It’s known as "March Madness." That is the nickname for the annual men’s college basketball tournament that decides the champion from among the United States’ largest [Division 1] colleges and universities. The closely followed tournament evokes great passion in fans.
In this year’s tournament preview issue, Sports Illustrated magazine called March Madness "the most exciting three weeks in sports."
It has truly become the equivalent of the excitement generated around the rest of the world in the knockout phases of football’s World Cup.
This year, the National Collegiate Athletic Association [NCAA] added four additional schools to the field, so the single-elimination tournament now features 68 teams. The madness comes from the thrilling upsets and buzzer-beating winning baskets, the school pep bands playing court-side and the painted faces of the loud, passionate fans.
On the very first full day of games - March 17 - Richmond University of Virginia, Morehead State University of Kentucky and Gonzaga University in the state of Washington all scored upsets to advance, while Temple University of Philadelphia and last year’s runner-up Butler University from Indiana, won on last-second shots.
Butler survived its opener with a thrilling win over Old Dominion University from Virginia. Here is how Westwood One's Scott Graham called the finish.
"Shot is up, and it’s good! Shot counts at the buzzer! A wild scramble for the basketball! Butler came out of the pack with it, and the game-winning shot as time expires here in Washington!"
College basketball historian and author John Feinstein told VOA it’s these types of games that make March Madness what it is.
"There is something magical about it. You watch the first game here in Washington, goes right to the buzzer [up to the last moment of play] and a kid makes the play. And Butler pulls out a game, and then you’re following scores around the country, and Morehead State beats Louisville [in a huge upset], and Princeton has a chance to beat Kentucky. And it’s just so much fun not knowing what’s going to happen next, right through to the championship game."
Feinstein said, in recent years, there have been so many thrilling games between large and small schools because of rules that allow star players to leave for the professional ranks after only a year or two of college. Those top players tend to go to the larger schools, which makes it necessary to constantly recruit to fill their places, while players at the smaller schools tend to stay through graduation and gain valuable experience playing together for a longer period.
"You have seniors, who may not be as talented as freshmen and sophomores at the power schools, but they’re more experienced. They may be a little calmer under fire," said Feinstein.
Feinstein said that’s what he and the fans love about it, because it is not always the same teams that advance, as is usually the case with American football at the collegiate level.
For instance, the University of Cincinnati in Ohio made the tournament field for the first time in six years. Student Nathan Brock said that was a cause for celebration on campus. He entered his university’s lottery, won the right to purchase tickets and told VOA he drove nine hours to the nation’s capital to see his school play.
"For me, I’ve been a student there for five years. I’m about to graduate, so I’ve been through [following] this team since a mixed first year, and it’s just been a ride, you know. The first year was kind of rough [for the team], and then we’ve gotten better every year, every year, so to be in the NCAA tournament is big for me," said Brock.
In addition to following their favorite teams, fans also compete with each other in guessing which teams will advance each round and make it to the finals.
University of Missouri alumna and big fan Susie Barnello said she bought her tickets from a broker, paying about four times face value so she could experience the excitement of March Madness in person.
"It’s great. It’s the energy of basketball. It’s watching my Missouri Tigers, and it’s an exciting time. It’s great."
After three weeks of "March Madness" with games played across the country, the so-called Final Four will gather in Houston, Texas, for the semifinals on April 2. The championship game also will be played there two nights later.