   When we arrived at Les Contamines, I threw on my pants.  At least I thought they were my pants.  They weren’t they were his.  There is more than a foot and at least 90 pounds between us.  My children’s 12-14 ski pants are a much better size for me than his giant man pants.
At that point, there was nothing to do but make the best of it.  I tightened the waist and rolled them up at both ends.  Let’s just say that while it was a great day on the slopes, I looked like the biggest nincompoop out there.  Oh, well.  It wasn’t the first time and it probably won’t have been the last.
In fact, I didn’t have to wait long to embarrass myself.   Check me out in the photo below.
P.S.  It is a really good thing that I took the lesson because I clearly needed practice with the equipment.  I fell off the tow rope.  Cut me some slack, it was my first time.  I also caused the chair lift to stop when I saw a giant precipice and alps 20 feet after decent from the chair lift and gawked instead of scooting my tuckus forward.
 
 

Les Incompetents Vol. 7 – Locked Out!

It was bound to happen sooner or later.  Apartment doors here automatically latch shut when they close.
Right after we moved, I heard a story about a poor lady who was 5 months pregnant getting locked out at 8:00 a.m.  They were so new, she didn’t know her husband’s work phone number and had no money on her.  Luckily, she got some assistance from the American Women’s Club and made it through the day until her husband returned home that evening.
Yesterday, I went for a run.  I walked out of the apartment and shut the door…with my keys still on the table by the door!  I was locked out.
Some people look cute when they work out.  Check out Jessica Biel above.  She definitely looks cute on her runs. I do not. I wasn’t wearing any makeup. I had on running tights with a burgundy dry fit top.  My clashing red sports bra was visible.  My blue gloves and white hat (covering up my greasy hair) didn’t exactly coordinate either.
This is perhaps the only running gear that is worse than what I had on.   Normally, I just don’t care what I look like when I’m running.  Once the door locked, I regretted my apathy because it meant I had to run across town to his work to get the keys.

I showed up at his very busy office building 45 minutes later looking like a hot mess. I was mortified. Compared to me, Snookie is looking good for a workout

Unfortunately, he was in meetings so I had to sit and wait in the lobby while people walked by.  It was worth it though because I was able to get the keys from him.  Once I had them in my hot little hands, I got the heck out of Dodge and ran back home.

 

International Harassment of Steelers Fans

I think guys bond with and relate to each other a bit differently than us ladies. We missed yet another football game (Broncos-Steelers) due to the time change.  Since Denver won, it was probably just as well.  I would have had to listen to a couple of hours of him yelling at the TV if we’d seen it.

Just like clockwork, the next day, emails were flying to and from his Pittsburgh friends.  Even though he missed the game, he can still bond by ranting about it and harassing his Steeler-fan friends (with his buddy Steamer) over email.   Here are some of the taunts launched at Steelers fans:

  • Thanks a lot.  Not only do we have to listen to another week of “Tebow Time”, but the Steelers have allowed a playoff win for Tebow which may immortalize him for all I know.  Seriously, the guy can hardly pass the whole year, and he goes over 300 on the Steelers?

At least being over here, we don’t have to listen to incessant coverage of Tim Tebow all next week. What else would ESPN cover? Unfortunately, we will also miss the Saturday Night Life Skits.  Tonight’s viewing, last night’s National Championship game.

James HarrisNFL’s most frightening man


 

Being An Expat Makes It A Little Easier To Be A Detroit Lions Fan

I love him.  One of the things that I love about him is his commitment.  When he commits to something, he always follows through.  He is not the kind of guy who switches to something newer, flashier or trendier once he has fallen in love with something (which bodes well for me).  As a small child, before he knew any better, he fell in love with the Detroit Lions.

The Detroit Lions have been one of the, if not the, worst franchise in all of professional sports (other articles about what a poor franchise they aremorethis one with financial info).

  • They have never made it to the Super Bowl.
  • They have only won one playoff game since 1957.
  • In 2008, they set a record by going 0-16.
  • The best running back ever, Barry Sanders, prefered to retire young rather than to continue to play for the team (and did it just short of breaking Walter Payton‘s rushing record).

When we were in North Carolina, he would get the Sunday Ticket just so he could watch the Lions play. He and his friend Steamer would watch every game (usually right at 1:00 p.m. because the Lions aren’t good enough to play later in the day).  In 9 years, I don’t think he missed more than about one game and that was when he was travelling.  He even watched every game in the disastrous 2008 season (see above).

 
Every week, he and Steamer would shout at the TV, complain about the Lions, dream of what should have been and look like someone had just kicked their dog.
In the offseason, they talk (usually with their brothers and other Lions fans) about the possibilities and potential for next season. Despite the abysmal track record, they are excited and hopeful that something will change and the next season will be good. Maybe they will be able to make the playoffs?  Even to them, a Super Bowl seems a bit unrealistic.

Yesterday, about 2:00 a.m. our time*, the Lions played the formidable New Orleans Saints in New Orleans in the playoffs.  If the Lions had won their previous game they would have had an easier game against the New York Giants.  Instead, they had to play the New Orleans Saints who won the Super Bowl in 2010 and still have some of the players from that team.  They are known to be hard to beat at home.  He was not optimistic.

Here, we are not surrounded by American Football.  If we didn’t seek it out, we could go months (or longer) without ever seeing evidence that the sport exists. This morning, the first thing he did when he got up was check the score.   After seeing the Lions lost (45-28), he did not watch the game.  Being over here spared him the game’s frustration, agony and humiliation (or at least it did until I posted this).

*Thank you to those who called at 2:00 a.m. to make sure we were watching the game.  Although we miss you, we’d spent the day falling on our butts (aka skiing).  We were sleeping like rocks and didn’t even hear it ring.  Sorry.



 

Our Wider World Of Sports

All Blacks Haka Richie McCaw 2011 - Getty Images
Photo courtesy of Getty Images
In the US, we are pretty narrow in terms of the sports that are “mainstream”.  ESPN only covers football (American Football), baseball and basketball in any real depth on a regular basis.  Okay, I guess you can add hockey, golf, maybe tennis and soccer too.  If you are older and remember life pre-cable, you may remember ABC’s Wide World of Sports, the one with the ski-jumper who crashed in the opening credits.  They went around the world, found interesting sporting events and made fantastic programs about them.  
 
Vinko_bogataj_medium
Image courtesy of ABC
In the US, I complain about the narrow range of sports covered by ESPN.*  He always reminds me “supply and demand”.  It has been a pleasant surprise here to see the large variety of sports covered well on TV.  This, ironically, does not include TV France’s coverage of cycling.  It’s horrible, very disappointing and perplexing.  How can the French be such fans of cycling when they have the worst announcers known to mankind.  Okay, maybe that was a bit extreme.  How can the French be such fans of cycling when they hear someone announce it in monotone, in the decibel level of a golf announcer at the green with NO interesting anecdotes?
 
The awesome Versus cycling announcers…worth emulating.
We’ve been watching a the Rugby World Cup.  The both the games and the coverage have been outstanding.  New Zealand’s All Blacks got past Australia in a fast and spirited game yesterday.  Next weekend, they will face France in the final.  

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Scrolling through our TV, here are some of the sporting events we will be able to see in the next week (coverage is somewhat limited this week due to the large coverage of the Rugby World Cup):

  • Pro surfing from Portugal
  • Ten million different soccer leagues and games, seriously, there are too many to list
  • Boxing (not pay per view)
  • ATP tennis from Russia (played indoors)
  • Vintage WWE?!?
  • Pro wrestling (hilarious when dubbed in French)
  • A marathon from Poland (Poznan Marathon?)
  • Motorcycle racing
  • Formula One
  • Polo from Spain
  • Equestrian competition from Norway
  • Several different golf events
  • A martial arts competition from Romania
  • Horse racing
  • Ski competition from Austria
  • Figure skating from the US
  • British Touring Car Championships
  • One football game (the American kind)
Even with all this, American football is still his favorite.
*Other family members complain about ESPN’s apparent pro-U of M bias.

 

 

Les Incompetents Vol. 6 – Not Properly Pumpulated

Remember Hanz and Franz?  They knew their way around a gym.  I, clearly, do not.  We joined a gym.  On my first visit, I accidentally went into the men’s locker room.  It wouldn’t have been too bad if I could have escaped unobserved.  I didn’t.  People (yes, there was more than one person) who work there saw me and came running after me to stop me.  That didn’t attract any attention (note the sarcasm here).  Oops.

 

The Hard Knock Life Of An Expat Football Fan

If he followed soccer, or even rugby, it would be a lot easier than it is  keeping up with American football here.  Even if he could watch the local news (in French or German or Italian…heck we even get Al Arabiya with our cable package) to catch the scores, they don’t really cover it.  As a result, it is hard to remember when to update your team,* let alone who to pick up this week because your QB is on a bye and your backup is injured.

He has been reduced to frantically checking ESPN for scores over breakfast.  I am reminding him to update his team.  Me?  Yes, me.  If I am reminding you to update your team, you really are screwed.  Ladies, you know who you are, you really benefitted from my forgetfulness last year.  You are welcome.  Gentleman, if you want him to miss a reminder, please write a request on a 100 CHF note for me.

To top it all off, his team, the long-suffering Detroit Lions**, are actually doing well.***  So are the Detroit Tigers!  We leave and everything gets better.  Maybe it will work for Detroit’s economy too.

*There is no way that you are going to be around to do this at the last minute.  If someone is questionable and it is going to be a last minute decision, they are sitting on the bench.  Period.

**He would like me to note  that Jeff Backus (we won’t mention his nickname for Mr. Backus) is terrible, the bane of his existence.  When Mr. Backus is no longer with the Lions, he will be much happier.  He has felt this way since he Mr. Backus was drafted.  Trust me on this.

** *He did not mind missing Michigan State’s loss to ND.  For that matter, neither did I.