Americans just can't help themselves. Every March, our attention seems dominated by the NCAA men's basketball national championship. It's the CBS hype of March Madness, but also the biggest single-elimination sporting event on the planet. Even losing teams in soccer's World Cup get a stroll through the round robin before being shown the door.
The folks at CBS Sports have plenty of reasons to salivate over this year's tournament. First, there is no Goliath from whom the rest of the field should cower. Second, and maybe this should be first, nearly every team in the basketball-rich Big East will be in the NCAAs. That just about assures CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV that televisions from the most heavily populated portion of the United States -- New York to Florida -- will be tuned in. And as NCAA student athletes provide programming to sell cars, beer, tires, tractors and whatever, that audience makes a big dent in the $10.8 billion CBS paid to buy the rights to the tournament through 2024.
To any newbies -- all ye who only watch basketball annually around this time -- understand the Big East earned its 11 tournament spots. This conference was built for basketball. It's as though the Big East crawled out of the primordial soup of Pete Axthelm's paean to basketball, The City Game.
Consider this: The University of Connecticut's Huskies (cognoscenti call them UConn) won the Big East tournament over the weekend in Madison Square Garden, arguably basketball's cathedral, and UConn finished its conference season at 9-9. The Big East is notable for eating its young: Down in the lower rungs of the standings, the University of South Florida beat vaunted Villanova and lost in overtime at UConn before finishing the conference season at 3-15. This 16-team configuration of basketball dynamos has an easy claim on 11 spots.
Bracketology should be really interesting this month, too. With the tournament field expanded to 68 teams, the first round will roll out four games in the space where office pools around the country had heretofore grudgingly accepted a 65th team appearing in a play-in game. Now things will kick off Tuesday and Wednesday nights with what has been dubbed "The First Four." When that dust settles, tournament play heats up Thursday with 64 teams, which, as anyone with a No. 2 lead pencil and a ruler will proclaim, is a work of verisimilitude.
"The First Four" will be televised this Tuesday and Wednesday by Turner-owned truTV, the channel formerly known as CourtTV. That could very well send chills down the spines of barflies unaware of the format switch and suddenly worrying their mugs (not the ones they're holding) might pop up among America's most wanted.
This year's is sure to be an NCAA like no other. Just imagine all the TV access. Throw in another few million furtive glances via March Madness on Demand live streams on workplace computers. Add all the portable device apps newly loaded on iPads, smartphones and Dick Tracy wristwatches. And this question will likely arise:
Who's not watching?