Monthly Archives: March 2015

The beauty of the bracket

This article was concurrently published at NoCoastBias.com on March 19, 2015.

On paper it just looks like a series of lines, arranged neatly in rows. Some are even connected. Then we add some words, some names of places, and a few numbers too. Eventually the blank spaces get filled in. The lines remind us who has to go where, and meet up with whom. It’s really just a way to keep an organized schedule of 67 games. But we know better. This isn’t just a list of basketball games, this is the chronicle of an unfolding saga not present in any other sport. This is the evolving account of dreams realized and hopes dashed, of stories that pervade beyond expectations and a few a that end just a bit too soon. This is no ordinary schedule; this is… The Bracket.

It doesn’t matter how you start. Fill out one, or fill out ten. Pick based on seed; pick based on momentum; or pick based on reputation. Watch hours of analysis on TV, or spend a few minutes scribbling names during your lunch break. Bet money, wager bragging rights, or prove once-and-for-all that you know more about sports than your roommate. Chances are the girl next door who picked mascots and team colors did better than both of you. This time of year smart phones are refreshed nearly every minute; office lunch breaks are suspiciously long; and we finally get a legitimate answer to the ever-rhetorical question of why it is actually practical to have multiple TV screens in your living room.

The preceding months have led to this: tip-off tournaments, early-season match-ups, and conference rivalries. 68 of the nation’s best teams now compete for college basketball’s top prize. Arenas across the country play host to any of the 67 games that whittle the field down in every round. Played over the course of 3 short weeks, March Madness sends sports into a flurry of competition and fandom. No waiting long between games; no best-of-7 series. Just win.

The “bracket” becomes one of the most recognizable pictures in March. “Bracketology” sounds like the next thing to major when in college. Joe Lunardi is on TV more than the the President. Cinderellas and “bracket busters” come to life. The bracket spreads to schools, offices, every form of media, and even all the way to the White House. At any point, a team can gain thousands of fans (or opponents, depending on who you picked). This is the bracket: a piece of paper (or picture on a screen) honored as a piece of history. And just like any other form of written information, since the beginning of time, the purpose is just that: to be a part of history. Look at a completed bracket from a previous year’s tournament, and a hundred stories jump to life. Take a look at the 2006 bracket, when all four #1 seeds failed to make the Final Four, and 11-seeded George Mason did. The final line of 2008 reads “Kansas defeats Memphis” although you probably remember Mario Chalmers’s completing the comeback to send game into overtime. That year might conjure up the vision of Davidson in the Elite 8, before a certain guard named Steph Curry was in the NBA. 2010 saw the Butler Bulldogs in their remarkable run to the title game (What if Gordon Hayward’s shot had gone in?), and VCU from the First Four to the Final Four in 2011. Every year the tournament etches memories in ink for the bracket, and into to our minds for eternity. If you were watching the games, you can probably still vividly recall the buzzer-beaters that sent 13 and 14 seeded teams beyond the first round, Cornell or Harvard from the Ivy League upsetting favorites from major conferences, or Florida “Dunk City” Gulf Coast winning two games as a a 15-seed in 2013. From an endless array of possibilities, order and chaos seemingly blend with each line filled in. In a season where drama and disbelief are a near certainty, the bracket is our ever-faithful scribe that recounts each moment in time.

So when you fill out your bracket, you’re not in it for the money. It’s not just about the bragging rights or procrastinating at work. You’re recording history. The bracket takes the game from the far corners of the country, and pushes it onto center stage. Every game counts, every game matters. Whether you’ve been a basketball fan for 30 minutes or 30 years, everyone is cheering for someone. Follow your teams through to the end, or just rip it apart, and root for more madness. Everyone claims to predict the future, until we realize once again how futile an endeavor that is. Thousands of moments we don’t want to forget, become etched in history forever. That’s the madness of March. That’s the beauty of the bracket.  AN

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Champ Week Magic

This article was concurrently published at NoCoastBias.com on March 11, 2015.

