The beauty of the bracket

This article was concurrently published at 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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