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March Madness 2015: a guide for non-fans

March Madness 2015 is here. After a weekend packed with games, there are 16 teams remaining.

March Madness (the trademarked nickname for the NCAA's annual 68-team tournament to determine the men's basketball champion) is a cultural event, one that's swelled beyond the normal boundaries of the sports world. Even if you're not a huge basketball fan, there's a good chance you might be invited to fill out a bracket or comment on a big upset.

As such, you might have some questions about March Madness. We have some answers.

1) How does March Madness work?

ncaa bracket

The current bracket, with 16 teams remaining. (SB Nation)

March Madness is a single-elimination tournament between 68 men's college basketball teams. This year, it runs from March 17 through April 6. The women's tournament has 64 teams but otherwise works the same, and runs from March 20 through April 7.

Teams make it into the tournament one of two ways: about half get an automatic bid by winning their conference tournaments (conferences are regional groups of teams that play one another, such as the Big Ten), and half get at-large bids, awarded by the official NCAA selection committee based on who it thinks deserves to get in.

The NCAA tournament's structure is simple. After four of the lower-ranked teams were eliminated in a "play-in" round, the 64 teams played each other, with the winners moving on and the losers going home. Another round of games shrunk the field to the "Sweet 16." Starting on Thursday, March 26, it'll then narrow to the "Elite 8," then the "Final Four," and the championship. Whoever wins the championship cuts down the nets in celebration — a tradition that dates to 1947.

2) What makes March Madness so great?

georgia state baylor

#14 seed Georgia State upset #3 seed Baylor in the first round this year. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

March Madness is the rare modern sports event where the payoff is actually bigger than the hoopla leading up to it. The first few rounds, in particular, feature lots of games going on at once, and many of them finish with buzzer beaters or dramatic comebacks. Follow @bananasalert for alerts on games with close finishes.

Many people watch for the big upsets that inevitably happen every year —this year, for instance, Georgia State beat Baylor on a last-second shot, and UAB upset Iowa State. Or they watch for the "Cinderella" teams that make it surprisingly far, like 11-seed Dayton's run to the Elite 8 last year. The vast majority of players (especially on these small-school teams) won't make it to the NBA, so in most cases, you're watching the biggest moments — and often, the final games — of their basketball careers. There are also obsessed student-fan sections, devoted marching bands, and bizarre mascots.

3) Can I see some examples of this drama?

Sure. This is the 2014 version of "One Shining Moment," a painfully cheesy song CBS plays each year after the men's tournament with a montage made up of clips from that year's games.

4) What's this about high seeds and low seeds?

Before the tournament, the selection committee ranks the teams from best to worst. The top four teams are each given No. 1 "seeds," the next four are given No. 2 seeds, and so on. (There are four of each because the bracket is split into four regions, intended to be competitively balanced.) The key thing to remember here is that a lower number means a higher rank — and, somewhat confusingly, is called a high seed.

These rankings are used to pit top and bottom teams against each other in the early rounds (No. 1 seeds start by playing No. 16 seeds, No. 2 seeds play No. 15 seeds, etc.) to reward top teams with easy match-ups. (The term "seed" was originally used in tennis tournaments because top and bottom players would be "planted" into a bracket next to each other, like larger and smaller plants in a garden. Who knew?)

5) Do you have any easy advice for filling out brackets?

Yes. Filling out a bracket — for the uninitiated — means predicting the winner of each game in the entire tournament. Millions of people do it, either in office pools or in officially sanctioned competitions on sites like ESPN and CBS.

The best advice is simple: pick mostly favorites. Give yourself the best chance of winning by picking the higher-ranked teams (those with the lower numbers).

Admittedly, this isn't as fun as picking lots of upsets. But in most bracket pools, you're just rewarded for picking games correctly — not for taking risks and picking the lower seeds that do win. And as this excellent Washington Post analysis shows, the odds of the higher seed winning are almost always better. In the first few rounds, the only exception is that No. 9 seeds beat No. 8 seeds 52 percent of the time.

Of course, lots of upsets do happen every year: usually between 16 and 20, out of 63 total games. But research has shown they're too random for anyone — even experts — to predict at rates any better than chance. In the first round, for instance, there's a popular idea that No. 12 teams frequently upset No. 5 teams, but it still only happens 35 percent of the time — not enough to make a wager worthwhile.

