Issue 64: How March Madness Works

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Chances are, you’re one of many people who don’t follow college basketball for, like, 49 weeks of the year. But as March Madness is upon us, you’re about to get more hyped than a dog at dinnertime.

This is totally understandable behavior. Most folks only focus on the next few weeks from mid-March to early April.

If you’ve ever wondered how the NCAA Tournament (what we call “March Madness”) actually comes to fruition, I’ve got you covered.

Or perhaps you’re more interested in tips and tricks for filling out your bracket and winning your tournament pool, whether the prize is a million dollars, a hearty pat on the back, or somewhere in between. I’ve got you covered with that, too (though it’ll be in next week’s email).

Note: This year was especially wacky because of COVID-19. Some teams played a full schedule, while others barely played any games at all. Things will hopefully get back to what we’re used to for the 2021-22 season, but kudos to all these teams for adapting and being incredibly flexible with scheduling.

A Brief History of the NCAA Tournament

The very first NCAA Tournament took place in 1939. The Oregon Ducks beat the Ohio State Buckeyes in a riveting 46-33 matchup.

We weren’t using peach baskets that required a ladder to get the ball out of the basket after each made shot, but we weren’t too far removed from those days, either.

Only eight teams were even in that tournament. Nowadays, there are 68 teams in the tournament. As you’ll see below, this is a fairly recent development.

As of 2021, there are 350 teams that are in Division I of the NCAAs, which is the highest level there out there.

Each team is divided into a conference, which is primarily separated by geography. However, in the past decade or so, teams have shifted conferences with alarming regularity, mostly to make college football even more profitable than it already is. Certain conferences, like the Big East, used to have some super cool basketball traditions, but now it’s a barely recognizable conference.

For the purpose of our exercise, though, all you need to know is that there are 32 conferences.

The Schedule

Each team plays a non-conference schedule, when they can face anyone in the country, and then they play a conference schedule, where they’ll only go up against the other teams in their conference.

Usually, once the conference schedule starts, teams stick with that through the end of the regular season, but occasionally you’ll get a random matchup in mid-February between a powerhouse, like Kentucky, and a tiny little school, like Fairleigh Dickinson.

At the end of the regular season, each team is seeded for the conference tournament. This seeding is based on the conference record. In the case of a tie, they’ll look at the head-to-head record of the tied teams or the teams’ overall record.

Theoretically, you could have a team lose every single game on their non-conference schedule and then win every game during their conference schedule, and they’d still be rewarded with a better seed in the conference tournament than a team that won every game during their non-conference schedule and lost only one game during conference play. I don’t believe that’s ever happened, but it’s one of those wonky things that’s fun to think about.

Every team that wins their conference tournament receives an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, so the conference tournament is really important for making the big dance.

Some conferences have the better seeds host their conference tournament games; for example, a No. 1 seed might play at home against the No. 8 seed. They were better during the regular season, so it’s only fitting that they get to host the game and have their fans attend (you know, in a normal, non-COVID year).

Other conferences pick one school that hosts every game, and still others will make all their teams travel to a random location and then play all of the conference tournament games there.

The At-Large Bids

Once these 32 teams win their games (31 this year, because the Ivy League is skipping its season), the other 36 (37 this year) spots are up for grabs by “at large” teams, and are chosen by what’s called a “selection committee.”

This is a group of people that have some sort of affiliation with college basketball, whether it’s via a specific conference or just the general NCAA. Typically, these are older white men that wear suits (or maybe polo shirts) while sitting in a bunker of sorts as they decide which teams are worthy of inclusion into the big dance.

They literally have a stat sheet on every single team in Division I, which shows the team’s overall record, conference record, game results, and a whole lot of other information. These sheets are very helpful because it can be tough to watch 6.8 million minutes of basketball over your entire lifetime, let alone one season.

In the past few years, the selection committee has changed exactly what it looks for in these at-large teams. Now, there are four different “quadrants” in terms of wins, with Quadrant 1 wins being the most impressive and Quadrant 4 wins being the least impressive. These wins are determined via a team’s NCAA Evaluation Tool (or NET) ranking.

So…What Is This Net Ranking?

The NET ranking factors in a whole bunch of stuff, such as your winning percentage, how good your opponents are, where your games are being played, and so on. I won’t get into everything that NET looks at because your eyes will literally fall out of your head. And we’re not quite done with the email yet.

