Let the Madness Begin // The NCAA Tournament

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It’s mid-March, and when it comes to sports, all eyes are on one event: the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Championship. The NCAA basketball tournament is one of the greatest events in American sports and is something to anticipate at the conclusion of every basketball season. When it comes to athleticism, energy and the passion for the game, the tournament always delivers. For both athletes and fans alike, March Madness has the ability to bring co-workers, family and friends together. It also has a gift for tearing them apart during the three short weeks that the tournament takes place. With the Big Dance kicking off today, we explore the 75-year-old tradition of March Madness.

The First NCAA men’s basketball tournament was held in 1939 with only eight teams participating and the University of Oregon Ducks winning the championship. Today, with three additional play-in round games added in 2011, the field now stands at 68 teams. Since the tournament’s inception, there have been a countless number of games determined in the final seconds, unforgettable defeats and first looks at athletes that went on to become household names. March Madness is a unique stage for moments that keep us coming back year-after-year.

The excitement surrounding March Madness can be attributed to a handful of factors – the first being traced to the tournament’s uncomplicated structure. A bracket comprised of 68 teams vying for the championship is narrowed through six full rounds to determine the overall winner. Games are single elimination — losing teams are out, the winners move on. It’s simple and straightforward, unlike other championship series, particularly those found in professional sports.

With this year’s bracket making, the stakes are considerably higher, with Quicken Loans and Warren Buffet offering a staggering $1 billion to whoever correctly predicts the outcome of every game. So what are the odds? A mere 9.2 quintillion. That’s a nine followed by 18 zeros. For these unbelievable odds, DePaul University math professor Jeffrey Bergen helps to give us some perspective (via NPR):

“If you have a favorite baseball team, they are more likely to win the next seven consecutive World Series.”

“If you tried to predict the winning party in every presidential election through 2160, getting that correct is more likely than getting a perfect bracket.”

“If you sat down with a fair coin and flipped it, you’re more likely to get 37 heads in a row.”

This incredible uncertainty epitomizes the thrill of the tournament and is, most likely, the top reason why we are captivated by it. The outcome is nearly impossible to predict. To create a $1 billion winning bracket, it takes more than linear algebra, a flip of a coin, or picking teams with blue jerseys. There’s an element of chance and unexplainable luck that factors into every game. Anything can happen. Even a Cinderella story. For all of us in Richmond, we experienced this sense of achievement and thrill first hand during VCU’s unbelievable tournament run in 2011.

I’m a VCU graduate, and there are more VCU alumni in our office than from any other college or university. Before 2011, I’d consider myself a marginal-to-below-average VCU basketball fan. I’d go to a game or two per season, or make small talk about the team, but in all seriousness, I had no reason to be invested. In my opinion, VCU’s only memorable contribution to basketball at the national level had been several years prior when Eric Manor made the game winning jump shot against Duke.

My admitted lack of enthusiasm for the sport changed considerably, and one could assume for many in Richmond as well, when VCU started advancing further into the 2011 NCAA tournament. This was farther than we had ever made it in the school’s history. The team was hungry that year and played as if they were going to go the distance. I remember watching one particularly close game against Florida State during that tournament, which allowed the Rams to advance into the Elite 8. I was overwhelmed with an unfamiliar feeling of school spirit and, as the bandwagon rolled by, I decided to jump in. From that moment on, I became a true Rams fan and nearly all of Richmond did as well. Local restaurants made special sandwiches that were named after the five starting players. A building downtown strategically coordinated its lights to display “VCU Go Rams”. And the Science Museum of Virginia draped giant black and gold banners at its front entrance. In the eight years that I have called Richmond home, there has never been as much citywide enthusiasm for any person, team or single event. The city came together in an unprecedented way; it all felt very surreal.

Although our run came to an end at the Final Four game, our showing at the tournament that year left a legacy that is still felt in its wake. During the summer of 2011, VCU head coach Shaka Smart and his team accepted the Espy for Best Upset for their win against Kansas in the Southwest Regional Final. VCU joined the Atlantic 10 in 2012 – a conference with greater national recognition. Although the momentum began a few weeks leading up to the 2011’s NCAA tournament, VCU men’s basketball just marked its 50th consecutive sellout crowd at the Siegel Center. And just a week ago, VCU announced plans for the construction of a new $25 million practice facility for men’s and women’s basketball.

VCU is stretched across an urban campus with an identity that is closely connected to the city that surrounds it. With VCU investing in its basketball team, the benefits have been multifold for both the university and the city of Richmond. VCU has been able to build a stronger team because talented athletes want to play here. Games have been more frequently televised in recent years. With every appearance on national television, there is greater exposure for VCU and boosts the awareness of Richmond. This exposure is a major catalyst for economic development because more students want to apply to the university and people want to visit the city to find out more about the region. Eventually more people call Richmond home and contribute to the local economy long-term. With a winning team, alumni become more engaged and are more likely to support the university. Lastly, the boost of unity among residents and increased civic pride are important byproducts of building a strong team as well.

The tournament starts tonight with the play-in games, and the full round games begin this Thursday. We’re rooting for our VCU Rams — speaking for the rest of the office here — and we were excited to see our in-state neighbors, University of Virginia, earning the No. 1 seed pick for the East Regional Conference. Whether if your sights are set on winning the office pool (we’re calling ours Madras Madness), or if you’re going after a billion dollars, we wish you the best of luck with your brackets. Consistent with past tournaments, this is sure to be an exciting three-weeks.

Fill out your brackets here.

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