March Madness is underway, and for those living in a bubble it’s the pop culture term for the annual NCAA tournaments that decide the men’s and women’s college basketball champions.
March Madness has become a national treasure, a phenomenon that grips our sports psyches from the second week in March until the first Monday in April. Here in the South, and more specifically in Sumner County, and still more precisely in the McElhaney house, we root for higher-seeded teams and the Kentucky Wildcats. We cannot however cheer for the underdogs if they are playing the Big Blue because that is against the tournament viewing rules established by Penny McElhaney, a 1998 UK grad and lifelong fanatic. When asked when basketball season starts, Penny always replies, “March.”
We have an annual love affair with this most unique American sporting event. Outside the thrilling upsets, pure joy of the March Madness comes from Bracketology, the art of forecasting the winners and the losers. There, at our desk or kitchen tables we sit, brackets laid before us, highlighter in one hand, pen in the other, pouring over the match-ups, reading online reports and point spreads on our tablets looking for the next Cinderella in the sixty-eight team field, filling out our “sheets of integrity.” Where is Gonzaga anyway? Your heartbeat hastens as you choose which twelve seeds will beat five seeds this year. Can Binghamton beat Florida? Your palms dampen as you consider whether another fifteen can dribble past another two. Is Santa Clara back in this year? When will a sixteen oust a top seed?
No matter if you study the conferences, watch games all season or conduct sophisticated scientific experiments, or if you pick based on the mascots, the team colors or the cutest coaches, you will not get them all right. No one ever has. In fact, a DePaul University math professor calculated the odds of filling out a perfect bracket at about one in 9.2 quintillion. According to statistics, you are more likely to be crushed to death by a vending machine or be struck by lightning three times in one year than fill out a perfect NCAA basketball bracket.
Still, we turn our brackets into the office pools and the online community pools, pitting our wit against all others. Our picks. Our Cinderellas. Our Final Four. We shut down offices, huddle around TVs and tablets at 11a.m. on Thursday. We order pizzas and we watch. One employment firm estimates about fifty million Americans participated in office pools in 2016. The loss of productivity for the opening week of March Madness cost employers nearly $4 billion.
At my office, probably like yours, we embrace the Madness. The long-term benefit to the company morale far outweighs the short-term downturn in productivity. You cannot suppress the Madness. While the most legendary tournament moments happen in the Final Four and Regional Championships, the real excitement occurs during the opening long weekend (Thursday – Sunday), when the first two rounds are played at break-neck speed, wall-to-wall, games played at the same time, across four TV stations. Forty-eight games in four days. It truly is maddening.
The single elimination format adds to the madness. While NBA teams can lose as many as twelve games and still win the championship one upset can sink your team and bust your bracket. Every game is important. While the very nature of sports is fleeting, March Madness is a not-so-gentle reminder that the only real moment is this one. This game. “Survive and advance” is the appropriate moniker.
If we’re not sitting on the couch, we go see these magical games live. Almost 800,000 people filled arenas last year to watch. When the games were in Nashville, Penny and I went, dressed festively on St. Patrick’s Day. These moments, these games, mark our lives. Penny, the Kentucky fan, hates Duke and a particular 6’11” player who wore No.32 in the early 90s. In our house, he is known only as “the name that shall not be spoken.”
Whether it’s Michael Jordan’s jumper, Lorenzo Charles’ dunk, Tyus Edney’s drive, Bryce Drew’s shot, last year’s wildest finish ever with three-point buzzer beaters by Marcus Paige to tie the game and then Kris Jenkins to win it, or “The Shot” in 1992 made by that player whose name we cannot say under Penny’s tournament viewing rules, we all have Big Dance shining moments. And we watch every game we can, every year, chasing the next one.
Who’s in your Final Four?