x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

NCAA College Basketball: When an entire nation leans on a bracket

The 68 tournament teams hail from US universities famous and obscure, which adds to the lure.

St Mary's forward Mitchell Young, right, reaches over Middle Tennessee forward Shawn Jones in Ohio on Tuesday. Skip Peterson / AP Photo
St Mary's forward Mitchell Young, right, reaches over Middle Tennessee forward Shawn Jones in Ohio on Tuesday. Skip Peterson / AP Photo

On my television screen, Barack Obama, the United States president, stands intently before a large white board covered with some sort of elaborate graph. Every few seconds, he leans toward it and writes something on vacant lines with a felt pen.

An organisational flow chart depicting his new staff?

A breakdown of elections won and lost by his political party?

An outline of goals for his second term in the White House?

No, all that can wait. Obama is among the many Americans overcome by March Madness, which might sound like a springtime affliction typified by rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms and a pounding in the head.

In fact, those symptoms add up to such a prognosis, but its victims seek no cure. The accelerated pulse and clammy hands are triggered by excitement over the NCAA Tournament, the college basketball bacchanalia.

The cranial thump-thump is traced to hearing the bouncing balls over the course of 67 games in the three-week frame that commenced on Tuesday and seeps into April.

Funny thing. According to the prestigious Harris Poll, basketball on the university (non-professional) level ranks No 7 for most popular US sport, listed first by only 3 per cent of the populace. My less official poll concludes that only 3 per cent do not regard it as their favourite sport during March.

The phenomenon has inspired its own lingo. In any other month, "bracket", in American English, denotes a metal or wood support for a wall shelf. These days, "bracket" refers to the form filled out by the masses, the pen-wielding Obama included, on which they predict the winner of each game.

Thus is created the "office pool," a phrase that originated with co-workers vying to see whose bracket winds up as the most accurate.

The extended event's two most dizzying days are the first Thursday and Friday, with 16 games each day, beginning at lunchtime in the east of the country and mid-mornings out west. Researchers have concluded that distracted workers cost their employers millions of dollars in lost wages.

The tournament is partly credited with the development of a "boss button", a computer key that instantly hides basketball-related screens or programs when a supervisor approaches.

Brackets hold special appeal because the fun is not confined to experts. Much like uninformed patrons at the race track, participants can base their picks on team colours. Or preferred geographical location. Or whose mascot is judged the more ferocious.

Listen to more language of March Madness: A "bubble" team (one of the last invited to the tourney, having been "on the bubble") wins a "buzzer-beater" (with a last-second basket) to stay in the "big dance".

"Bracket" has even generated its own glossary subset. Bracketology is the study of brackets, in which an expert becomes a bracketologist.

The 68 tournament teams hail from US universities famous and obscure, which adds to the lure. The single-elimination format puts entrants on equal footing, though squads considered heavyweights are matched against the so-called flyweights in the early rounds.

The Madness is light-hearted diversion to some, serious fare to others - especially Obama, who displays a decent left-handed jump shot in pick-up games and prides himself on being sports-savvy.

A TV host alluded to the president's three-year bracketology slump after he successfully predicted the champion in his first year in office.

Obama stifled a grimace and said, in a tone familiar to all bracketologists who grow tired of feeding their "busted" brackets into a shredder to destroy the evidence: "I think we can do better."

sports@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE