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March Madness: It's All About The Bracket

Mar 8, 2017
Originally published on March 8, 2017 6:24 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Most sports playoffs have brackets, you know, that chart where you see the teams in the first round and lines to show who they'll play in the next round if they win. But there is one playoff that is defined by its brackets. Commentator Mike Pesca is preparing for the NCAA college basketball tournament.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: March Madness means buzzer beaters, Cinderellas, pep bands, school spirit and probably someone winning your office pool who didn't know a Tar Heel from a cartwheel. So, sure, I love the NCAA tournament. But I've come to realize that what I love is less about the sport of basketball as played by collegians and more about the sport of basketball as packaged in this very specific single-elimination format which unfolds over three weeks. The revelation hit me last week as a game between Iowa State and West Virginia was airing on one ESPN channel, and a Cleveland Cavaliers game aired on the neighboring channel.

Eager to sell my kids on the glories of college basketball, I began to expound on how West Virginia has a musket-carrying mascot, a mountain man bearing buckskins who carries a rifle courtside, and how I once met the mascot. And she was a girl Mountaineer. And how an earlier female Mountaineer was once elected secretary of state of West Virginia, which the kids seemed largely indifferent to. And then after I had set up that kid-friendly mountain woman fable and considered how to pivot off that and explain the workings of a 1-3-1 zone, a thought hit me like an Iowa State Cyclone.

What am I doing to these children? LeBron James is one station over. There is no way we should be watching some player other than LeBron James when there is a chance to watch LeBron James. And yet, when the NCAA tournament comes, I'll be glued. Not because of all the virtues of college basketball, but almost entirely because the tournament is so perfectly spaced and structured that it all but guarantees drama. The tournament, one-and-done, a four-day frenzy, then a pause. Four more days, another pause. And we get the only sport that so celebrates its semifinalists, which they call the Final Four. I'll grant you that men's college basketball represents a fairly high level of play, and that some teams - sorry, schools - are compelling brands, attracting deep regional interest, a few with something border on national profiles.

But the tournament is the secret sauce. It's Google's algorithm. It's Wal-Mart's supply chain management. It's MasterCard's inventing revolving credit. It's Henry Ford's assembly line. Sure, the Model T had to work as a car. There was a requirement that it be at least somewhat aesthetically pleasing. But the reason it flew off assembly lines was that industry's killer application, the assembly line. And college basketball's killer application is a one-and-done tournament that crackles.

Successful sports all have a special characteristic that elevates them. Baseball has history. Football has scarcity. Mixed martial arts has brutality. NCAA basketball has structure, this special mostly accidental structure that makes us swoon and watch and wager. And in a little over a month, when a champion is crowned, we can be consoled by the fact that LeBron James is on the other channel.

INSKEEP: Commentator Mike Pesca is on this channel, we're proud to say, and also hosts Slate's podcast, "The Gist." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.