March Madness Explainer

I’m not the biggest college basketball fan. For me, it often has the uncanny valley problem: it looks too close to something I really love (basketball) without quite getting there. Most college basketball is terrible. The shot clock is too long. The turnovers are frustrating. Half the action is pick-and-pass on the perimeter just to dump it off again.  I even get bored watching NCAA basketball highlights.

But my attitude changes every year in the middle of March. The number of participants. The pace of play, the frequency of games, the small colleges you’ve never heard of, the fact that the winner has to win at least six games in a row. The Cinderella teams. The dawn-to-dusk action the first few days, it’s hard to beat. Really only the first few days of the World Cup compare, and that’s only once per four years. Let’s get into details.

Tournament qualification

There are 351 NCAA division one basketball teams in 32 conferences. 68 of those teams qualify for the NCAA tournament at the end of the season (there are other, less prestigious tournaments such as the NIT and the CBI, but only the parents of the participants and people with mental health issues watch those games). The selection process for the process is so involved that it has a 900-word wikipedia page, but to make it simple, the winner of each of the 32 conferences qualifies, and a selection committee picks another 36 teams. Each team is given a “seed” 1-16 – one being the highest for the “best” teams, 16 being the lowest or the weakest teams, except for eight special teams. Those eight teams have to plan an extra game, a special “round 1”, for four seeds (either 11 or 16) in the the main 64-team bracket.

Yes it is that confusing. No it doesn’t make sense. How does the selection committee decide which “bubble teams” to take or not? They have published criteria, but people are upset every year. Not because their team necessarily has a chance: the lowest-seeded team to ever win was an 8 seed. But it’s like the wedding of someone you don’t like very much. No, you probably weren’t going to go. But yes, you wanted to be invited.

Rounds 2 + 3

After the four-game round one, two more rounds, commonly referred to as “round of 64” and “round of 32″ are played. 32 games are played in the first round, and sixteen in the second round, so 48 total games in just four days. Some teams that are expected to win always lose, and some team of 6’3” scrubs from a school you’ve never heard of (Campbell Fighting Camels anyone?) will beat a team (Big State U) that sounds like it should have been pretty good. The first two rounds are also the best time of year to post up in a sports bar for twelve hours, as several games will be going at once. Just don’t drink too much.

Late Rounds

The last four rounds, called the Sweet Sixteen, Elite 8, Final four, and championship games, are much less frantic, as sixteen teams get whittled down to a champion. By the time the Final Four comes around you have a pretty good idea of the teams and their strengths and weaknesses and have definitely picked a favorite or two. Weirdly, unless the team is really special to you for some reason, maybe your Alma Mater or a team your girlfriend really likes, you won’t remember any of these teams in five years. But that’s what makes the tournament great.


This is a blank bracket. When an official one comes out, use that instead.
This is a blank bracket. When an official one comes out, use that instead.


Filling in a bracket is the most fun part of the whole thing for many people. It’s not easy, though, there are 9.2 quintillion possible combinations for a 64-team bracket. A quintillion is a billion times a million. That’s nuts.

The good news is this frees you from having to pick a rational bracket of any sort. The Atlantic had some fun advice for how to fill out a bracket a couple of years ago:

Instead, get stupid. Have fun. Use one of the following to make your picks:

Mascot Fight Club: Simple. Which school’s mascot would win in a street brawl, and/or on Animal Planet? (Note: if Syracuse meets Harvard, choose your favorite color.)

Celebrity Alumni: You already read US Weekly. Put that knowledge to use! Kansas (Don Johnson) is a perennial favorite; NC State (John Tesh) could be a dark horse. As for Arizona, the alma mater of Craig T. Nelson and Geraldo? There’s a reason the Wildcats are playing in the NIT.

Inverse Graduation Rate: A few years back, the back cover of the official NCAA Tournament record book proclaimed a commitment to quality education and student-athletes;meanwhile, the book itself did not contain a single grade point average or degree announcement. Moreover, no Ivy League school has reached the Final Four since Penn in 1979. And MIT doesn’t even have a team! Do the math.

Coach Height: According to scientific studies, tall men earn more, have more children and are considered “significantly more attractive” by the opposite sex. The book “Too Tall, Too Small” reports that in the 21 presidential elections from 1904 to 1984, the taller candidate won 80 percent of the time. Speaking of Washington, towering former coach John Thompson once led Georgetown to three straight Final Fours. This is not a coincidence.

Go Chalk: An Indiana University study found that as an overall bracket strategy, picking upsets is not only dumb, but the special kind of human dumb that comes from outsmarting ourselves. After looking at the average performance of individuals in‘s bracket challenge over a two-year period, researchers concluded that people: (a) pick too many upsets, thereby faring worse than the tournament seeding and no better than random chance; (b) can’t help but pick too many upsets, because they’re acutely aware that upsets happen.

I’ll publish my bracket when it’s read, and when we’re done with the tourney, we can all come back and laugh at it.

Andrew Smith
About Andrew Smith 42 Articles
Editor-in-Chief Andrew Smith is a Seattle Native and University of Washington grad.

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