There's a method to this year's March Madness, and it's based on the number four. The Final Four in Houston will be bookended by the First Four in Dayton, Ohio, an offshoot of the NCAA tournament's expansion to a record 68-team field. And the whole extravaganza will air on four networks. CBS, in its 30th year broadcasting college basketball's premier event, will join forces with Turner Sports on three cable networks — TBS, TNT and truTV — as part of a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal. Here's what to watch for.
Tip-off to buzzer Each of the 67 games will be shown in its entirety for the first time in the tournament's 73-year history, thanks to staggered starts at least 30 minutes apart. But that doesn't mean fans can't still bounce from game to game, as CBS used to do with live look-ins. "The viewer is now the producer in terms of what games he wants to watch," says CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus. A graphic on the screen will give the scores of other games happening at the same time, as well as their networks. Announcers also will alert fans to more exciting games. "People just need to do a little bit of homework, before the tournament starts, on their remote control — find out what channels truTV and TBS and TNT are on," says Turner analyst Steve Kerr, who will join CBS' Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg courtside for the Final Four and championship game (April 2 and 4).
Don't call them play-ins It all starts with the First Four, the accepted lingo for the Tuesday and Wednesday games that open the tournament. The last four automatic qualifiers (champions from some of the smaller conferences) will vie for two spots as No. 16 seeds, while the last four at-large selections will play to fill two higher seeds, likely a No. 11 or No. 12. The at-large matchups feature nationally known programs that would have been shut out in previous years. "It's going to create a little bit more of a buzz and some more excitement," says CBS studio analyst Greg Anthony. Considering the surprising Butler Bulldogs were one possession away from winning the national championship last year and with "no truly dominant teams this year," Anthony says, "There's just so much more parity in college basketball. You're going to have so many more teams with a legit chance to win it."
Jimmer jam A sharp-shooting senior from Brigham Young has become not only a household name but also a verb: When Jimmer Fredette, the nation's top scorer and a leading candidate for Player of the Year, poured in 47 points against Utah and 43 against rival San Diego State, they got "Jimmered." "Jimmer's a cult hero," says Kellogg. "He's like a Rick Mount or a Pete Maravich who shoots it from way beyond the 3-point line." And, he adds, "He's the kind of guy who seems to perform his best when the stakes are highest." But Fredette is quick to point out, "It's not just a one-man show. It's a real team thing, and I think that's why we're as good as we are." One day after reaching the No. 3 ranking, BYU dismissed starting forward Brandon Davies from the team for reportedly having premarital sex, a violation of the Mormon school's honor code. That could shift even more of the load onto Fredette if the Cougars are to remain contenders. "The game plan for a lot of different teams is to be as physical as they can with me, maybe try to get into my head a little bit," he says. Good luck with that. Fredette, who has played in informal games against prison
inmates, isn't easily intimidated. "He's fearless," Kerr says. "Every time he steps on the floor, you're definitely anticipating something great."
Houston or bust Defending champion Duke, Ohio State, Kansas, Texas, Pittsburgh and Purdue from the "power six" conferences are considered Final Four favorites. The Buckeyes, who grabbed the No. 1 ranking in January, have a freshman phenom in Jared Sullinger, but Kellogg cautions that foul trouble could be an issue. "He is an absolute monster in the low post because he can score, he can make free throws, and he can pass out of double teams," Kellogg says. "But if he's on the bench, then Ohio State is drastically different."
The glass slipper George Mason, which barreled into the Final Four in 2006, Xavier and Oakland (Michigan) are among the top teams from so-called "mid-major" conferences, although a Cinderella team could also come from a power conference. St. John's, North Carolina and Kansas State are considered "sleepers" because they gained traction later in the season. "It's about momentum and talent coming together," Kerr says. "The door is wide open. Somebody may just jump out of the woodwork and surprise all of us."
Loss of productivity More games mean a greater distraction for the nation's workforce. "The tournament is great for the basketball fan and not great for the U.S. economy, especially on that first Thursday or Friday, but we've accepted our guilt," McManus says, tongue-in-cheek. Yet the effect is temporary and, he says, "a pretty good exchange for the excitement that people get out of the NCAA tournament."