Picking the winner of the NCAA Tournament is not easy, but every year, people think they got it right.
The 2021 NCAA men’s basketball tournament is over, but March Madness definitely renewed its hold over sports fans.
It was the first tournament in a year, as the 2020 tournament was canceled due to COVID-19, and the first time sports wagering on games was legal in Michigan.
Though online sports gambling has only been legal in Michigan since January, the March Madness bracket challenge via ESPN, CBS and others has been a popular form of sports gaming since the tournament-style postseason began. The American Gaming Association estimates that 40 million Americans take part in the bracket challenge annually, with 70 million brackets filled out in total.
For that reason, the bracket challenge can be seen as a gateway into the rest of the sports gambling world. Dae Hee Kwak, the director for the Center of Sports Marketing Research at the University of Michigan, explained how bracketology is a form of gambling.
“You can start off with March Madness where there’s a lot of uncertainty going on,” Kwak said. “You don’t have to be super knowledgable about basketball, but you can still participate in the pool. I think brackets, along with the betting component, is one of the major draws.”
Creating groups to compete with friends and family in the bracket challenge is a tradition for people like Liz Cook, a junior at the University of Michigan and lifelong fan of the Wolverines.
“It’s fun to compete with my friends, especially those who don’t know much about basketball,” Cook said. “They learn a lot when following the tournament closely.”
The state of Michigan has been well-represented in the tournament, with two familiar faces in the pool: the Michigan State and Michigan.
The Spartans snuck into the tournament by beating three AP top-five teams in the final two weeks of the regular season, after many counted MSU out in mid-February due to some mediocre-at-best wins and embarrassing losses. The Spartans entered the tournament as a No. 11 seed and faced the UCLA Bruins in a First Four matchup, meaning the winner would advance to play the No. 6 seed BYU Cougars in the Round of 64.
Spartan fans could only watch as their team was eliminated in overtime, 86-80. UCLA advanced, and later defeated Michigan in the Elite Eight.
For the Michigan State fan base -- one that is used to expecting so much more with four Final Four appearances in the last 10 tournaments -- the loss was quite a letdown.
“Definitely a tough loss,” said Michigan State senior and fan Andrew Herner. “We are a spoiled fan base a little bit, so it’s a little disappointing… With the strength of the Big Ten this season, I felt the Spartans were battle-tested and Izzo would have them ready.”
Despite the loss, Izzo extended his tournament qualification streak to 23 seasons in a row. With the Duke Blue Devils missing the cut this season, the Spartans’ mark became the second-longest active streak behind the Kansas Jayhawks (30 seasons). For some fans, after a season full of ups, downs and uncertainty, that was the silver lining.
“It was nice to see,” Herner said. “I thought the Spartans were a good enough team to get in. Izzo always has his teams ready to make a run, it seems. It was nice to see him keep the streak alive.”
The Wolverines, on the other hand, were a consensus top team all season long and entered the tournament as one of four No. 1 seeds.. According to ESPN, 7.8% of brackets had the Wolverines winning it all.
“Since I only have one bracket, I picked the Wolverines not only because they’re my favorite team,” Cook said, “but also because I think this team has the talent and spirit to win every game it plays in this tournament.”
Aside from Michigan, the Big Ten conference really struggled in the tournament. Second-seeded Ohio State and No. 4 seed Purdue were both upset in the first-round. Top-seeded Illinois and No. 2 seed Iowa lost in the second round.
“The conferences are judged by non-conference games, which the Big Ten did well in,” Cook said. “But there were a lot less games because of COVID-19, so it wasn’t the best indicator of team strength overall.”
With the national championship game coming up on April 5, the bracket challenge is shaping up for a tight finish. Undefeated Gonzaga, which is in the Final Four, hold the best odds to win it all at +150. According to ESPN, they’re also the most popular choice, with 35% of brackets crowning the Bulldogs.