The Keys to March Madness
by Glenn Dickey
Mar 24, 2006

LAST NIGHT’S games showed vividly why “March Madness” has such a grip on the American sports public.

The UCLA win over Gonzaga was incredible. I confess to a rooting interest in Gonzaga, because I always root for the underdog and Adam Morrison’s overcoming diabetes is a compelling story line. Nonetheless, I had tremendous admiration for UCLA. The Bruins showed incredible poise and determination with their late comeback, spurred on by coach Ben Howland who was literally a sixth man as he continually charged onto the court, a violation the referees chose to ignore.

If anything, though, the Texas win over West Virginia was even more dramatic, as Kenton Paulino hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to prevent the game from going into overtime.

As a method of determining the country’s best team, the tournament is seriously flawed. Each year, top teams are eliminated. Duke was beaten last night by LSU, the third time in four years that the Blue Devils have been beaten in the Regionals. Earlier in this year’s tournament, Kansas was beaten.

Yet, that single elimination method also makes for great excitement and tension, as well as raw emotion; Morrison sank to his knees crying after the Gonzaga loss.

College basketball always seems more real to me than the NBA, which increasingly, has had more of a hippodrome atmosphere. At the Warriors game Sunday, there was a “mascot rumble” at halftime, as Thunder and various other pro and collegiate mascots had a mock battle. There's a light show when the starting lineups are introduced, and who can ever forget the big pizza giveaway that often produces more enthusiasm than for the game itself. Yeah, a chance at a free pizza makes up for paying $85 to see a team that hasn’t been in the playoffs as babies born in the Don Nelson era have grown into teenagers.

The college game, by contrast, is all about the competition and the schools. The bands, the cheerleaders and pompon girls are there because they’re part of the schools. It’s easy to be cynical about players who are in school only to prepare for a pro career, but even on the best teams, those players are in the minority. For most players, this will be their last organized competition. Getting into the NCAA tournament is a big thrill; winning even one game is a bigger one.

THERE IS, of course, another reason the NCAA tournament is big: gambling. Every major American sports event comes with a gambling component.

College basketball has a dark side because of gambling. A point-shaving scandal in the early '50s threatened to tear the sport apart. That also forced a dramatic change in tournaments. Prior to 1951, top teams played in both the NIT and NCAA tournaments, and the NIT was actually the more important tournament. But the moralists in college basketball decided the problem was that gamblers were around the players at Madison Square Garden, so the sport needed to be returned to college campuses.

Ten years later, another point-shaving scandal rocked the sport, but by this time, the NCAA tournament was firmly entrenched as the major tournament. Teams which played in the NCAA could not also play in the NIT, so that tournament was permanently relegated to second-class status. When I covered Cal’s win in the 1999 NIT, the event was largely ignored by the New York media and “crowds” were less than half the capacity of the arena, despite a large influx of Cal fans.

Point-shaving scandals are not likely to be repeated in college basketball. In an odd sense, Las Vegas polices the game. Betting lines are set there and, if an unusual amount of money is placed on one team, that game is taken off the board. Also, the top players – who would have to be the ones who change the game – know they have the potential to make millions in the pro game. They’re not going to jeopardize that.

Now, there’s an added factor: Office pools. It seems everybody has a part in them. Rick Neuhisel won $12,123 in one while he was still head football coach at the University of Washington. Neuhisel was fired but he sued the NCAA and won a $4.5 million settlement.

Nobody else is making that kind of money from office pools, but many people are enjoying their participation. They don’t necessarily require great knowledge of the game. Sometimes, it’s a blind draw. Sometimes, brackets are filled out whimsically. Reader Janice Hough, who is very knowledgeable about sports, nonetheless filled out her bracket this year by picking teams with cat nicknames – Wildcats, Bobcats, etc. Makes about as much sense as any other formula.

THIS IS ALL in the great American tradition of betting on sports.

For years, horse racing was one of the big American sports. In the ‘30s, there were only three really big professional sports: baseball, boxing and horse racing. The Kentucky Derby was one of the premier events. There were other “match races” between two top horses.

Now, horse racing is in the ante room of American sports. There are some important races, including the Kentucky Derby, but attendance is sparse for the regular schedules at most tracks. Those who follow the sport often do it at off-track sites, where they can watch races on television and bet on them.

Why the change? Because football discovered the point spread, which added a significant element to football betting. Relatively few people know enough about horse racing to make a knowledgeable bet but most sports fans know enough about football to think they can bet it successfully.

Now, college basketball has cashed in with office pools, another form of betting. People who know or care little about the sport can still get involved, and if they participate in an office pool, they’re more likely to watch the games on TV, driving the ratings higher.

So, “March Madness” has everything going for it – the emotion and excitement of the games, the tension of the single-elimination process and the office pools. That, you should pardon the expression, is the trifecta.


LETTERS: I’ll be updating this section with new e-mails later today.


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