The mystique of March Madness


(Photo source: sports.cbslocal.com)

It’s March, which means college sports junkies are in nirvana.  As I write this article, the first of the First Four games of the NCAA tournament are on the TV in front of me.

For the benefit of those of you who either live under a rock, know nothing about sports, or refer to all things sports generically as “sportsball,” a brief primer: “March Madness” (a.k.a. “the big dance”) is a reference to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, where 68 schools compete for the national championship in a single-elimination tournament format.  It generates a great deal of excitement for students, alumni, and sports fans.  It creates a conversation topic as millions of people fill out tournament brackets, trying to predict (mostly, in vain) the outcome of all tournament matchups.  To put it mildly, March Madness is a huge deal.

I played in a pep band for a power conference NCAA Division 1 school, so my sports loyalty and school spirit are, to put it mildly, very strong.  (Side note: GO ORANGE!!!)  Those of you who know people associated with college pep bands realize that our school spirit tends to run deep (this might be another article for another time).  I’ve had friends and colleagues comment that they almost never see me without wearing an article of Syracuse gear.

However, I was spoiled at Syracuse.  We are a major conference school.  When I was a student at SU, we expected to make the NCAA tournament every year.  Anything less than a tournament bid was a disappointment; for us, NIT stood for “Not In the Tournament.”  Our ultimate goal was, and still is, to win the tournament, finally reaching the NCAA basketball summit in 2003.

There are 351 schools (as of this article) that play NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball.  68 of them make the NCAA tournament.  That’s 19% of NCAA membership.  Of those 351 schools, there are 42 schools that have never played in the NCAA tournament.  (That number had dropped by one from 43, after Lipscomb won their conference tournament this year to make it for the first time.)

I currently live in a metropolitan area that hosts two Division 1 basketball schools (Siena and UAlbany), both mid-major conference schools.  Unlike the power conferences, the mid-majors usually don’t harbor realistic expectations of winning the national championship.  For them, just making the tournament is a big deal, never mind actually winning it all.

This is a frequent conversation topic with my friend, Jim, who is an alumnus of the University of Maine (and one of the 42 schools that, as of 2018, has never made the tournament).  He has told me that he dreams of watching the selection show and seeing Maine appear in the bracket.  I understand his sentiment; for him, it is a source of school spirit and regional pride.  Seeing your school’s name come up for a major sporting event in front of a national audience is a source of pride and excitement.

Only one school will win the national championship; the other 350 will be left saying “wait ’til next year.”  For the vast majority of those schools, the possibility of winning the championship is far-fetched.  But for the 68 schools that make the tournament, it’s the idea that you have the opportunity to play for a championship, regardless of your team’s odds of winning it.  It’s like playing the lottery; as long as you get a ticket, there’s a possibility, no matter how small, that you could win it.  This is the mystique of March Madness; the majority of schools in the tournament likely will not win it, but they at least have the opportunity to compete for the big prize.

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