You also have more room for error when you’re playing on the road or on a neutral court. In a typical season during November and December, teams will do things like play in random tournaments in Hawaii or in special showcases to help get people excited about the start of the regular season.

Once, North Carolina and Michigan State played on an actual ship. Before you ask, no, the ball never went overboard. And yes, I agree with you – that was a total wasted opportunity. How cool would it have been to just watch a ball sail into the ocean? Then one of the players would have had to swim out and get it before they could pass the ball back inbounds. Maybe next time.

Anyway, road wins and neutral wins are weighted differently than home wins. Let’s say your favorite team beats a team with a NET ranking of 40. If your team were at home, it would count as a Quadrant 2 win. If your team won on a neutral or road court, it would count as a Quadrant 1 win. Here’s a handy chart that shows all the numbers, if you want to get into it.

Because the NCAA seems to hate underdogs (despite that being one of the most fun parts of the tournament), teams from smaller conferences often have fewer chances to mess up.

A school like St. Mary’s in California has fewer chances for “quality” wins because its conference doesn’t have a lot of other good teams in it, aside from Gonzaga. And barring something spectacularly strange, you have to play everyone in your conference at least once, if not twice.

That means St. Mary’s gets two shots at Gonzaga during the regular season and maybe once in the conference tournament, and otherwise is playing a bunch of teams with rosters that look a lot like me (i.e. confident and charming, but not great).

Meanwhile, a team like Virginia Tech is in a much better conference that has a handful of teams that will surely make the NCAA Tournament every year. Even if Virginia Tech suffers a few “bad” losses, they’ll have more chances to get “good” wins, simply by playing their typical conference schedule.

It ain’t fair, but that’s life. Feel free to grumble at the virtual water cooler over how X team (let’s say Colorado State for the sake of this example) got screwed this year. Here’s how an exchange might go:

You: “Wow, Colorado State really got screwed this year.”

The other person: “You’re right about that.”

*Freeze frame on an air high-five. Credits roll and music starts playing*

Building the Bracket

Anyway, once the committee selects these 36 (or 37 for this year) at-large teams, they then have to seed all 68 teams and actually build the bracket. In a typical year, there are eight “pods” throughout the country that will host eight teams for the first two rounds.

The NCAA factors in things like travel distance for the better seeds, and they also can’t have two teams from the same conference meeting before the Sweet 16, or the third round. It truly sounds like a logistical nightmare and I’m glad I’m not involved.

This year, the entire NCAA Tournament is being played in Indianapolis, which is often typically only reserved for the Final Four. But because we’re not trying to have people travel all over the country, we’re getting a condensed version.

I won’t get to add to my collection of photos with mascots, but I’m okay with that in the name of safety.

When all is said and done, we have a gorgeous bracket, full of Wildcats and Bulldogs and Bears. Then we start the fun part — filling out those brackets.

Next Time: Tips for Winning Your Bracket

I’m dropping some sweet tips in the next issue so you can win your March Madness pool, but for now, here are a few facts you can use to jumpstart any conversations you need to get through with Chad from accounting.

  • Eastern Kentucky has the most NCAA Tournament appearances (8) without ever winning a game during March Madness.
  • Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke, Kansas, and UCLA each have more than 100 NCAA Tournament wins all-time.
  • Prior to 2018, the No. 1 seed had beaten the No. 16 seed literally every single time they have played each other, which is four times a year. Then in 2018, the UMBC Retrievers beat the heavily favored Virginia Cavaliers by TWENTY points, 74-54. The social media person for UMBC, which stands for University of Maryland, Baltimore County, had a field day on Twitter and it was quite wonderful to watch. But for real, this was such a huge deal in the world of college basketball. Even a solar or lunar eclipse happens more frequently than a No. 16 seed beating a No. 1 seed. Except it hurts your eyes a lot more to stare directly at an eclipse.

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Other Reads and Watches

Tom Hanks, The NBA, And COVID’s Day Of Reckoning In The US: An Oral History

Bright Lights. Big City. Two Coffeys.

Contact Tracing: The Curious Case Of Soft Tissue Injuries In The NBA

A super in-depth look at how clutch Damian Lillard really is

That’s all ’til next time. Thanks for reading!


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