To know when it arrives, check the calendar: March 16 and running to the Final Four, April 5 and 7. Or open the door and listen for the cry of the bracket-buster across the land.
The NBA has the greatest players on Earth, with skill and speed and all that. But they’re nothing compared with the rah-rah innocence of the college game — going head-first over the press table, fewer tattoos, almost no bling, to say nothing of bouncing cheerleaders and blaring bands.
The Big Dance doesn’t need a local angle, but it helps. The Pitt Panthers will probably make it again, but as an at-large. (Little chance they’ll win the title in their new home, the Atlantic Coast Conference.) Robert Morris might sneak in as Northeast Conference champ, and also wouldn’t go far. Duquesne, in the Atlantic 10, is still some years from this dream.
For greater tournament enjoyment of the Big Dance, these points ought to help:
The bracket: The bracket is a chart that shows the pairings and progress of the tournament. The bracket made the Big Dance. It’s more than a scorecard. It’s a universal betting instrument. College kids and alums root for their schools, but the rest of America is rooting for their brackets. Brackets are everywhere — offices, shops, clubs, families. No one notices that playing brackets is illegal. Probably not even an attorney or two. The price is whatever your bracketeer wants. Maybe $5 is the going rate. It’s a single-elimination tournament. One bounce and a team is out. On opening day, you have 64 teams — conference champs and at-large invitees — paired off in 32 games. You make your 32 picks, and then it’s like pushing your toy boat out into the Niagara River. All you can do is sit back and watch. When a No. 15 seed knocks off your sure thing, that’s a bracket-buster. It’s recognized by a call such as, “Oh-my-gaw-d!” You’re dead the rest of the way in that slot.
Seeding: The tournament is divided into four regionals of 16 teams each, ranked by quality from No. 1 (say, North Carolina) down to No. 16 (say, Southern U). The tournament committee, seeking to serve up the best possible show for the TV mother lode, feeds the lowest ranked to the highest. Like, No. 1 vs. No. 16, and 2 vs. 15, etc. It’s cruel. You want them to risk Liberty vs. Middle Tennessee State in the final and hear all the TV sets click off?
History: The NIT (National Invitation Tournament) used to be the big post-season tournament. Two developments were the prime movers in making the NCAA a national institution. One, the NCAA eliminated the competition by buying out the NIT. Second and greater, the NCAA reduced the number of scholarships Division I schools could grant (it’s down to 13), thus sending a huge stream of talent spilling throughout the land. For the good of other deserving teams, the NCAA is expected to increase the tournament to 96 teams before long, and the TV money (now about $700 million a year) is also expected to go up. Or was the TV money going up if the NCAA expanded the tournament? Hard to tell.
It’s the old question: Which came first, the goose or the golden egg?
P.S. Top ticket for the Final Four at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas: $3,217.50.