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Game on

Today is Wednesday, which also means it is the unofficial final day of the workweek. That’s true whether you find yourself coming into an office or not, if an office is still a thing for you. That’s because tomorrow begins the men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament, not counting those first four games that finish tonight. Which means that millions of people in the American workforce will spend Thursday and Friday in front of some screen not being used for spreadsheets or email to watch the field of 64 teams play its way down to 32. It was always estimated as some kind of muti-billion dollar loss of work productivity during the first two days of the Tournament, but I’m guessing that whole calculation changed after Covid, where the line between working from home and watching a ball game blurred a bit.

If you haven’t yet filled out brackets and are looking for some tips, you’ve come to the wrong place. I haven’t won a tournament pool in years, and that only happened because I picked Florida every year and they finally won. This year, I’ve picked Houston to win it all, primarily because I grew up in Houston and the Cougars are a one seed. Also, the Final Four in in Houston this year, so I figure that would make for a good storyline. But I encourage you not to simply copy my picks, but rather do your own research and make equally irrational picks based on faulty logic.

There’s as many storylines as you’d like in this and really any NCAA Tournament. Of note is that last year’s runner up and pre-season #1 North Carolina didn’t make the field. Also interesting is trendy pick Texas is playing for an interim coach after their mega-hire Chris Beard was fired for an alleged domestic dispute. In the Northeast, perhaps the most notable storyline is the lack of local teams in the field. New York has only two teams in the field, Iona and Colgate. New Jersey has only Princeton and Fairleigh Dickenson. All four of these teams should be out by Saturday. There are zero from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, one from Vermont, and none from the Granite State. Honestly, the only hope for a deep run from the Amtrak corridor is UConn, who’s a four seed. So where New York City may have once been the mecca of basketball, it does seem as if the balance of power has moved south and west, like to Texas and California who collectively have 12 teams in the field. At least Albany and Madison Square Garden are hosting games so we can watch teams from other parts of the country in person. These are just a few storylines. Watch any number of the networks covering the Tournament to find your favorite sidebar in-between games

Perhaps what’s most notable to me isn’t any one particular story from this tournament, but rather a larger narrative about the state of the event in what are considered turbulent times for big time college sports. Right now, Division I basketball programs are dealing with the influence of NIL – that’s name, image, and likeness, the transfer portal that allows students to move schools every year, the fracture of television audiences in a streaming media world, and the rise of developmental leagues that allow top high school stars to bypass college basketball altogether. This was supposed to lead to a world where college basketball, and the Tournament, would be relegated to second tier, with programs becoming increasingly transient and professional – and thus less popular. And yet that hasn’t happened, with this tournament as popular as ever. Meaning all the doomsday predictors seemed to get it wrong, at least for now.

There’s a logical reason for that. We don’t watch the NCAA Tournament because we know all the players, or because we cling to some dated policy doctrine of amateur athletics. We watch because it offers two things – endless dramatic spectacle in the way of buzzer beaters and last second shots and the opportunity to watch Cinderella stay out past midnight, something that happens every time a small school you only know by their name on a bracket sheet takes on Kentucky or Duke or UCLA or some other Goliath. That’s why we watch, and why the NCAA Tournament itself is far more resilient than the policies and procedures that govern it.

Which means that you’ll have many more years to fill out a losing bracket. Just don’t ask me for advice on who to pick.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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