My least favorite time of the year is February up until mid-March. The weather is usually crappy and cold here in upstate New York, people tend to be depressed about Valentine’s Day and it marks the lull between the end of football season and the beginning of baseball season. For a sports fan, this can be a bleak time indeed. Every year I say I am going to start paying attention to hockey, but that just doesn’t seem to ever happen. The NBA generally holds no interest for me, though I did briefly get caught up in the Jeremy Lin hullabaloo this year. I don’t think you could pay me to care about NASCAR. So usually I just slog through.
And then, just when things look bleak, the NCAA basketball tournament begins. And all is right with the world again.
There is just something so exciting about March Madness. It snaps me out of the winter doldrums. Almost everyone gets caught up in it, even those who don’t usually follow college hoops or sports in general. I think it is the filling out of the bracket that engages so many people. It provides order to the process and since a winning bracket usually is equal parts skill and luck, you don’t have to know a lot about basketball to do it. In my experience, there doesn’t seem to be that strong of a corollary between paying attention to the regular season and how well you do in the tournament. I’ve done just as well on my bracket the years where I have watched a lot of basketball as the years when I haven’t been as attentive. There are upsets every year which makes the outcomes difficult to predict, even for those sports fans that are in the know. So if you are picking your teams based on mascots or the school colors, you may still win your office pool (I’ve seen it happen). That makes March Madness accessible to a lot of people who wouldn’t usually be very invested in sports.
And that communal experience is what makes March Madness a lot of fun. When I was an undergrad, the only time that televisions were rolled into our dining hall was during the tournament. The first two days of the tournament are the best as there are so many games to watch and it is early enough in the tournament that most people still have active brackets and are therefore engaged. One of my favorite nights of the year to go out is the first night of the tournament — it is easy to meet new people just by asking them about their bracket and it is more fun when everyone in the room is focused on the same event, if not necessarily the same game. It’s also great when everyone is rooting for one team to lose (usually Duke, who most people love to hate) even if that means that their brackets will be destroyed. We have been lucky here in Albany that not only have we hosted some of the opening round games in previous years, but there are usually some local teams in the tournament (Siena, University at Albany) which also increases the interest in the area. Syracuse University also has a huge following here and since they are one of the favorites this year, I expect there to be heightened excitement as well.
I love March Madness so much that when it came time for me to select a graduate school, I based a lot of my decision not on academics but on the strength of their men’s basketball program, which is why I ended up (briefly) at the University of Connecticut for my doctoral studies. I only lasted there one year before I transferred, but I was lucky enough to be on campus when UConn won their first NCAA men’s title (some of the players were even my students). That made what was otherwise a miserable experience totally worthwhile even though being an UConn fan now puts me at odds with the majority of my friends and neighbors who bleed Syracuse Orange. Being a part of that is one of my favorite sports memories of all time, though it does shed a light on my questionable decision making criteria.
So as I fill out this year’s bracket, I send a thank you to March Madness for getting me through these last few weeks before my beloved Yankees take to the field and providing some much needed excitement to a generally blah time period. Go UConn!
**Updated with my bracket**