March Madness 101 – A Beginner's Guide to America’s Best Kept Sporting Secret

Timothy Amoss gives the lowdown on College Basketball tournament March Madness.

Hopefully you enjoyed the ’Madness of March’ piece from yesterday! For those interested, wanting to know a little more, or simply bored at work and need a distraction, here’s a little insider guide to the tournament.

It all started way back in 1939 when the National Association of Basketball Coaches (headed by a chap called Harold Olsen) decided to put together a tournament for eight teams to crown a National Collegiate Basketball Champion.

The idea quickly took off and ‘March Madness’ began to grow in popularity, spreading all over the country.

By the 1950’s the number of teams entered had doubled to 16, by the 1970’s they were up to 32 and in 1985 the first 64 team tournament took place, which is broadly where we are now (give or take some ‘play in’ games designed to squeeze a few more teams in to the field and earn a little more TV money, making it up to a nice round….errr… 68?!).

Television coverage also played a crucial role in the growth of the tournament. First broadcast in 1969, March Madness has been shown on ‘free-to-air’ or network television ever since.

Although our version of ESPN shows the games in this country, CBS currently broadcasts every tournament game live (securing a whopping 14 year, $11 billion dollar deal in 2010) allowing for a huge potential audience in the US.

So, how do you get in I hear you ask?!

Well over 300 Division 1 college basketball teams are split up into 31 conferences all over the country (usually by region, size, historic rivalry and sometimes academic level – the Ivy League for instance). The major schools can mostly be found in the ‘Power Six’ conferences which are; the Big Ten located in the Midwestern United States (which of course now has twelve teams), the Big 12 in the central/southern states (which of course now has ten teams), the Pacific or ‘Pac 12’ out west, the Southeastern conference (SEC), Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and finally the Big East located predominantly in the Northeast area (although a bunch of those teams just left to form a breakaway conference….lots of politics!)

Teams battle through their seasons aiming to have the best record possible in order to; a) obtain the highest seed going into their conference tournament, thus giving them the best chance of winning the automatic bid and b) securing one of the 37 remaining ‘at large’ bids or committee selections if they fall short of winning said conference championship.

Still with me? Good…Lost already? Not to worry, it takes a while.

So these ‘at large’ bids prove somewhat of a contentious issue each year. They are determined by a selection committee who have the arduous task of deciding who does and doesn’t make the cut based on various measures (overall record, strength of schedule, wins over top teams etc). As you can imagine, comparing teams with similar win-loss records from completely different conferences, that have played mostly different teams is rarely a simple task.

‘Selection Sunday’ sees the announcement of the field of 68, following the conclusion of all the Conference Championship Finals. The fates of those teams sitting on the ‘bubble’ of tournament selection are finally revealed; although controversy often ensues as to why some teams were chosen where others were left out (Americans do love a bit of drama).

The selection committee also seeds the entire field of teams and groups them into four ‘regions’, with teams seeded from 1-16 in each, forming the infamous ‘Bracket’ or ladder. The winners of each region meet in the ‘Final Four’ (this year held at Cowboy Stadium in Texas) where the National Champion is crowned.

And that, in the nuttiest of shells, is all you really need to know.

Oh and this next bit.

One of the real fun and interactive things about it is to try and predict the entire tournament before a ball has even been tipped! A seemingly impossible task but in offices, colleges, workplaces and many other spots all around the country thousands of Americans, including the president, are attempting to do just that.

An estimated $80-90 million is wagered ‘unofficially’ on March Madness brackets in office ‘pools’ or leagues that take place. Vegas is pretty busy as well, with sports fans and gamblers from all over descending on America’s sports betting heaven to try and make some money calling the upsets.

You can always just play for fun though (as most do) competing for bragging rights amongst friends and family, which reflects the ability of March Madness to bring people together. Points for successfully predicting winners increase as the rounds progress, meaning that even if you miss on some games there is still a chance to come back if your Final Four teams are still alive.

The real beauty of it is that anyone can fill out a ‘bracket’! It requires no prior knowledge (although some might help) and you can simply stick to the top seeds, or the teams you like, or the funny names or even the colours (girls I'm talking to you).

The so called ‘experts’ rarely predict more games than your average Joe, epitomised by my best result…the first time I ever took part! I ended up predicting three of the final four teams, the championship match-up and the eventual winner! Whilst I’d love to take credit for being so damn good (okay okay…I’m a little damn good), it really was a bit of a fluke based partly on seeding, the few games I’d seen and what little I had read.

This year, Quicken Loans (a big mortgage lending company) are putting up ONE BILLION DOLLARS for a perfect bracket, i.e. predicts every game correctly. Whilst the odds of this are astronomical, it’s got to be worth a shot!

Check out the tournament itself on ESPN for the next few weeks, it really is an event worth watching!