Wednesday March 12th, 2008

Brackets.

Yes, starting Sunday, everything will be about brackets, when the NCAA teams are revealed, and everybody fills out their brackets in their office pool. You don't otherwise hear about brackets, do you? -- except when the word "income" precedes. In other sports tournaments, like tennis, nobody says "brackets." They say "draw." She got a good draw. The bottom quarter of the draw is strong.

But the March Madness brackets have been a wonderful creation. The conference champions automatically qualify, and then the rest of the teams are chosen by a bunch of college athletic officials, who gather in secret, rather like the cardinals, when they assemble to select a new pope. Instead of white smoke, they reveal their basketball choices to CBS, which pays the bills. The mysterious bracket makers then fade away, back to obscurity. It is rather like being the Delphi Oracle, but just for a long weekend.

Brackets.

It is all rather amazing when you consider that the same poohbahs can't figure out how to produce a college football playoff for just four teams, but they can take 65 basketball teams from colleges of all shapes and sizes, divide them up into various and sundry sub-regionals, seed them, and send them off to the four winds of arenas for three weeks worth of play. For sheer genius, brackets rank with the Rosetta Stone, the U.S. Constitution and the trenchant observations of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. If Monet were only still alive, he would surely be painting brackets instead of haystacks.

But, of course, first we must deal with, speculate about and sympathize with the teams that are on the bubble. I first heard that term with regard to the Indianapolis 500 -- referring to the cars vieing for the last of the 33 places. But "on the bubble" has been utterly appropriated by the brackets, and right now, we are in the high season of bubble time. Teams hanging on by their fingertips are actually even called "bubble teams."

Brackets.

There are now actually people who are called "bracketologists." They not only study this year's brackets, but also are historians of past brackets and will make pronouncements like, beware of fifth seeds getting upset by 12th seeds. Astute bracketologists are especially alert to the teams called "mid-majors." This is a lovely euphemism. The teams from these so-called mid-major conferences should actually be called the high minors, but mid-major sounds so much more American, like middle class and the midwest, and so everybody plays along.

Despite the fact that the large state universities and the powerful conferences dominate the NCAAs more than ever, March Madness remains the most charming and lovable of all our popular national championships. It was sort of the American Idol of our culture back when we were a gentler, more gracious people, who didn't laugh at losers. But even now, the basketball brackets are still Americanna, and you don't have to be a bracketologist to make your picks and root for the underdog teams you never heard of before they made the brackets.

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