One interesting note: it's essentially impossible to pick an entirely perfect bracket. Last year, Warren Buffett and Quicken Loans offered $1 billion to anyone who got their bracket perfect, but no one claimed it — because your odds of picking every single game correctly are somewhere between 1 in 5 billion and 1 in 135 billion.

6) What are some of the best teams this year?

kentucky basketball

Karl-Anthony Towns, one of Kentucky's best players, blocks a shot in the SEC championship game. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Kentucky is widely regarded as the best team right now, with an undefeated record and at least three players who will go high in the upcoming NBA draft. They've been a powerhouse for some time, and coach John Calipari led them to the championship in 2012.

Depending on whom you ask, the second-best could be Duke, Arizona, Wisconsin, or a number of other teams.

But the beauty of March Madness is that all of these teams could well lose before the Final Four, and a team no one is suspecting — say, NC State or Michigan State — could win it all. Last year, as the first team to ever make the final game as a No. 7 seed, UConn won the tournament.

7) How did March Madness get to be such a big deal?

wisconsin fans

Wisconsin fans during the 2014 tournament. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

For the first decade or so after it was created in 1939, the NCAA tournament was overshadowed by the older National Invitational Tournament, which still exists. But the NCAA tournament outstripped it in the 1950s, becoming the de facto championship tournament. During the '80s — as it grew to feature 64 teams — fans began calling it March Madness, a term previously used for various high school state basketball tournaments.

March Madness' popularity has skyrocketed since, partly because of some features that make it perfectly suited for the broader television-driven sports boom we've had over the past 30 or so years. The games are relatively short, compared with pro sports games, so intense endings make up a decent percentage of the gameplay. Because the games are played in different time zones across the country, CBS can fill a broad viewing window — from noon to well past midnight, Eastern time.

The large number of simultaneous games (in the early rounds) also means there's bound to be an exciting one on at any given time. To boost ratings, CBS began switching from game to game shortly after it took over broadcast rights in 1991, giving viewers the best one whenever possible. More recently, CBS has begun broadcasting games through Turner Sports (which owns TNT, TBS, and truTV) and streaming all games for free online, so viewers can simply choose the game they prefer.

The excitement of filling out brackets also plays a huge role in sucking people in. Gambling on sports is illegal in most states — and March Madness pools that you pay to enter are technically illegal, as well. But this law is seldom enforced, and official partners of the NCAA (like CBS) actually provide free software to run your own betting pool. An estimated 40 million people now fill out brackets, betting $9 billion in total.

One possible reason for this oversight is that the NCAA knows it makes money from these brackets. Like fantasy football, brackets provide a game within a game that gets people hooked. Even if your team loses, there's still your bracket to care about. CBS knows this, which is why it now shows the scores of all games at the top of the screen all the time.

8) How much money is everyone making off March Madness?

mark emmert

NCAA president Mark Emmert made a cool $1.7 million in 2012. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The athletes you watch play basketball are currently making zero dollars. Per NCAA rules, they're prohibited from making any money — apart from their scholarships, room, and board — in order to maintain their "amateur" status. There are also extremely tight restrictions on what sorts of work they can do during the offseason and what non-monetary benefits they can receive.

However, this will soon change slightly for some players. In January, colleges in the five so-called "power conferences" (basically, the big-time sports schools that already spend lots of money on athletics) voted to begin paying student-athletes an estimated $2,000 to $5,000 per year for incidentals — like, say, laundry or meals off campus — that aren't covered by traditional scholarships. This will start in August 2015.

Still, some athletes and advocates say this doesn't go far enough, considering that the NCAA makes about $831 million each year from selling TV rights to March Madness. Most of the money is paid out to the schools that play in the tournament. CBS, meanwhile, earned $1.15 billion in ad sales for the 2013 tournament (the last year for which data is available). Several pending lawsuits against the NCAA could change things and lead to players getting a bigger portion of the approximately $2 billion they generate.

9) How can I watch March Madness games?

The NCAA streams all games online and provides apps for mobile devices. They're also broadcast on CBS and TBS, with some early-round games on TNT and truTV.

The next two rounds are March 26 through 29, and the Final Four and championship are on April 4 and 6, respectively.