For many Americans, the next few days are among the most entertaining of the year. They will be filled with dozens of college basketball games, featuring major surprises and thrilling finishes. When a team loses, its season is over.
The main portion of the men’s March Madness starts today, and the women’s tournament follows tomorrow. Both will continue for almost three weeks. They are among the few sporting events that capture the attention of nonfans, thanks to college loyalties and the ubiquity of brackets.
Today’s newsletter offers a preview, with help from our colleagues at The Times and The Athletic.
If I can offer one personal tip, try to find time to watch the Iowa women’s team. Its star, Caitlin Clark, a West Des Moines native, may be the country’s most entertaining player (as this Washington Post profile explains). Her fans include LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Clark is known for hitting “logo threes,” shots from so far away that she is standing near the half-court logo.
Who are the men’s favorites?
No team looks dominant. Oddsmakers like Houston, an athletic crew with a terrifying defense. Alabama — the No. 1 overall seed — and Kansas aren’t far behind. Purdue, with 7-foot-4 Canadian star Zach Edey, is intriguing. The Wall Street Journal calls U.C.L.A. the most underappreciated potential winner.
Who are the women’s favorites?
The women’s tournament does have a heavy favorite: South Carolina, the defending champion, which hasn’t lost a game this season. Its star is Aliyah Boston, the likely No. 1 pick in this year’s W.N.B.A. draft. Longtime powerhouses UConn and Stanford are also in the mix, as are Maryland, Indiana, Utah — and Iowa, which won the recent tournament in the Big Ten, the strongest conference.
Can I get bracket advice?
Don’t worry about a few losses. Surprising as it may sound, there has never been a confirmed perfect bracket in decades of March Madness. With 63 games in each bracket, there are 9.2 quintillion possible outcomes, which means that the millions of people who fill out a bracket still cover only a tiny share of the scenarios.
Don’t pick only No. 1 seeds. “Fans tend to rate No. 1 seeds or well-known teams as more likely to win the tournament than experts do,” Josh Katz and Alice Fang of The Times explain. Lower-seeded men’s teams that have a chance to go far, according to the experts, include San Diego State, Creighton, Tennessee and Providence. (This table lets you compare public picks with expert analysis.)
The Athletic’s Seth Davis picked both No. 12 seed Charleston and No. 14 seed U.C. Santa Barbara (the mighty Gauchos!) to make the Sweet 16 on the men’s side. A statistical analysis from The Athletic gives No. 13 seed Furman almost a 40 percent chance to beat No. 4 seed Virginia.
Typically, the women’s bracket has fewer upsets than the men’s bracket. In the past five years, 19 of 20 Final Four berths went to No. 1 and 2 seeds, with one berth going to a No. 3 seed.
Your pool size matters. The more people in your pool, the more risks you should take. In a smaller group, more conservative choices are smart. This basic bit of game theory may be the simplest way to improve your chances.
Or just have fun. Call it the Diane Chambers strategy, after the “Cheers” character who won the bar’s football pool by taking into account uniform colors, symphony orchestras and other factors. In March Madness, you could make your picks based on mascots: Cats have won a lot, humans not so much. I know a Southerner with a penchant for picking whichever team has the lower latitude.
Any feel-good teams?
Virginia Tech has become a top women’s team behind Elizabeth Kitley. Head coach Kenny Brooks recruited Kitley partly by winning over her sister, Raven, who has become an advocate for autism awareness.
It’s bizarre to describe Duke as a feel-good story, given its status as the most hated team in men’s basketball, but this year, it may be true. The Blue Devils had a turbulent start under new head coach Jon Scheyer, who succeeded the legendary Mike Krzyzewski, but they are now playing very well. Duke is a dangerous No. 5 seed.
Still, we realize most fans can’t root for Duke, so you could also consider Gonzaga and its bearded star, Drew Timme. “We have come to Drew Timme for sentimentality and melancholy, hoping to strum his heartstrings as he prepares for his last March ride,” Dana O’Neil writes in The Athletic.
Who will be Cinderella?
Nobody knows. The best part about Cinderellas — like St. Peter’s, the pride of Jersey City, last year — is that they’re unexpected. In the women’s bracket, maybe it will be Princeton or Florida Gulf Coast, which was founded in 1991 and already has more March Madness upsets than most universities.
On the men’s side, Howard, the alma mater of Vice President Kamala Harris and Chadwick Boseman, is making its first tournament appearance since 1992. Here’s a guide to top players on lesser-known teams, like Kent State and Oral Roberts.
How about some history?
“Dream On,” a three-part ESPN documentary, explains how the women’s game got so big, by telling the story of the 1996 Olympic team. The Athletic’s Richard Deitsch called it the best sports documentary he saw last year. It features a few major figures in this year’s March Madness, including Dawn Staley, who now coaches South Carolina.
Join our bracket
We’ve made groups on ESPN’s Tournament Challenge for readers of The Morning to compete with each other. Here are links for the men’s and women’s tournaments. Submit your men’s bracket by noon Eastern today and your women’s bracket by noon Eastern tomorrow. We’ll mail a Morning coffee mug to one winner from each bracket.
The unsinkable Marilyn Maye
Marilyn Maye is the last of a great generation of American Songbook singers. She was a favorite of Ella Fitzgerald’s and made dozens of appearances on “The Tonight Show.” Next week, just before her 95th birthday, she’s making her Carnegie Hall solo debut.
It’s the crowning moment of an eight-decade career and the most important night of her life. It’s also only one gig in a year of travel, devoted audiences, parties, mentoring, master classes and concerts. “I am 95 f-ing years old,” Maye told The Times. “I don’t have time to be a larger star. I don’t have time to be any more than this night.”