Here's the thing about March Madness: It actually lives up to the hype. Way more, for example, than the Super Bowl, the NCAA men's basketball tournament's closest competitor as a national sports event obsession.
The hype for the Super Bowl quickly becomes tiresome because of the relentless — and ridiculous — two-week build-up centering on only two teams. And, as we saw this year, if the game itself is a rout, the whole thing deflates quickly and leaves you wondering what all the fuss was about.
The beauty of the NCAA tournament is that even if the championship game on Monday, April 7 is a rout, it hardly matters, because there's so much guaranteed excitement for three weeks.
Beginning, in fact, before a single game is even played.
Unlike the Super Bowl or the World Series, 68 teams (including play-ins) have a chance to win — at least in theory. Not only are fans of all those teams from all over the country fantasizing and jazzed up, but even casual fans and non-fans are drawn in by the ubiquitous office and online betting pools, attracting millions of people who normally don't gamble.
Anyone can fill out the brackets; it's mostly guessing, anyway. It's fun, and it certainly maintains interest in the tournament even if your team alma mater or hometown team is eliminated. And this year, of course, the betting craze has reached its zenith with Warren Buffet's billion-dollar prize for anyone who can pick the winner of every single game.
Then there's the fact that this is a tournament played, after all, by college kids. Sure, there are a few extremely talented players who only go to school for one year because they have to and will soon be professional stars. But they are the exception.
The vast majority of the players are just regular college students, playing at a very high amateur level. They're young, appealing and their enthusiasm is genuine. They cry when they lose!
Heroes will emerge, stars will be born and the country is ready to fall in love with them the way they just can't when veteran professional stars like Peyton Manning, LeBron James or Derek Jeter suit up for their 17th playoff series.
And unlike professional sports, where the usual suspects nearly always seem to be the ones who win the championship, March Madness regularly produces a surprise, clean-cut underdog "Cinderella" team from a school you never heard of who will generate tons of publicity and temporary, but heartfelt, affection from a public eager to praise the pure and downtrodden in a corrupted one percent world.
Nostalgia and community also fuel March Madness' irresistible appeal.
One of the participating teams may be your alma mater, your kids' alma mater or from the town, city or state where you either grew up or live now. If that team is in, it's an excuse to get in touch with old friends from college or home. You also feel more connected to your neighbors, colleagues and complete strangers for that matter, in the community where you live now, as everyone cheers on the hometown boys.
Indeed, in this age of extreme digital personalization and atomization, the nationally shared experience of March Madness fulfills a deeply human desire — and need.
It's why the Super Bowl, even if the game is crappy, attracts over 100 million television viewers: It's a social event! It's why conferences are more popular than ever: No one really has to go to a conference to get business done, but people want to interact with other people, and there aren't that many organized opportunities to do it, much less opportunities on a national scale.
Then there are the actual basketball games and the beguiling story lines with unresolved endings.
How good is Wichita State, who hasn't lost all year, but has played weaker opponents than the other top-seeded teams?
How good, really, is Creighton's Doug McDermott — the nation's leading scorer and likely college player of the year — who has scored more than 3,000 points in four years?
What about the highly publicized NBA-ready "one and done" freshman stars, like Duke's Jabari Parker, Kansas' Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, Arizona's Aaron Gordon and Kentucky's Julius Randle? Can they lead their teams to a title?
Or is college basketball really a coaches' game after all? And if so, will battle-tested veterans like Louisville's Rick Pitino, Syracuse's Jim Boeheim and Michigan State's Tom Izzo prevail again?
How about Florida, the number one team in the polls and consensus favorite to win the tournament? They look good, they've played great and in Billy Donovan they have one of the few coaches who has won the NCAA title two years in a row.
Those questions will soon be answered and, in the process, thrilling games will be won at the buzzer, favorites will be upset, fresh-faced heroes will emerge, Cinderella teams will cast their spell and, for the next three weeks, March Madness will, again, captivate the country.