Two years ago, I attended the 2013 Horizon League Tournament upon the recommendation of my college roommate, one of the biggest fans of college basketball that I have ever met. We made the short drive to Valparaiso, IN on a Friday night for two games in the quarterfinal round. Arriving to the campus of Valparaiso University on a quiet March afternoon, we found the basketball court in a gym that could have passed for a large high school, a far cry from the D-I arenas we were used to seeing.

As fans of the sport itself, we were excited to see any basketball game, and certainly a conference tournament. We got there early of course, but hadn’t needed to. The bleachers were empty enough that there were plenty of front-row seats even when the first game started. The game was between Youngstown State and Wright State. Youngstown State’s mascot is the penguin, so there were multiple fully-costumed penguins in attendance for the game. Of course we took pictures with them. We could hear nearly every play call and sound of the game, as if we were right next to the action (because we were). The student band section was fully into the game. For some time, they may have even outnumbered the fans. Needless to say, their cheers resonated during every opposing free throw, giving us some of the most creative (and not tasteless at all) cheers we couldn’t help but find humorous. Something related to a certain 80’s rock song: (“You’re not gonna make it…No! You’re not gonna make it…) And of course they cheered even louder when a free throw did happen to clang off the rim. At half time, they threw T-shirts in the stands; there were nearly as many T-shirts as there were fans so we ended up with a few of them. For the second game, the stands started to fill up for the game between Illinois-Chicago and Green Bay. This exciting game was close the whole way. Green Bay won on a last second three-pointer; and naturally we went crazy; because whether you’re at a fourth-grade CYO game or an NBA playoff game, a game-winning shot is, of course, awesome. (And if we had come back the following night for the semifinals, we would have seen two more game-winners). Who says only the big-school rivalries can be exciting? In that gym, you could tell the teams were playing for something, that the fans cared, that it wasn’t “just another game.” It didn’t matter that it was the quarterfinals of a far-from-major conference tournament with teams we had never seen before. All that mattered was that this was basketball; it was March basketball. Our game was one that only a fraction of basketball fans would see, but was connected to this larger mass-cultural phenomena that we call March Madness. We were watching a part, and not an insignificant one, of this incredible month of basketball, which every year captures the magic for college basketball fans everywhere.

I found myself continuously reminding myself that the teams in that small gym were competing a spot on the same big stage as Duke and Kentucky, as Coach Rick and Coach Roy. Every team is playing for something, which isn’t always the case in other sports. Realistically, teams from the Sun Belt or the Colonial might not be gunning for the Final Four every year, but a conference championship means a lot for any team. And when you watch a celebration after each championship game, you may as well have thought those players had just won the Olympics.

Conference games in college basketball are some of the most competitive match-ups in all of sports. Teams and coaches are familiar; fans invest in the rivalries; rankings and NCAA seeds can shift in the blink of an eye. We don’t need to wait for Selection Sunday for March Madness to start; championship week sets the stage. Teams that lose focus can be upset in a hurry; games on consecutive days mean someone can get hot and make a run to the finals. Already this year, teams have carried momentum to championships and berths into the NCAA tournament. As the major conference games start in full swing, there will be more than a few magic moments between now and Sunday.

So don’t think of this as a preview to March Madness, this is already the beginning. Championship week has given us some of the greatest moments in college basketball: Evan Turner’s long buzzer-beater for Ohio State; Vanderbilt upsetting top-ranked Kentucky in the 2012 SEC final; Kemba Walker’s magical run with UConn; 6 overtimes for Syracuse and Connecticut (and that’s just the past decade). This is the most exciting month in sports, and it has already begun. It’s only going to get better. These unforgettable moments will unite players and fans from all over the country. We’re waiting to see which players will add to their legacies; which team will become the next Cinderella story; which video clips will be replayed for posterity. It does not matter which team is your favorite, just watch and be amazed. It’s Championship Week: let the magic begin.  AN