March Madness

One sign that it's spring in the U.S. is that the nation is turning its attention to basketball. In particular, the NCAA tournament starts this week for both men’s and women’s college teams.

The men’s tourney, the second-most popular sports event after the Super Bowl, recently jumped from 64 to 68 qualifying teams. Every year, a big controversy surrounds whether or not your favorite team is selected and then how high (or low) your favorite is ranked in the pairings.


The teams are paired against each other in brackets, which are printed out and shared among friends and family members. In the workplace, co-workers often bet money on the outcomes in office pools. Looking at the bracketed pairings above, you can see that the left and right margins are filled with specific team names, with the winners of each bracket advancing towards the championship slots in the middle of the chart.

The March Madness tournament seems “mad” because of the wild beginning to the competition. After a preliminary play-in round with the lowest 8 teams, the first full round begins with 32 games in two days. With lots of TV coverage and highlight reports, this is a basketball lover’s dream. After the first Thursday/Friday round, 32 teams are eliminated. After the second round (Saturday/Sunday), 16 more teams are eliminated. The goal is to finish the first weekend of play by advancing to the Sweet Sixteen. The second weekend eliminates eight teams in the third round and four more teams in the fourth round, taking the winners from the Elite Eight to the Final Four.

Reaching the hallowed ground of the Final Four gives prestige and national attention to those four universities. My team, the University of Michigan, received a #2 seed and will play #15 Montana on Thursday.


Culture tip: During this three-week period, it’s customary to ask your sports-minded friends and co-workers, “How are your brackets doing?” Lower-seeded teams that upset higher-ranked teams are called Bracket Busters. Happy madness, everyone!

New Vocabulary and Cultural Concepts
ranked pairings = The top 64 teams are separated into four regional competitions (with 16 teams in each region). The #1 ranked (or seeded) team plays the lowest team, #16 while the #2 team plays the #15 team, and so on.
mad = often used to mean “angry,” but here it means “wild or crazy”
hallowed = holy, sacred
favored (or favorite) teams = top-ranked teams, predicted to win
underdog teams = lower teams predicted to lose
to be upset = to lose to a lesser-ranked (non-favored) team

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.

The ABCs of College Basketball’s March Madness

So, your American co-workers have undoubtedly been talking about the college basketball tournament and their brackets.  For some of you, this will be a new conversation.  Both men’s and women’s teams compete in this annual event.  I will focus my comments here on the men’s side of the sport. This past weekend, American television was overflowing with basketball games.  At work on Monday morning, conversations definitely included discussion of who won, who lost, and how everyone did in their predictions following two rounds of play. To help you understand better, we outline the ABCs of this time of year known as March Madness.

(photo source: Wikipedia)

(photo source: Wikipedia)

A is for Americana.  The annual basketball tournament captures the attention of fans and casual fans across the entire United States.  A is also for alliteration (using the same first letters).  Anything worth selling is worthy of catchy names.  Winners of the rounds of 64 and 32 advance to the Sweet Sixteen.  From there, game winners can join the Elite Eight, the Final Four, and the Top Two.  Of course, March Madness is also an alliteration.

B is for brackets.  There are six full rounds of games played over the course of three weeks.  Losers go home; winners advance to the next round.  It’s dramatic and emotional. B is also for betting.  Many work groups organize betting pools where each worker chooses his or her winners.  Typical bets are between $5-20 but occasionally go higher.  B is also for bracket busters.  As you look at the chart below, you will notice many of the teams were predicted to be in the top four of their regional grouping; consequently, there are teams with a ranking of 1, 2, 3, or 4.  However, there are also teams picked 9th, 12th, 13th, and 15th.  Because most people in the betting pools selected the favorites, these underdogs* busted many brackets.   Teams like Oregon and LaSalle were not popular picks in the betting pools.  And this year’s Cinderella (team that no one expected to be invited to the big dance) is the team from Florida Gulf Coast University, the first-ever #15 seed** to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.

"Sparty" is the Spartan mascot from Michigan State University (photo source:

"Sparty" is the Spartan mascot from Michigan State University (photo source:

Jayhawk mascot from the University of Kansas (photo source:

Jayhawk mascot from the University of Kansas (photo source:

C is for collegiate.  College sports are always less predictable than professional sports.  This is because the participants are 18-22 years old, have less-developed skill sets, and can fluctuate from sublime self-confidence to complete psychological collapse.  This makes betting on the sport wildly uncertain, as noted in the bracket discussion above. C is also for craziness.  Fans of the college game are wildly passionate, mostly because students of college age have maximum enthusiasm and energy.  The tournament is also crazy because of the sheer number of games played in a short amount of time, especially the first weekend.

If you want to be included in the conversation, just ask someone, “How did your brackets do?”  Then, just sit back and listen to the stories.

The 16 men's teams left in this year's tournament

The 16 men's teams left in this year's tournament

The match-ups above represent the teams in the coming weekend of play.  If you were not able to join the betting pool for the first weekend, see if you can convince your co-workers to start a fresh pool for the final two weeks.  You can call it a do-over or second-chance pool.  There will be support for this idea among the poor fans who predicted that #2 Georgetown or #1 Gonzaga would win the entire tournament.

A note on Mascots: Most of the team mascots are represented by the world of animals or people.  This year’s field of 16 includes mascots as follows. People: Hoosiers, Explorers, Spartans, Blue Devils, Shockers Birds: Eagles (2), Cardinals, Ducks, Jayhawks Animals: Wildcats, Gators, Wolverines Forces of nature: Hurricanes Colors: Orange Nuts: Buckeyes

Read more here.

*Underdogs are teams which no one predicts to win.  This article is about being an underdog.  It says “Florida Gulf Coast Crashes Sweet Sixteen.”  The expression “to crash a party” means to attend a party where you were not expected or invited. **To seed means to arrange the drawing for positions in a tournament so that the more skilled teams meet in the later rounds.