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Sunday, March 17, 2013
Behold the power of a March bracket

By Gene Wojciechowski
ESPN.com

The most perfect thing in sports is inclusive. It brings husbands, wives, families, frat houses, entire offices and $10 bills together. Dogs, cats and even sea lions from the Houston Zoo can become one with it. It creates surreal moments, such as Andy Katz and President Barack Obama hanging out in the White House Map Room.

The most perfect thing in sports is more than a series of parallel lines stretched wide across a single sheet of paper. It is more than the numbers 1-68. For 23 days -- from mid-March to early April -- we are under its spell wholly, happily and willingly.

The most perfect thing in sports looks like a pair of identical ant trails. It looks like the War of the Stick Figures.

I refer, of course, to the annual NCAA tournament basketball bracket.

Diana Inch
The bracket brings together sports fans from all walks of life, including high school librarian Diana Inch, who correctly picked the Final Four in 2011.

There is no Tiffany diamond more beautiful than the bracket. There is no place in nature more breathtaking. If I had to choose between my make-believe celebrity wife (Connie Britton -- circa "The West Wing," "Friday Night Lights" and/or "Nashville") or filling out an NCAA tournament bracket, I'd -- sigh -- choose the bracket.

The NCAA bracket is one of humankind's greatest inventions, just behind the beer koozie and just ahead of the phenomenom that is Joe Lunardi. Each spring, without fail, it consumes me. It consumes an entire nation.

My actual wife, who thinks Butler is the guy on "Downton Abbey" and not the team at Hinkle Fieldhouse, fills out a bracket.

Everybody fills out a bracket. It is one of the most American things to do.

So imagine my amusement when the ESPN.com college basketball editor asked if I'd write a column on "which sport has the best way of deciding its champion" -- as if it were a multiple-choice decision.

There is no decision; the answer is college basketball. It's been college basketball since 1985, when the NCAA expanded the field to 64 teams. It will continue to be college basketball unless the NCAA chugs a bottle of stupid and expands to 96 teams.

What's there not to love? You've got Selection Sunday, the day America sets a record for Most Laser Printer Usage. You've got 68 teams, including programs that would never get a sniff in the college football BCS model.

You've got the "First Four" matchups, which are the finger sandwiches of the tournament. Then you've got the actual Big Dance commencing a couple of days later. In all, 67 games in a little more than three weeks' time.

I love college football. If I loved it any more, I'd need an intervention and a room at the Betty Ford Center. But comparing the BCS to the NCAA bracket is like comparing Carl Lewis' version of the national anthem to Whitney Houston's.

In college football, low to mid-major programs are virtually eliminated from the national championship equation before the season begins. In the NCAA tournament, No. 15 seeds such as Lehigh can beat No. 2-seeded Duke, Richmond can beat Syracuse, Santa Clara can beat Arizona and Norfolk State can beat Missouri.

No. 11 seeds VCU and George Mason can reach the Final Four. A No. 8 seed can win it all (Villanova in 1985).

The NFL does the playoff thing and does it well. But the NFL gives its highest-seeded teams byes and home-field advantage. There are no byes in the NCAA tournament.

And yes, the tournament selection committee tries to reward its highest-seeded teams with geographically cozy sites. But you'll never see, say, the Blue Devils, play a tournament game at Cameron Indoor. If you did, it would be called the NIT.

I'm also crazy about baseball, but not so crazy about an MLB playoff system that calls for a one-game wild-card playoff after a 162-game regular season. If you need more information on this, please contact the 2012 Atlanta Braves.

The NHL? If Gary Bettman played on a rec league team, it would get into the NHL playoffs.

Same with the NBA, which has more teams in the playoffs than out of them.

Plus, March Madness never goes on strike and never gets locked out. Can the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL say the same? The integrity of a college hoops regular and postseason isn't compromised by work stoppages.

By the way, I can almost hear soccer fans beating their laptop keys into submission as they type, "What about the World Cup?"

I'll concede that winning the World Cup is insanely difficult. But the NCAA tournament is played every year. The actual World Cup is played every four years. Sorry.

Please, not a peep from any of the 6,598 world entrants in the 2012 World Series of Poker main event. If you can get a back rub and drink a cocktail while playing something, then how hard can it be, right?

And if you'd like to argue that NASCAR has the best way of determining its champion, then knock yourself out. But compared to March Madness, NASCAR's points system is a back marker.

I'm sure I'll get lots of emails from angry fans who disagree with my choice of college hoops. I'm also sure I know what these angry people will be doing March 17.

Filling out their NCAA tournament brackets.