The non-basketball fan’s guide to March Madness

Image result for march madnessEvery March, my family puts together a March Madness pool. We don’t, consequently, play for much of anything. Every year I say we should create a traveling trophy. We have one for our family fantasy football league, and we intensely compete to add our name to it each year. But our March Madness group has never had an equally as respected holy grail. Well family, this is the year I did it! It’s on its way to my house right now, and whoever wins this year will have their name added to this list of previous champions who prevailed through the tournament, but never had the glory of displaying a slightly tacky token of their victory so the world could know of his/her March Madness prowess.

Unlike Fantasy Football which requires a season long commitment, weekly updating of rosters and lineups, trades, bye weeks, and scoring the waiver wire, playing March Madness requires a relatively small time commitment. Even if you don’t follow college basketball the other 50 weeks of the year, there’s something about playing the odds of a 64 team monster tournament that draws people to take a chance on at least guessing where the upsets might be, and how far their home state or alma mater might go. There are over 18 million March Madness brackets filled out on ESPN alone this spring, and while some are college basketball diehards. A lot more are casual observers like my family and I, who might know a casual factoid or two about mascots or what a seed number means, but little else about statistics and who has a reasonable chance.

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And because so many people fill out brackets, there’s bound to be unavoidable conversation about who picked who, who called what upset, and who’s been busted. People who have otherwise zero interest in basketball will have these conversations, myself included, and will consider themselves insightful and knowledgable purely by getting lucky on a last second shot. If you didn’t fill out a bracket, you’re too late; the tournament has already started. However, seeing as it’s likely that it’s talked about, analyzed, and recapped around you, here’s the non-basketball fan’s guide to who’s who, who’s got a chance, and who to cheer for should someone ask you who you’re picking as your champ.

How it comes down to 64 teams:

There isn’t usually a lot of mystery or surprise about which teams make the tournament, though there’s a bit more mystique in how those teams end up seeded in the eventual tournament bracket. There are automatic qualifiers that come out of conference tournaments, and than a selection committee chooses 36 of the remaining “best teams” to round out the field. Seeding is designed to sort the 64 teams into four regions that achieve the best competitive balance among the field. You might intuitively think the higher the seed the better the team, except there are upsets every year. It’s part of what makes the March Madness bracket so hard to predict. Want to join in on a bracket conversation? Just ask anyone who is serious about their bracket if they took a 12 seed over a 5 seed. It almost always happens in at least one region, making it one of the most popular upsets to pick!

So this year’s top seeds are

Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, and Gonzaga are the four number one seeds in the bracket. Of the four, Duke is considered the top overall seed with the best chance to win it all based on the committee’s final ranking and the Vegas odds! So should you bet the house on Duke? You could, but I wouldn’t. Interestingly enough, Duke lost to North Carolina twice this year…and you’ll notice they’re another number one seed. Duke also lost to Virginia Tech, who happens to be the four seed in Duke’s region of the bracket. It’s also interesting to note that last year’s top overall seed, Virginia, was also the first number one seed to EVER lose to the number sixteen seed in the first round. Strange things happen all the time! If you want to root for a number one seed, my money is on Gonzaga. They have the number one offense in college basketball (a stat I looked up, didn’t just know off-hand!), and also faced Duke this year and won. Plus, while Gonzaga has been a college basketball powerhouse the last few years, cheering for the Bulldogs doesn’t feel quite as “blue blood” as rooting for Duke or UNC.

This year’s Cinderella could be:

Cinderella stories are, by far, the best part of the tournament. I love an upset, even when it completely destroys my bracket. It’s why I have such conflicting emotions about watching a team I have going deep into the late rounds of the tournament on the ropes with a team that’s significantly lower in rank. It’s almost happened already. As I put the finishing touches on this post while watching opening round games and going back and forth between rooting for Michigan State not to screw me over on the first day, and cheering for Bradley University to pull the big upset. If you like a Cinderella story, and pulling for an underdog, then March Madness is a win win!

Last year the Cinderella story of the tourney was Loyola University in Chicago. The 11 seed Ramblers went all the way to the Final Four where they eventually lost to Michigan. But it was hard not to root for the overlooked team from Chicago and their lovable chaplain, a 99-year-old nun named Sister Jean. Loyola isn’t in this year’s tournament field, but there are plenty of interesting storylines to follow and potential giant slayers to root for. A fun one from the first round? Minnesota (10) over Louisville (7). Minnesota’s coach, Richard Pitino, is the son of disgraced coach Rick Pitino. who was fired by Louisville in 2017 amid scandal. The Golden Gopher’s looked good, and I say that not just because I live in Minnesota!

In 2014, the UConn Huskies, a 7 seed, won the championship. They are, to date, the only 7 seed to ever win. This year, Wofford, a 7 seed, is a trendy Cinderella sleeper pick. They could be fun to watch…that is, if they’re able to stick around. That’s the thing. You can’t really know. They play a late game on Thursday, and could have already lost by the time this post goes live! If you think the only real factoid you’re going to remember is that 12 seed beating a 5 seed thing…then Murray State is your upset to remember. They’ve already got their first win, and could make noise a little further through the bracket.

And let’s not forget the ladies!

Women’s NCAA basketball has a March Madness tournament too. I’ve never filled out a bracket for their tourney because I really just root for one team all the way through. And honestly, last year that final game was the highlight of all the madness…men’s or women’s!

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Cheers!

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