The Major League Baseball playoffs? Please. Even with the Wild Card round, there are only eight teams involved, and the best-of-seven format makes true upsets tougher to come by. The NBA and NHL feature sixteen teams apiece... but once again, in a best-of-seven series format that gives a big advantage to the top seeds. The NFL has the drama of a single-elimination tournament... if you can stand the off-the-charts hype. And don't even get me started on the Bowl Championship Series.
No, "March Madness" has 'em all beat. It's the Thunderdome of sports championships: 65 teams enter, one team leaves. Here's your introduction to the spectacle.
The FieldThe NCAA Tournament field is comprised of 65 teams. Thirty-one of the invitations go to conference champions -- most of those are crowned in smaller postseason tournaments that take place the first week of March, though the Ivy League names its champion based on regular-season records. The remaining 34 teams are determined by a selection committee and given "at-large" bids.
Wait... 65 Teams?Yeah, 65. In 2001, the Mountain West Conference was given "automatic bid" status. The NCAA didn't want to eliminate an at-large bid, so they added a "play-in" game. The sixty-fourth and sixty-fifth seeded teams in the tournament face off for the right to be squashed in the first round by one of the number one seeds.
The reason you may not be aware of the play-in game: it isn't typically represented on the ubiquitous "brackets" you've filled out in your office pool or on a sports website. Instead, you'll see a notation along the lines of "Play-In Winner" in that sixteen-seed spot while you're selecting the number one seed in that regional.
Seeds, Ranks, RPIThis is a good time to catch you up on some NCAA Tournament lingo.
The 64 teams are split into four regions, each with 16 teams. The regions are set up by the selection committee with an eye towards making each group even in terms of strength.
The sixteen teams in each region are seeded one through 16. The best four teams in the tournament are, in theory, the four "number one" seeds. The four next best become the four two seeds, and so on. In the first round, the one seed plays the 16, two plays 15, etc. The 1-16 matchup tends to be a mismatch, while the 8-9 and 7-10 games are much more evenly matched.
Don't confuse seedings with rankings. Seeings are specific to the tournament and indicate a given team's strength within its region. A team's rank -- as defined by polls conducted by ESPN/USA Today and the Associated Press serves as an unofficial standing that cuts across all conferences. The ESPN/USA Today and AP polls are factors used to establish the NCAA Tournament seedings, but they are not interchangeable.
Theoretically, the teams ranked one through four in the polls would become the four number one seeds in the NCAA Tournament, but it doesn't always work out that way.
Got all that? There's more. Another term you'll hear thrown around by commentators and sportswriters is RPI. RPI is short for "Ratings Percentage Index," and is strictly mathematical means of ranking teams -- as opposed to the poll rankings, which are generated by tabulating the votes of sportswriters.
To add to the confusion, the RPI formula is a closely guarded secret not unlike the recipe for Coca-Cola. There are a large number of websites that attempt to re-create the RPI rankings each season, but they tend to differ with each other at least a little bit.
You'll hear the RPI invoked most often as part of an argument about which teams should and shouldn't be invited to the tournament.
Tournament ScheduleThe actual schedule for the tournament differs from year to year -- 2008 dates and locations follow -- but the basic sequence of events is always the same.
During the first week of March -- Championship Week, as it's been branded -- the conference championship tournaments are held. The last of the championship games typically ends late Sunday afternoon. That day is known as Selection Sunday.
In the early evening of Selection Sunday, the field of 65 is announced. The selection special is broadcast on CBS Sports; CBS owns the exclusive broadcast rights for the entire tournament.
That Monday is probably the least-productive day on the American business calendar, as cubicle-dwellers nationwide scramble to fill out their tournament brackets. The play-in game is held on Tuesday, and the tournament begins in earnest on Thursday. Half the field plays its opening game on Thursday, the other half on Friday. By the end of Friday's games, the field of 65 has been winnowed to 32.
The teams that won Thursday play second-round games on Saturday; the Friday teams play on Sunday, and after the first weekend, we're down to the Sweet Sixteen.
Eight of the remaining 16 play again on the following Thursday. The other eight play each other on Friday, and the Sweet Sixteen becomes the Elite Eight. After two more Saturday and two more Sunday games, we're down to the Final Four.
As March Madness runs into April, the schedule shifts slightly for the tournament's final weekend. The two Final Four games are held on Saturday night, and the final game played on the Monday after.