c/o Aaron Doster

c/o Aaron Doster

Every year, without fail, I enter into a monthlong love affair. My days are filled with joy and excitement and the times in between the action are spent longing for those precious moments to come. I speak, of course, of March Madness: the greatest tournament in the world. 

For one special month every year, basketball teams all across the country come together to take their shot at history. Whether you’re the best team in the nation with a multimillion-dollar, state-of-the-art athletic facility, or a tiny school from the middle of nowhere that plays in a small, old gym, all the details, statistics, seeds, and probabilities fade away during the tournament. 

Whether you flew to the game or drove, whether your coach is being paid millions of dollars, is on the brink of being fired, or has already been fired, when each team steps onto the court they submit themselves to the madness, to the game.

Each team finds their way into the tournament in a different way. Every group comes with their own school and program histories and their different baggage and expectations from the season. Each player enters with their own personal journey. Everyone from five-star prospects who were highly recruited by the best national programs to former redshirts on little-known teams have a chance to shine.

History is on the line.

Immortality is on the line. 

The beauty of March Madness lies in its ability to bring people together. From the die-hard fans who watched the entire season, to the casual enjoyer, to the person who only tunes in once a year, the tournament has something for everyone.

One of the biggest draws is the bracket, which has become a phenomenon in itself. This time-honored tradition invites even the most uninvolved viewer to share in the essentially impossible goal of filling out a perfect bracket. Each year we return to those 63 empty slots with new hope. Millions of bracket pickers put aside the one in 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 chance of perfection to take part in an exciting ritual of suspending disbelief and buying into the madness.

The simple beauty of the bracket and the tournament lies within the inevitability of the unpickable: the upsets. Oh, the upsets! A defining feature of March Madness that brings a crescendo of the unthinkable onto the court every year.

Like clockwork, a powerhouse program falls to a team that almost no one has ever heard of. Top seeds lose in dramatic fashion and their conquerors capture the spotlight of the sports world for just a moment. In no other tournament are such shocking results guaranteed with almost no way to pick them.

This tournament is unique because it is truly unpredictable. Even the most skilled analyst whose entire profession is centered around picking the tournament will inevitably fill out a worse bracket than thousands of fans who didn’t watch a single game all year. The magic of March Madness is that the only way to know what is going to happen is to tune in live. No amount of research or statistics can triumph against the real thing. 

This amazing unpredictability doesn’t just bring unlikely fans to the table, but it produces some of the best basketball you will ever see. Unlike many other sports events where the higher-ranked team has a definitive advantage, the single elimination setup makes each game compelling, as every team fights for their season to continue. 

The tournament is also captivating because of the variety of its significance for each team. Because every conference is guaranteed one slot in the tournament for their conference champion, all 531 Division I schools have a shot at making it in. For many teams this means the success of their season is simply fighting to get into the field. This not only raises the stakes but gives each selection to the tournament added meaning.

Just this year, we saw the no. 11 seed North Carolina State University men’s team go on a historically improbable run to make it to the Final Four. A team that had to win five games in five days just to make it into the tournament was one of the last four teams alive. They entered their conference tournament coming off a mediocre season with a coach who was almost surely about to lose his job after another year of missing the postseason. Beyond belief, though, they fought their way into the tournament and pulled off shocker after shocker to win their region. In no other sporting event would that kind of story be possible.

In another amazing feat in the tournament, we saw the top-ranked University of South Carolina women’s team complete their undefeated 38–0 season with a strong 87–75 win over Caitlyn Clark and the University of Iowa to win the national championship. They continued their unprecedented level of dominance during the regular season with incredible defense, passing, and scoring in the tournament to bring them another amazing Dawn Staley title.

In March, there’s room for both the Cinderella sporadicity and the top-seeded dominance. The magic of the tournament is that it allows for brilliant upsets while still saving space for the rightful team to win it all. Six games is all it takes. Sixty-eight teams will enter but only one will leave as the national champion. March Madness lets us embrace the unknowable while celebrating those teams and players who withstand the odds and find themselves holding the trophy after all is said and done.

I came into this beautiful tournament with hopes and dreams of unpredictable moments of excitement. Once again I fell madly in love and left with memories of awe, exhilaration, and unbridled basketball genius. Signature moments are drilled into my mind, fantastic players from previously unknown teams live on, and I leave with moments to talk about that will last me until this time next year.

Isaac Janiak Stein can be reached at ijaniakstein@wesleyan.edu.