“IT’S UNBELIEVEABLE, BABY!” yells Dick Vitale, the short, bald, charismatic TV announcer during a NCAA basketball tournament game last year. Indeed, it is hard not to get swept off your feet by the excitement of the greatest tournament in college sports. Unless you just never cared, in which case this column is for you.

But this column is also for the die-hard college basketball fan, the student who will be watching four live games at once on his computer during class, the employees hanging out longer than usual in the TV lounge on a Thursday afternoon, and the fanatic who will join bracket groups at work, on ESPN, CBSports, Facebook, and 118 other places—all with a different mixture of predictions just in case this year is “finally the year.”

Novice or Expert, this is your March Madness Survival Guide. Whether you can remember Dan Dickau shooting Gonzaga to prominence on a Cinderella run to the Elite Eight, or if you couldn’t define “March Madness” (not even to save you from having to watch torturous reruns of American Idol Season 1 auditions), here are some things you need to know.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association Men’s Division I College Basketball Tournament is about as long as it’s official name (many people fondly refer to it simply as “The Tourney”). It is a 65-team single-elimination gauntlet, which takes place over three consecutive weekends. The teams are ranked from 1-16 and broken down into four groups, called “brackets;” the winner of each group advances to the Final Four—an elite semi-final round on the last weekend. (Check out the official bracket to see how the seeds play each other and advance.)

By the time you read this, the first tournament game will be over. The 64th and 65th teams who qualify for the tourney play each other in a “play-in” game to decide who gets the 16th seed. Experts know that this odd 65th spot was invented when the Mountain West Conference formed in 2001, creating one more automatic bid.

Each of the 64 games provides an opportunity for greatness, a chance to shine for one moment on college sports’ biggest stage, an opportunity for an underdog to beat a champion. These three intense weekends of basketball are known as “March Madness.” Every year there is an upset story, like the 11th-seeded George Mason Patriots making a miracle run to the Final Four in 2006, or last year’s little Davidson Wildcats riding the shoulders of All-American Guard Stephen Curry’s 34 points per game to an improbable Elite Eight appearance.

If you tune into March Madness, you just might catch a glimpse of an overtime shot at the buzzer that makes history. But so what? What if you don’t care if that shot goes in? Well there is still more you need to know.

Some people call in sick to stay home to watch their team play an afternoon game; some people go to work because they can get online and watch it on their computer. Those of you who don’t have a team to root for on Friday afternoon need to know how to deal with those types of people.

Novices will hear words like “Bracketology” (the science of predicting a perfect bracket), “Sweet Sixteen” (the final 16 teams left after the first weekend’s games), “Cinderella” (an underdog team that wins at least two games against higher ranked teams), “Detroit” (this year’s Final Four location), and “!%@*$!” (as their bracket gets scrambled by an upset). These are not simply unintelligible syllables dribbling from foaming mouths of sports fanatics, this is the dialect of March Madness. Don’t spurn such jargon. Embrace it. Your workplace will run much more smoothly when everyone is speaking the same language.

But watch out: lunch lines will be filled with cell phone score-checkers, students will be running back to their dorms after class to turn on the TV, wimpy students will be doing their annual “workout” just to watch a good game in the weight room. Take note and avoid casualties.

College professors, you will need to be aware that a sudden stoppage of typing on laptops is not a sign that the students have closed their Google Talk and Facebook to listen to what you are saying, but rather they are instead intensely watching a live streaming Tournament game online and the score is close. Instead of cracking down on this, perhaps consider joining the student behind his or her laptop and letting class out early, as you probably want to know the score anyway.

The waving for accurately predicted tournament bracket pages and crumpling of failed attempts will be quite common (expect to be hit at least once with such a wad). And you, Novice, you too can still join the action. You can look over a field of 65 teams and make predictions as to who will advance. It’s easy: the teams are numbered for you. The supposedly better teams are ranked 1-8, and the predicted worse teams are 9-16. No #16 seed has ever beaten a #1 seed, and the 15s almost never win against 2s. If you want to join the action, simply pick all the higher seeds to win each game—this will land you in the top tier of any bracket challenge, without having to know if Robert Morris is an actual college or just a really good player.

The tournament formally started at 12:20pm on Thursday, but there are still round-by-round bracket competitions to get involved in. For you experts, here is where Bracketology becomes useful. You don’t just want to finish top-5 in your bracket league, you want to win. You want to blow the socks off your opponents by picking that 12th seed upset, or that 5th seed Final Four team. (For the record, don’t pick a 5th seed for Detroit. Florida State is the best of the bunch and they run into the Pittsburg machine in the Sweet Sixteen).

When filling out your brackets, look for hot teams. Check out what happened in the conference tournaments leading up to this weekend. March Madness started early with Florida State knocking off North Carolina in the ACC tournament, Purdue coming out of nowhere to win the Big Ten, and Syracuse’s 6-overtime marathon classic to upset Connecticut in the Big East tournament. Also look for crucial injuries: St. Mary’s was even left out of the tourney because their star point guard got hurt during the season. Be sure to scout out the weaknesses of your potential Final Four picks. Louisville doesn’t have a point guard, and they did not have to the play the toughest Big East teams on the road this year. They could be a liability.

Some Novices probably just stopped reading this column, but for those of you still here, don’t forget your manners in public. If you don’t want to participate in March Madness, don’t go to any public place that has a television on Thursdays-Sundays (restaurants, gyms, bars, lounges). Sports fans will be immersed in the tourney’s excitement and will probably only annoy you. If this happens, don’t get angry; try to empathize. Think of the most exciting sport for you … now picture it having a massive tournament that unquestionably decides the ultimate champion, with a mind-numbing amount of incredible highlights along the way. That is March Madness. Except, in college basketball, it’s always better.

 
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