Sunday, March 13, 2011

NCAA Men's Baskeball Tournament AKA Brackets

Welcome to NCAA Basketball Tournament 101
So for the past few days and for the next three weeks you will hear all about the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association), College Basketball Tournament and people will talk about their “brackets” and on Thursday March 17th & Friday March 18th, CBS, TBS, TNT & Tru TV will have college games on non stop and your reguarly scheduled programming will be on hiatus.
So what is all of this?
Okay it’s the playoff system for Division 1 College basketball (the largest schools), for which there are 346 schools and which the exception of a handful (four), they all play in a conference (Big 10, Big 12, Missouri Valley, Mountain West, etc), thus the best 68 teams are selected and basically they are rated from top to bottom and spend the next month playing one & done (no best of 3, you win your game you move on to the next round, you lose, your butt goes home), games in neutral sites to see who the best is.
So how are they selected? Well if you win your conference, for which there are 32, that’s an automatic invitation (to what people call the Big Dance another name for the tournament), otherwise you need to be one of the best remaining teams for which a committee at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis (it’s a huge and nice facility), decides by secret vote on Selection Sunday (today March 13th), and thus they also decide the match up of who plays who, when and where, thus your bracket. You can get online or in your local newspapers.
Now new this year is the “First Four”, basically an expanded version of the “play in game” that we’ve had since 1999, hence how we are now up to 68 teams from the 66 & 64 of the past 20 years or so. Usually these are very small schools that won their conference championship and are basically cannon fodder for some behemoth like Duke or Kansas.  These games are Tuesday the 15th & Wednesday the 16th.
See the bracket goes like this, the better you are, the higher your seed, so if you are Duke and are the top seed which is decided by your wins & losses, the strength of schedule (also called SOS, if you played tomato cans like Eastern Missouri Welders Institute or good schools like North Carolina), and RPI (which is an overall number of your season, good wins, bad losses, everything).
So the lowest seed is 16 and the highest 1. That’s just for one quarter of the bracket (remember 68 teams), there are four regions, all filled with teams ranked 1 through 16. And for the record, a number 16 seed has never beaten a number 1 seed (but two number 15 seeds have knocked off number 2 seeds), but Slippery Rock College is hoping one day to knock off Syracuse, it will happen eventually, so will the Cubs winning the World Series.
Anyway, the first group of games is this week (after the First Four), the 17th & 18th, that’s the first round, by Saturday morning we will be down to 32 teams left standing and then Saturday & Sunday another round of games, and by Sunday night they will be 16 left, thus the proverbial “Sweet Sixteen”. Games then resume the next Thursday the 24th and Friday the 25th  and another round Saturday the 26th & Sunday the 27th and then you have 8, hence  the “Elite Eight” and another round of games on Sunday and you have four, which aptly called “Final Four”.
Got that?
Then on to your championship round the next weekend April 2nd & 3rd a game each day until there are 2 left and you then have your championship game Monday night April 4 and that’s the winner of all of this.
You still with me?
Yeah it’s a lot of basketball and a lot of betting, you will see online pools, contests and everything else for your bracket with all kinds of prizes. ESPN now calls this “Bracketology”, its not really a science, the key to having a good bracket is knowing how teams match up against each other, there will be upsets of good teams and some surprises, its not just filling out the best four teams to go to the final four only happened once I believe in 2006 and I think in 2004, only of the top seeds made it. Its part luck, part knowledge but a lot of fun games.
I love the college game because these are kids playing their butts off, no million dollar contracts (at least not for the players, the schools make tons off of this), just good, hard basketball. Though lets be honest most of these kids playing will never get to the NBA, a few will, quite a few may play over seas or in the NBA Developmental League (minor league), or some other lower level professional basketball.
Unfortunately for my Alma mater DePaul University has a bad record (well bad memories), in the NCAA tournament, our Final Four appearance in 1979 was marred by Indiana State and Larry Bird playing one of the best performances by a college player ever.  And then in 1981 when we were a top seed, St Joe's took us out in the second round (back when there was a first round bye) and we’ve never been past the Sweet Sixteen since. We has several appearances in the NCAA Tournament in the 80’s and a few in the 90’s but only two this century. In 2000 we at the tournament long enough to have a cup of coffee and played one game and was gone and in 2004 we stayed around for the second round (after being Dayton in OT in the first round), and was sent home by Kansas.
If you haven’t noticed there is an emotion tied to college sports that you don’t see with the professional sports, first you have a bunch of screaming college kids, but people take their Alma maters seriously (I do, despite how bad they are 7-24 this year, ouch), in fact at most games, the students have a cheering section but most of the people there are not students. I know I used to have season tickets for DePaul basketball (after I graduated), it’s a lot of fun (though not cheap), and though you’re not trying to relive your college years (at least I wasn’t, I was commuter student working my way through college, nothing glorious about that), just enjoying good basketball. And reconnecting with people and meeting new alums.
The highlight of having my season tickets, which I had a full or partial package for three years was being able to meet one of the greatest coaches of all time Coach Ray Meyer (who after every home game would sit with alumni and talk about the game in his wheelchair in the concourse of Allstate Arena), who coached DePaul for 40 years from 1942- 1984 and it was his son Joey who took over the program and kept it up for a while but eventually threw it in Lake Michigan and its never had any substantial success on a consistent level since. 
I was DePaul when Joey coached (that’s using the term loosely), and it was bad, 7-23 my middle two years and man I can tell you some stories not fit for this public blog, that’s something I’ll talk about at a bar over some beer (which is also a great way to watch the NCAA tournament), anyway, you see the passion I have for NCAA basketball, its something that I’ve loved ever since the great DePaul teams with Mark Aquirre Terry Cummings, Tyrone Corbin & Dave Corzine, maybe one day we’ll get that back, maybe.
Regardless, for any sports fan, the next few weeks are some of the greatest on the sports calendar.

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