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Column: It’s the most wonderful time of the year

Just over here trying to contain myself. 

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NCAA Men’s Final Four - National Championship - Texas Tech v Virginia Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

It’s been a minute. But it’s back.

What’s better than four days of 64 teams (68 if you count the play in + bonus day) getting whittled down to 16? What’s more Cinderella than a pair of glass slippers? What’s more inspiring than watching the underdog win — repeatedly? What’s greater than the mascots, pageantry and Sister Jean? What do you love more than the brackets, pretending you know anything about the matchup between Utah State and Colgate (yes, it’s my round of 32 pick).

It’s better than the Super Bowl. Better than the College Football Playoff (yes, even when Ohio State is in it). It’s even better than Bowl Season. There, I said it.

What makes the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament so much better than literally every other sporting event out there?

Besides all the reasons above, there is something cool about the inclusivity of it. Sure, a lot of thought goes into the perceived snubs of the “first four out,” but every team in the tournament has a reason to be there. It’s the most balanced tournament in sports, because it actually allows every possible title contender to compete.

While there’s often criticism of, say, the CFP, for not bringing in every Power Five conference champion or non-Power Five Cinderella, there’s little doubt that, year in and year out, the nation’s best team is somewhere in the field of 68.

There’s also something about the nature of basketball, too. It’s fast paced and the games are short. It’s easy to tune in. And tune in we do, because, despite the fact there is zero reason to be invested in a given game, we are, in fact, actively invested in every given game - because of our brackets. Somehow, because we clicked a particular button on ESPN or CBS, we are actively rooting against Virginia because we picked the Ohio Bobcats for the upset. Meanwhile, we can’t stand the thought that North Texas could beat Purdue, because that was NOT the annual 4/13 upset we chose! (Now I’m rethinking my strategy…)

It’s the time of year when we can cheer for the underdogs, the upsets, the buzzer-beaters - because they all come fast and furious. Part of the beauty of the tournament is that literally anything can happen, so even though the nation’s best team is in the field, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will win.

Remember that time UMBC, the 16-seed, beat top-seeded Virginia in the opening round? What about when the 15-seeded Florida Gulf Coast made the Sweet 16? Or when Northwestern made the field for the first time ever in 2017? This season, Rutgers made the tournament for the first time since 1991. Year in and year out, there are things to celebrate.

And in a given year, even if the upset is one we didn’t choose, it’s still something to get hyped about. It’s a rare time when yes, while you want your team to go all the way, you also are so incredibly entertained by the happenings that your loyalties are almost secondary. Almost. Three guesses at who my title pick is.

It doesn’t hurt that the Big Ten is really good this year, too. The real question is what percentage of Ohio State fans will pick the winner of the play-in game of Mount St. Mary’s and Texas Southern (now, just Texas Southern) over Michigan, and how many have a quartet of Big Ten teams in their Final Fours.

March Madness has become such an ingrained part of our culture. In 2018, people filled out an estimated 70 million brackets. While some diehards choose to take Thursday and Friday off entirely, others sneak the games on at work (or just have them on outright). The US economy loses an estimated $13 billion over the length of the tournament with workers skipping work to watch games.

Of course, that sort of office camaraderie is diminished this year. Sure, there’s still an office pool, but none of the long lunches and extended water cooler talk. I’ll still keep tabs on the games Friday, when the round of 64 officially tips off, but, like so much from the last year, it’ll inevitably feel different.

There’s also the fact this is the first time in two years we’ll have the tournament. The return of the Big Dance makes me feel immensely grateful for how far we’ve come. I think we can all remember what it was like a year ago this week, watching as conference tournaments were cancelled with players on the court for warmups, and then the announcement of, what at the time, felt utterly unthinkable: the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament itself.

We all remember what that moment felt like. For me, and probably for many sports fans, that was the moment when the pandemic became real, when its impact really hit home.

But back to the present. Sure, some things look different this year. Games start a couple days later. We have alternate teams that can sub in at a moment’s notice should one of the 68 come down with COVID-19. Some teams have shockingly few games, and their records are hard to compare. But given what the last year has been, it’s nice that we have sports again.

In many ways, having the tournament this season feels like we’ve come full circle. While there is still so much uncertainty, we’ve come so far in a year. We have so much to celebrate - development of vaccines, things opening back up, the chance to see friends and family again. It feels like the dance this weekend is doubly sweet, not just because we didn’t have it last season, but because its removal in 2020 was a sign of the challenges to come. We still have so far to go, and yet, this tournament is one step in the world getting back to normal.

What a time. Let’s enjoy the most wonderful weekend of the year.