Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Brackets Take NCAA Tournament To Greater Heights

The piece of paper that puts the NCAA Tournament over the top. (cuindependent.com)

The design of the NCAA Tournament already makes it the greatest sports tournament (notice I said tournament and not event, so calm down, Super Bowl) in the country.

The single-elimination style brings intensity and drama like none other. The inclusion of 68 teams, instead of 16 or two, draws fans from all across the country as every team from blue bloods to NCAA Tourney first timers have an equal shot to win a title. Cities are filled with sellout crowds of fans watching and praying their team advances to the next day or weekend. I believe 10 straight hours of basketball on four networks mean the television ratings do pretty well, too.

But there's something about the tournament that puts the event over the top; that sheet of lines, numbers and college names that can make your day or break your heart. The bracket.

Millions of people will ignore work, family and any friends who aren't college basketball analysts and find any means necessary to attempt to correctly predict the tournament outcome. It consumes fans. "Which No. 12 seed will upset a No. 5? How many No. 1 seeds will make the Final Four? What Cinderella team will carry my bracket and the slipper all the way to the winner's circle? Maybe I should just resort to picking teams based on which mascot would win in a fight like Kathy from HR, who somehow has won the last two years?"

It gives you a reason to fully invest in a game between Butler and Bucknell when you have not watched a single moment of either team's games all year. Maybe you've never heard of the school, but that doesn't mean you won't promise to donate to Albany if it can somehow pull off that second-round (Round of 64 - I hate the new wording) upset to throw you into the lead in your pool. Every game becomes important because every game now has meaning to you and your bracket.

All the planning and research goes into picking the perfect upsets and the correct Final Four teams and yet eventually a school will break your heart. Your Final Four team will lose in the Sweet 16 and that Cinderella you have dancing into the second weekend gets dropped by a buzzer-beater on the first afternoon of games and the dream of perfection is over as reality sets in. You believe you can find the perfect bracket, but somehow it is always out of reach. You might as well be searching for the Fountain of Youth or a lost city of gold. It's painful, but it's also a thing of beauty.

The beauty of the bracket also lies in the days before the tournament begins. Anticipation is high for the first game to tip and you spend the four days not just waiting for games, but studying and preparing for them. The work begins long before the game clock counts down, for your bracket is first priority. At that moment, your bracket is perfect because it cannot be proven otherwise. You have fully convinced yourself Indiana will make it out of the East region and Belmont will upset Arizona, and for all you know that is what will happen.

The NCAA Tournament would still have upsets, buzzer-beaters and Cinderellas without brackets. The suspense would still be high and the stakes even higher. But no where else do you find people possessed with the motivation to predict the outcome of a tournament and so dedicated to follow it through and see how right they were. The bracket portion of the event has grown to being nearly as large as the games themselves. The No. 1 talking point this week in offices and among friends is "how is your bracket doing?"

The NCAA Tournament would do just fine without brackets, but it wouldn't be as good. The bracket connects us to the entire tournament, not just the region your favorite team plays in, and really gives fans the complete experience. Without a bracket, many people wouldn't stay up late on Thursday night to watch New Mexico against Harvard, but it might turn out to be one of the best games of the tournament. The tournament is the biggest stage because millions of people are watching nearly every game, and a big thanks to that is the existence of the bracket.

That sheet of lines, numbers and team names will most likely break your heart. It will sometimes make you a winner. But one thing is for sure, having a bracket to fill out makes the NCAA Tournament experience even better.

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