Every March, an all too familiar feeling floods over would be bracketologists. For three weeks, the world is suddenly taken over by college basketball experts analyzing statistics, studying injuries and predicting seeding. The tournament is announced, brackets are assembled and all is optimistic -- "this year I know the Zags are going deep, Syracuse is a dark horse, Texas is too physical to be kept out of the Elite Eight, Ohio State is practically a shoe-in." Then games are actually played.
I can proudly say that I am in the majority of people who correctly predicted none of this year's Final Four that features Kentucky (4), Virginia Commonwealth (11), University of Connecticut (3) and Butler (8). ESPN uses a mathematical calculation of the hundreds of thousands of online brackets assembled all over the world in their tournament challenge and 0.4 per cent of those who entered selected VCU to even make it out of the Sweet 16 and a whopping zero per cent selected them to win the national championship. Even Butler, who was one basket away from last year's national championship, garnered 0.6 per cent of this year's ESPN Final Four Brackets. To give context to this year's unlikely matchups, when VCU meets Butler in the Final Four, it will be the highest number of combined seeds in tournament history.
My own bracket included Ohio State (1), BYU (3), Kansas (1) and Duke (1), all perennial powerhouses with my idea of an upset being a number three in Brigham Young -- serves me right for assuming predictability.
This year's edition of March lunacy has produced perhaps the most unlikely Final Four in history, turning the stomach of millions of amateur gamblers while reminding everybody what makes it one of the most exciting sporting events of the calendar year. The one and done format creates an environment for memorable upsets, this year being no exception with Morehead State (13) defeating Louisville (4) in the round of sixty-four as an example. Ordinarily, one can rest assured that at least one number one seed will make its way to the Final Four, but certainty is a luxury that March does not allow for any school no matter their seeding or prestige. The 2011 edition of March Madness has produced an inordinate number of upsets which only serves to strengthen the tournament's mythology.
A large body of opinion suggests that one Cinderella is healthy, but two is a crowd and the tournament suffers when the prettiest girls aren't at the dance. What draws the casual observer into the NCAA tournament is not the prospect of watching elite basketball -- though the play is at a very high level, there is an entire professional league to satisfy the desire to watch the world's best players. It is the passion and the reckless abandon displayed by teams that are outside the gaze of sports fans anywhere that lead to compelling storylines drawing in international audiences. There is an appetite for upsets, otherwise there would be little point in staging the event at all.
Those that maintain that the validity of the tournament is questioned because the best teams are not represented fundamentally misunderstand why the tournament exists in the first place. The regular season crowns its own champions from each conference -- though largely unwatched by casual fans -- ultimately to determine seeding of the 100-metre dash that is the NCAA Finals.
A sprint is the perfect analogy because the tournament determines who is best at the most important time, not who is strongest over the course of the marathon season -- a refreshing spectacle opposed to the war of attrition seen in the NBA. The public wants what the tournament was set up to provide: high drama. If that is true, this year's edition with its sex scandals, cheating allegations, questionable officiating and underdogs are a Morgan Freeman narration away from an Oscar. It is with a busted bracket and a stomach full of humble pie that I welcome many more years of March Madness if it means getting to watch games like this every year.