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The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, aka The Big Dance, aka March Madness, aka The Early Springtime Undergraduate Hoop-Em-Up Jamboree (not really), starts this week. Technically it starts today, with the “First Four” games determining who makes it into the main draw of 64 teams, but it really starts on Thursday, when that field of 64 starts getting winnowed down with a quickness. The insanity and utter unpredictability of the tournament, along with alma mater pride, makes it a favorite event for gambling in offices across the country, and while you’ve probably heard the numbers before, they’re mind-boggling enough to bear repeating: this year, an estimated 40 million gamble-happy Americans will wager an estimated $8.5 billion, with a 'b', on the tournament, with an estimated $6 billion in workplace productivity lost to people paying attention to the games (they start Thursday at noon eastern time) instead of, you know, doing their jobs. With The Tournament pretty much inescapable, now’s the time for you to know: what is this tournament? Who are the favorites? And how do I pick a winner? Fret not:


What’s The Deal With March Madness?

It’s a single-elimination tournament featuring 64 of the best college basketball teams in the country, taking place over the course of three weeks. There are four regions of 16 teams, each “seeded” from the #1 seed (the top team in the region) down to the lowly #16. Schools with vastly different styles who have never played each other before produce wildly entertaining games and stunning upsets.

Last year, the #1 seeded University of Virginia Cavaliers did us the favor of finally answering the eternal question of “will a #1 seed ever lose in the first round?” by getting absolutely pummelled by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) Retrievers, so this is the first year where literally all possibilities are on the table. There’s also always at least one “Cinderella” team who somehow, despite their shabby basketball pedigree, sneaks into the ball by lasting way longer in the tournament than they were supposed to, to the nation’s delight. Last year it was the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers and their instant sensation biggest fan (and chaplain), 98-year-old nun Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt. Who’ll be the breakout star this year? A rapping rabbi? A talking basketball? A squirrel who can dunk? Who knows, it’s March Madness, baby!


Who Are The Favorites?

Much like the Old Testament, this year the college basketball world is focused on Zion. Zion Williamson, that is, a manchild who would be the second-heaviest player in the NBA today, yet jumps as if off a trampoline, or at least as if wearing those moon shoes I was never allowed to buy as a child. He plays for Duke, so Duke is the favorite. It’s easy to tell the other favorites just by looking at a bracket (here’s one): the “higher seeds” (which are, confusingly, the lower numbers) are the better teams, and the eventual national champ is almost always one of the top seeds. For the record, the other #1 seeds are Virginia (who will try their best not to lose in the first round this time), North Carolina, and Gonzaga. The defending champ, Villanova, is just a #6 seed after losing a bunch of last year's players to the pros.

On the women’s side, Baylor is the favorite, defending champ Notre Dame is in the mix as another #1 seed, and -- for the first time since 2006 -- UConn, juggernaut of sports juggernauts, is not a #1 seed (don't worry, they're still a #2 seed).


How Do I Pick A Winner?

How are you at flipping coins? If you’re filling out a bracket, don’t worry: you’ll do fine. Or at least you won’t necessarily do worse than people who seem to know a lot more than you. Don’t pick all the #16 seeds to win their regions and make it to the Final Four (the “lowest” seed to ever make the Final Four was a #11, though that happened as recently as last year), but feel free to pick a few low seeds to win their first two games and make the Sweet 16 (low seeds make the Sweet 16 all the time). Other than that: listen to your heart or, if your heart is too cowardly to make your picks, a flipped coin.

OK, fine, and if you want the trendy "Cinderella" pick, it's breakout star Ja Morant and #12 seeded Murray State. (Neither UMBC nor Loyola-Chicago, last year's Cinderellas, made it to the tournament this year.)
“I can’t believe [high-seeded team] lost in the first round! My bracket is completely busted!” -- everybody in the office and, probably, you, way closer to the tournament’s start on Thursday afternoon than anyone thought possible.
Duke’s Zion Williamson missed a few games thanks to an injury. A few people wondered if he’d be bothered by the injury when he came back. Duke fans: I have some extremely good news for you.
The tournament’s first round is this Thursday and Friday, with Round 2 happening this Saturday and Sunday. That dizzying flurry of basketball insanity will leave just sixteen teams standing, and they’ll pick things up again next Thursday. Games start this Thursday at 12:15 PM ET and go pretty much nonstop, with games on CBS, truTV, TNT, TBS, and your cubicle neighbors’ computer screens if you can catch them before they find the minimize button.
Universal March Madness vibe.

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