March Madness is upon us

Yes, the annual NCAA college basketball tournament — better known as March Madness — is well underway. For those who might be unfamiliar with the format, March Madness is a single-elimination tournament in which 64 schools are broken up into four different divisions (East, West, South-East, and South-West) and seeded from 1-16 based on their regular season and conference tournament records.

Now, I’ve never been one to watch a basketball on purpose, but March Madness seems to have a certain sweet allure that the NBA could never achieve. For starters, the players are all college kids playing for (among other things) the love of the game. While some are coveted prospects, playing with visions of making big money in the pros, most are just thrilled to have the opportunity to make a clutch shot and become a legend on campus. There’s just something satisfying about watching some unknown kid become a hero for a day over watching pampered millionaires playing under contract.

Listen, if you’re name isn’t Blake Griffin and you’re not constantly making highlight-reel dunks, I’m just not going to care.

It also helps that the NCAA format is much more streamlined compared to the NBA. While the NBA divides its games into twelve minute quarters, allowing ample time for lengthy commercial breaks, the NCAA splits their basketball games into twenty minute halves. The shot clock is also longer in the college ranks, which allows teams to work the clock if they choose or spend more time setting up three-point tries. Because of these two key differences, college games are often lower-scoring, close games that come down to the final few minutes.

What also helps to make NCAA’s championship tournament “madness” is the furious pace in which the games unfold. There are 32 first-round games played over the first two days alone. That’s so much basketball, I can’t even imagine how one could properly follow it all without 24/7 sports channels and use of the Internet.

Ultimately, that’s what makes following NCAA from north of the Canada-USA border slightly difficult; the NCAA gets some play up here, but it’s a much bigger story in the States. While TSN’s SportsCentre spends a couple minutes showing highlights of a day’s worth of games, ESPN’s SportsCenter spends a large chunk of their show analyzing and discussing each game individually. This makes sense, as American collegiate athletics are going to be a bigger deal in America than in Canada, but I can’t help feeling, despite receiving full coverage through the Internet, that Canadians who wish to follow March Madness closely are missing out. At the very least, it feels like our own college sporting association, CIS, is a century behind the NCAA.

On the other hand, as Canadians, we generally have no connection to any of the schools playing in the tournament. Unless you were born, went to college, or have somehow formed a bond with a specific city or school, it can be next to impossible to feel connected to the tournament. Do you really care that No. 13 Morehead State upset No. 4 Louisville in the first round? Probably not. Was it one hell of an exciting finish? You bet!

On the topic of betting (how about that segue?), there’s perhaps no more significant element to March Madness than the brackets. Whether you’re filling them with cash and/or bragging rights on the line, or just for fun as I did this year, everyone’s on a fairly level playing field. After day one, I picked 12 out of 16 games right, which is not bad considering I knew nothing, literally nothing, about college basketball before I started filling out my bracket. In fact, I went about making my picks imagining how Gus Johnson* might announce each team’s epic victory, and which seemed more natural or exciting in my head.

But that was just my way of making picks. Other methods include following statistical trends, simply flipping a coin for each matchup, some ride the top-seeded teams (a strategy referred to as “picking the chalk”) and some pick based on the “coolness” of each school’s mascots. The beautiful thing is that all these methods could potentially create the perfect bracket, since there’s guaranteed to be surprises every year that catch even the most seasoned college basketball experts off guard.

Perhaps the best part is that beyond the experts, there are plenty of celebrities, or people otherwise in the public eye, that fill out March Madness brackets. From iconic rapper Snoop Dogg to The Social Network star Jesse Eisenberg, NHL All-Star Dany Heatley to U.S. President Barack Obama, you’re bound to beat out at least one notable figure, and that’s a pretty cool feeling.

You’re going down, Snoop.

*Gus Johnson is a modern-day legend in the field of sports broadcasting, best known for his extremely excitable style of play-by-play and supreme use of hyperbole during dramatic moments of a game. You can catch him doing March Madness play-by-play for CBS, or check out some of his excellent highlights on YouTube.