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In Praise of the Bracket

There's nothing better than the NCAA tournament

Still great. Go Lehigh.
Still great. Go Lehigh.
Mike Ehrmann

The tourney is upon us again. It is, to me, the greatest annual event on the American sports calendar. It is an event so great that I can just say "the tourney" and everyone knows what I'm referring to. There are plenty of sports tournaments littering the cable guide, but there is only one Tourney.

College basketball itself has hit some hard times. It has fallen in stature compared to its brother, college football. We have seen the quality of play dip due to a variety of factors, but primarily the lure of the NBA.

Simply as a fan of the game, it's a shame that we only get to see these star players for a year or two, and we never get to see them develop into the players they are going to be. Watching the documentary on the Big East last night, I could see how Patrick Ewing went from a skinny freshman wildly swinging at any ball in the paint to the maybe the greatest college player of my lifetime by the time he was an upperclassman. Ewing was great as a freshman, but he was a legend by the time he was a senior.

However, that doesn't really matter when it comes to enjoying the tourney. Players come and go, but the star remains the same. No, not Coach K. The real star of the show is the bracket.

The bracket is the invention which launched a thousand office pools.

Of course, the NCAA, being the NCAA, has tried to ruin the perfect symmetry of the bracket. They have foisted this First Four thing upon us and then insisted that we call the first round, the second round. The American public, in their infinite wisdom, has responded by largely ignoring the first few games and treating them like the play-in games they are.

The bracket itself creates upsets. Ever wonder why there is a 5-12 upset every year? Is it because some teams always wilt under pressure or there is always a Cinderella willing to claim her glass slipper? Nope. The cause is even more simple: there's just not that much difference between a 5 and a 12 seed, but the bracket makes it look like there is. If Xavier beats St. Louis in the regular season, it doesn't make the front page of the college basketball section. It barely gets a mention on SportsCenter. But if it happens in the tourney, suddenly it's a big deal.

One of the great things about the tourney is that the first week belongs to the little guys. Some directional school or small private school is going to beat a blue blood, and for one brief moment, they will be the center of the sports world. Sure, they will likely be ground into a fine powder in the next round, but that upset lives on forever. Dunk City never dies.

However, for all of the talk that the tourney is great drama but a terrible way to choose a champion, it really does a pretty good job. Given the sheer glut of college basketball teams and the wide variance in schedule strength, any one of ten teams can usually make a claim going into the postseason as the "best team". And a team from the top three seed lines, corresponding with the top ten teams, has won the national title every year since Manning and the Miracles back in 1988 except when the fourth-seeded Arizona Wildcats won in 1997.

Cinderella early, chalk late. It's really a beautiful thing. The tourney is an event so wonderful that not even the NCAA can screw it up. Stars come and go, team fortunes ebb and flow, but the bracket endures.

The only thing the field is missing is a team for me to root for.