It’s officially the season of madness. Welcome to the Big Dance, folks.
We all know the men’s tournament is the lifeblood of the NCAA’s billion-dollar business. It’s also an important revenue stream for conferences, particularly those focused more on basketball than football. Men’s teams that survive and advance secure the biggest payouts from the NCAA. It’s high time for that to apply to participants in the women’s tournament too, but unfortunately, I don’t make the rules.
The women’s tournament final will air on ABC this year, which is a win. How big of an audience the title clash draws on the Disney-owned broadcast network—which, unlike ESPN, is available in all 121 million television households in the U.S.—will be huge for future media rights deals and investment in the sport and the NCAA tournament in particular. No pressure. (On the men’s side, CBS and Warner Bros. Discovery are still as committed as ever to their March Madness coverage.)
Basically, the next three weeks are undeniably important for the business of college sports. But March Madness isn’t just about the money. Millions of fans tune in to watch as many games as possible, root for their favorite teams or the demise of their rivals and rally behind the double-digit underdog seed that makes a run to the Sweet 16 or beyond.
In that spirit, I asked a few of my Sportico colleagues what they were either most excited for or keeping an eye on during these tournaments. See below for their delightfully different answers.
Jacob Feldman: Is the Big 12 about to firmly establish itself as the nation’s premiere men’s basketball conference? College sports have become as much a battle between conferences as between schools of late, and while Texas’ and Oklahoma’s upcoming defections dealt the Big 12 a potentially existential blow, its programs have shown no signs of slowing down on the court. With seven of the conference’s 10 teams dancing, the Big 12 has a solid shot of taking home a third straight national title (four, if you count Kansas finishing the canceled 2019-20 season atop the AP’s poll). And next year, it adds Houston to the mix.
Eben Novy-Williams: I’m most excited for: Upsets! It’s cliche, but it’s true. The best thing about these few weeks is the inevitable blue-blood program losing to some school you’ve barely heard of. As financial gaps widen across the NCAA, I fear a future where the college basketball tournaments play out like the college football playoffs. But until then, give me the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns (!) beating Tennessee and Duke in the opening weekend.
Lev Akabas: Purdue’s Zach Edey is a very large human, standing at 7-foot-4 and weighing more than 300 pounds. He’s also been one of the top men’s college basketball players in the country this season, averaging 22.3 points and 12.8 rebounds for a team that secured a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance. The most recent behemoth of comparable size to star in March Madness was 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall, whose UCF Knights nearly upset Zion Williamson and Duke in the second round back in 2019. Fall went undrafted and has played just 37 career games in the NBA, which wasn’t necessarily surprising—nobody that tall has thrived in the league since Yao Ming. Edey has more offensive skill than Fall, though, and perhaps an NCAA tournament run can set him up for an NBA career.
Bette Canter: The Northwestern men’s basketball team will be playing in the program’s third-ever (!!!) NCAA tournament game on Thursday against Boise State. Led by guards Boo Buie and Chase Audige, the team’s had a historic season this year, with the second-most wins in program history (21) and the highest finish ever in the Big Ten (tied for second). Fans who tuned in for the Wildcats’ first-ever March Madness game in 2017 against Vanderbilt were treated to a dramatic win after a Commodore mistake as time expired (the ‘Cats then lost in the second round to eventual NCAA runner-up Gonzaga). Will Northwestern cap off this banner season with a March victory?
Eric Jackson: In the men’s tournament, the Brandon Miller situation at Alabama is unfortunate but also intriguing. There’s no doubt that it will be a storyline worth following, especially if the Crimson Tide make a deep run. Women’s? Finishing with a perfect season is so difficult, so I’m looking forward to seeing if South Carolina can go the distance. It might help that they’re playing in their backyard this year. They definitely have a good chance to repeat with Aliyah Boston in the mix.
Daniel Libit: Nearly two years after the NCAA was compelled by state legislatures to accept NIL, and with dawn of pay-to-play or athlete-employee rights, I am most looking forward to the latest displays of vernal whinging—from high-paid tourney coaches and CBS color commentators—about how “money is ruining college sports.”
And finally, I’ll throw mine in the ring: I’m most excited to watch Caitlin Clark be the talk of the tournaments (yes, plural) this month and for the inevitable Elite Eight matchup of Clark’s No. 2 Iowa and top-seeded Stanford. A bonus would be an Iowa-South Carolina Final Four. Sheesh. If there’s going to be chalk, at least it’ll be good. Don’t sleep on the women’s bracket (and don’t forget to following along with our March Madness series over the next few weeks!).