CHICAGO -- In 1979, the NCAA expanded its men's basketball tournament from 32 to 40. One reason was to accomodate automatic bids for conferences like the Sun Belt and Southland -- fallout from the governing body's football subdivision split that "protected" mid-size schools from 76-0 gridiron poundings by the big boys. Another reason for expansion was related to the NCAA's Fifty Year War with the National Invitation Tournament and the city of New York. Also in 1979, the NIT increased its field from 16 to 24. And so the NCAA gave out 18 at-large bids to runner-ups that year, just as exclusive as the 11 it had handed out in 1978.
The 40-team bracket, however, was lopsided and uneven. Not like the clean five-round tournament of a year before. An argument could be made, and I'm making it, that 1978 was the fairest tournament format in the seven-decade history of the event. The top four teams in each region were unofficially seeded conference champions, and the rest of the 32-team bracket was filled out with at large selections and winners of smaller leagues. That practice was ended in 1979, the first year of attached digits. To number seeds one through ten was a necessary process with a 40-team bracket -- to delineate between the play-in teams, the ones who would get to play them in the Round of 32, and everyone else.
But there was a side effect of this growth spurt. Over time, as the bracket size doubled, these numbers were loaded with meaning: 16, 12 and 5, one and top overall. The NCAA had entered the prediction business, the same racket the organization wanted so badly to destroy in the 1950s. For the millions of casual fans swept into the Madness of March by way of office pool brackets, it became a predictive game of beating the house. For a generation of self-made experts, the sport was questioning its sanity.
But what does a No. 13 seed really mean? There's no elevator floor or black cat for this number, not in this context.AP
It means, at best, that the selectors ran the numbers and found that team to be the 49th most capable in the tournament to win the championship, maybe the 52nd. If it's possible to distill the thoughts and effort of a roomful of committee members into a singular Greek chorus, it means little else than, "We do not feel this team can beat a No. 4 seed."
An eighth seed is an expectation of a second-round exit. That's all it is. In a 16-team stack, a No. 8 is judged slightly better than a No. 9, is given the slight advantages of a virtual home game -- white jerseys, for instance -- without many of the obligations. (They don't have to supply game balls.) It's a reward for being good enough to end up in the top half of the bracket, but there's a punishment waiting on the other end: the top seed in the region. Almost better to be a No. 10, because winners of 8/9 games are generally afforded little chance in the next game.
Three decades after the dawn of the NCAA's seeded era, further complications. Instead of attaching the four extra teams from the 2010 expansion to the bottom of each region, to reward No. 1 seeds with rest and tired opponents, two fork-tines were stuck to the Nos. 11 and 12 seed lines. Teams in these opening round games are at-larges that are given the same seed and a 50/50 chance of winning. Bracket logic and basic seed math dictates that no No. 11 or No. 12 team is supposed to get past the No. 4 or No. 5 they'll face in the Round of 64. And they're certainly not supposed to beat two higher seeds and get to the Round of 16, otherwise they'd be seeded higher. Wouldn't they?
The NCAA Tournament, and the NIT before it, were once small exercises in rendering tiny order from tiny chaos -- to determine who the best basketball team is, they must play each other until all but one are eliminated from title contention. But things that become important to a lot of people tend to take on the weight of increased humanity. To me, this event in the modern era occupies that area between the known present and the uncertain future. All of us want mastery over what's to come, or at least a glimpse of tomorrow so that we don't have to be afraid of it. This is why we predict. But each of us also clings to what we know -- this is why we order and rank based on the now. The future is designed to tear these structures to tatters, but still we try to step forward, into the uncertain space between today and tomorrow.
The space in between is Madness. And now, more than usual, the gap is where we live.
The future: time's excuse to frighten us; too vast a project, too large a morsel for the heart's mouth.
Future, who won't wait for you? Everyone is going there. It suffices you to deepen the absence that we are.
Rainer Maria Rilke