It’s Selection Sunday, in almost every way possible a national holiday. Anyone who cares about basketball even a little and some who don’t care about basketball at all will be crowded around TV sets at 6 p.m., when the 68-team NCAA men’s basketball tournament bracket finally will be unveiled.
“You know, bracketology hasn’t been around all that long,” Florida State Coach Leonard Hamilton said earlier this week. “But now it’s a sport and everyone can play it.”
And everyone does — from those who actually make money doing it, to those who do it for fun this weekend. And once the brackets go up, everyone from the big-bucks TV pundits to kindergarteners who will make their picks based on their favorite color will start making sage predictions.
It wasn’t always like this. In fact, before 1982 there was no such thing as Selection Sunday. There was a Sunday in March when the teams were chosen to play in the tournament, but there was no TV show and there was no such thing as a bracketologist.
And then two men changed all that. One was Billy Packer. The other was Len DeLuca.
In 1981, CBS wrested the rights to the tournament away from NBC with a three-year, $48 million contract, a mind-blowing sum at the time that more than tripled what NBC had been paying for the rights.
CBS then hired Packer from NBC, not only to be its lead analyst but to help persuade coaches to play games on CBS. Still, there was the not-so-minor issue of establishing CBS as the college basketball network in the minds of the public, which had known NBC as the sport’s home for years.
That task had fallen to DeLuca, who had come to CBS two years earlier. “Len and I knew we had to come up with something besides the games,” Packer said years later. “We had to figure a way to make people understand that the tournament and specifically the Final Four was now a part of CBS.”
DeLuca and Packer finally hit on the notion that there was nothing quite like the Final Four because so many roads led to wherever the Final Four was being played in a given year: eight sub-regional sites, followed by four regionals.
“Twelve cities,” Packer said. “Everyone trying to get to one city.”
They finally hit on it: “The Road to the Final Four.” Then DeLuca had another idea, one that was remarkably simple but brilliant: “Why don’t we announce the field on TV,” he said. “People will have to watch TV to find out where their teams are going. That way we can promote the fact that we are the place to watch the tournament.”
Back then, CBS didn’t televise all the games — that didn’t happen until 1991. But the key games and the Final Four were on CBS. Packer and DeLuca’s “road” concept took off, and so did the Selection Sunday show.
CBS quickly mastered the art of only showing one regional bracket at a time, sprinkling in analysis in between commercials. Soon, people began speculating who would make the tournament and who wouldn’t before Selection Sunday.
Joe Lunardi, a publicist at Saint Joseph’s, first coined the term “bracketology” when he began making predictions in the early 1990s. Fourteen years ago, ESPN hired Lunardi and began publicizing his picks — which change almost daily throughout the winter. Now, bracketology is a cottage industry and, as Hamilton points out, everyone can be a bracketologist.
That’s why almost every basketball fan alive knows that when the field is unveiled on Sunday night, Florida, Wichita State and Arizona will be the top three seeds in the field. Who will get the fourth No. 1 seed has been the subject of almost as much speculation as “Who Shot J.R.?” in 1980. The numbers geeks insist it will be Kansas — even with nine losses — or Wisconsin. Some still hold out hope for Virginia if it wins the ACC tournament title Sunday. Those who actually watch basketball — which would not include most members of the committee — believe that a team that won the toughest conference in the country by three games should be a No. 1 seed. That would be Michigan.
Then there is the infamous bubble. Prior to 1982, there was no such thing as a bubble. Now it is as much a part of basketball terminology as the word “dribble.” At times, it feels as if there are 156 teams on the bubble and, if one looks at the projections as a whole, every one will be in the tournament.
“You can’t avoid it,” said Hamilton, whose team almost certainly fell off the bubble on Friday when it lost in the ACC tournament quarterfinals to Virginia . “It’s in your face every day. There’s no sense pretending it isn’t.” He shrugged. “But it’s absolutely out of your control except when you’re playing. Only then do you have some control over your fate.”
The arguments will go back and forth thoughout the day Sunday and won’t stop until the field is finally announced amid all of CBS’s yammering about “corporate champions.” Then the second-guessing will begin. Some teams that deserve to play in the tournament won’t. Others that should be in the National Invitation Tournament will see their names go up on the board and head to Dayton, Ohio, for the dreaded “First Four” play-in games. (The NCAA sees everything as a marketing opportunity.)
Then, remarkably, the tournament will be played. On April 7 a champion will be crowned. And, hours after the nets come down, the first 2015 brackets will be posted online.
After all, it will only be 331 days until Selection Sunday.
For more by John Feinstein, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein.