by Bob Sparrow
This week I found myself in a bar (What?!) trying to explain to a Brit, who was now working here in the U.S. and who apparently has been in a cave for the last 30 years, the excitement around all the college basketball on TV. I explained that this is the N.C.A.A. College Basketball National Championship Tournament; more succinctly referred to as ‘March Madness’ or ‘The Big Dance’. He asked if this was the finals of Dancing With The Stars. I patiently explained that it is a 64-team, single elimination college basketball tournament for the national championship. I wondered if I was going too fast for him.
I proceeded to tell him that for the seeding of this tournament, he’d have to throw out where he thinks regions are in the United States. There are four 16-team brackets, South, East, West and Midwest (I said I think the North is still playing hockey), but this year Milwaukee, a Midwest team, is seeded in the East, Louisiana-Lafayette, a southern team, in the West, Manhattan College, in New York, is in the Midwest and UCLA, is seeded in the South. UCLA however, has no one to blame but themselves for this. The tournament used to be seeded by region, so there would always be a team from each region in the Final Four. Until from 1964 to 1975 ‘The Wizard of Westwood’, John Wooden’s UCLA teams won 10 of 12 championships and the other coaches in the west argued that they never got to go to the Final Four because they were always eliminated by UCLA in the regionals. While geography still plays a small role, it’s more about seeding teams according to ability. My new European friend only perked up when I said the word ‘Wizard’.
I asked him if there was a lot of buzz at work about the ‘office pool’ and then disappointed him by telling him that there is not a new aquatic center being built at the home office, that the pool is merely the 64-bracket seeding sheet that allows folks who think they know basketball to prove that they don’t. I told him Vegas gets more bets during this tournament than at any other time of the year, including the Super Bowl. Super Bowl, he asked? Never mind. There are all kinds of ways to bet this tournament and this year, for the first time, billionaire Warren Buffett has offered $1,000,000,000 (yes, that’s with a B) to the person who picks every winner of every game – that’s picking all 62 winners without a mistake. Actually there are 4 ‘play-in’ games making it 66 winners. The odds? One in 9 with 18 zeros behind it! (Update: after two days and only 25 games everyone who entered for a chance at the billion was eliminated)
I told him that he’ll hear some alliterative terms being bantered about this week, ‘Final Four’, Elite Eight’ and bet him that he’ll never hear the word ‘sixteen’ without the word ‘sweet’ in front of it. At the risk of confusing him even more I mentioned that he’ll also hear the term ‘Cinderella’ quite a bit over the next couple of weeks.
I continued by telling him that the term has nothing to do with wicked stepmothers, glass slippers or getting home before your horses turn into mice. Rather, it’s a term for the ‘long shots’ in the tournament. It is usually a small college, seeded 10th or below in their bracket, with a charismatic coach, who, after his team loses in the ‘Sweet Sixteen’, will dump that school and accept a pumpkin chariot full of money to go to a non-Cinderella school. It usually doesn’t work out and he ends up scrubbing gym floors for a wicked Athletic Director in Podunk Hollow, Mississippi. There have however, been ‘Cinderella exceptions’ in recent years; Wichita State, Butler and George Mason all made it to the Final Four. Coach Brad Stevens, who took Butler to two Final Fours, skipped going to a non-Cinderella school and signed a contract to coach the Boston Celtics, where his team has a .329 winning percentage this season. I think he left his pair of glass slippers back at Butler. Who are this year’s Cinderella teams? Stephen F. Austin, Oregon, Harvard (yes, that Harvard), Virginia Commonwealth, Nebraska and Mercer. If none of these teams are still in the tournament as you’re reading this, you’ll understand why Buffet’s money was so safe!
Cinderella schools can also have unusual mascots. This year we have the Manhattan College Jaspers (a long story), the St. Louis University Billikens (an even longer story) and the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers.
Upon hearing this last name, my new acquaintance lit up and told me that Chanticleer is the rooster in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (which is exactly where Coastal Carolina got the name!). He was now interested in ‘The Big Dance’ and has a ‘Cinderella’ team for which to root. He thanked me as he left and I thought I saw him doing the ‘Chicken Dance’ on the way out the door. Brits!
(Update: Coastal Carolina lost it’s first game and is out of the tournament)