It's hard for Americans to feel like underdogs these days. We seem normal size in our own skins, but to the rest of the world, we've become a nation of supersizing, regime-changing, SUV-driving Goliaths. This may be why the NCAA men's basketball tournament—where little mutts like geographically confused Cleveland State and it-can't-possibly-have-a-team Oral Roberts run with purebreds Duke and UCLA—grows in meaning every year. It may also be the gambling, the guilt-free jalapeño-popper binges or the camaraderie born when three-quarters of the workforce enters a two-hour conspiracy to disappear.
But back to the Goliath thing. The Sunday before the tournament begins, all the contenders are ranked from 1 (the awesomest of the awesome) to 16 (the meekest of the meek) in each of four regional groups. Then 16 plays 1 and 15 battles 2 and so forth in a three-week single-elimination march to the championship. No sporting event is as elegantly constructed or as essentially American. There are the massing of schools rich and poor, public and private; the opportunity for all to face off neutrally; and the assignment of an indisputable qualitative value. That last element, the seedings, may seem like cruel status reinforcement, but when an upset happens—and upsets always happen—its magnitude can be assessed with statistical clarity, so that we know just how far the mighty have fallen and how high the mutts have leaped.
The best action in the tournament is concentrated into the first four days, when 64 schools get whittled down to 16. For basketball fans, there is the orgy of games, with starting times carefully choreographed so that each ends a few minutes apart, allowing CBS to show every buzzer beater or near miss. (It's the least the network could expect for the $6 billion it has ponied up to broadcast the event for just over a decade.) But for secular audiences, those first few days are also when March Madness is at its maddest, when little schools get their one shot at Goliath. Most will miss, but a few will stun the odds and themselves and in their ragged glory remind us of just how satisfying it can be to hold a slingshot.