TIME psychology

NCAA Championship: How Evenly Matched Teams Make Us More Defensive

Florida v UConn
Ronald Martinez—Getty Images Shabazz Napier of the Connecticut Huskies reacts during the NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal against the Florida Gators at AT&T Stadium on April 5, 2014 in Arlington, Texas.

There's no underdog between eighth-seeded Kentucky and seventh-seeded UConn, which makes players and fans feel more entitled to a win. To fans of whichever team loses: Brace yourselves for some serious mental gymnastics

Going by their track records, tonight’s NCAA playoff, a pretty close match, could be a nail-biter. Connecticut is seeded seventh, while Kentucky is eighth. Connecticut has won each of the three previous times it reached the championship game, while Kentucky has the winningest record in NCAA basketball. On any given day, either team could take the championship.

PHOTOS: Moments of Madness: Weird Photos From the NCAA Tournament

In an evenly matched game like tonight, luck likely won’t be part of the winning narrative. In such compatible games, fans and players alike tend to focus more on skills and ability when it comes to explaining the final score, says Ed Hirt, professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University — and not the lucky three-pointers, impossible cross-court shots, or questionable calls by a referee that can shift the momentum of a game from one team to another. That’s because both teams in tonight’s championship have a strong sense of entitlement and confidence in their ability to prevail. So they’ll talk mostly about what they brought to the victory: determination, dedication, and, in the case of Kentucky, perseverance after a shaky start to the season.

MORE: 11 Players You Need to Watch in the NCAA Tournament

For fans of tonight’s losing team, there will still be some mental gymnastics to perform in order to accept the defeat. Psychologists call it “social creativity,” the process by which the vanquished try to make sense of the loss in light of the fact that they had the skills and ability to win. So they focus on the positive: we came further than we thought we would in the tournament, we came in second to all the teams in the NCAA, and we pulled through some tough games to make it this far.

That’s not the case when it comes to less balanced contests — when an underdog challenges an established powerhouse — and wins. In such Cinderella stories, the downside can be that a lower-ranked team doesn’t get as much credit for the victory. “In those situations, it’s more easy to be dismissive of the underdog victor playing well and attribute the cause to the favorite choking or playing poorly,” says Hirt. Take the run that University of Dayton had into the Sweet 16. Having polished off higher-ranked Ohio State, Dayton survived elimination when a last-minute three-pointer by Syracuse failed to find the basket. Post-game conclusion, even by Dayton coach Archie Miller? “Fortunately tonight, [Syracuse] didn’t hit some shots that they probably normally hit,” he told to USA Today. “The defense was great, but you also could play them 10 times, and I don’t think that some of those shots would be missed. So a little bit of luck is on your head.”

“It really is in the eye of the beholder, and that’s why people will have totally different perceptions of the same game,” says Hirt. If Connecticut loses, those fans will have their relatively new coach, and their lower expectations coming into the season, as fodder for creative interpretations of a loss. If Kentucky loses, there was the challenge of quickly melding a group of strangers into a winning athletic unit.

And if the outcome is close? That’s when all that rational focus on skills and effort and heart gets distracted by the drama of the moment and you might start to hear something about luck – if only the referee hadn’t made the charging call; if only the rimmed throw had gone in. Fans can be so fickle.

TIME NCAA Tournament

Moments of Madness: Weird Photos From the NCAA Tournament

College basketball's chaotic tournament produces some strange moments. These are 10 of the best

TIME Business of Sports

Why Las Vegas Loves March Madness Way More Than the Super Bowl

Harvardís Steve Moundou-Missi dunks against Cincinnati in the second half during the second-round of the NCAA men's college basketball tournament in Spokane, Wash., March 20, 2014.
Young Kwak—AP Harvardís Steve Moundou-Missi dunks against Cincinnati in the second half during the second-round of the NCAA men's college basketball tournament in Spokane, Wash., March 20, 2014.

The NCAA tournament is a bonanza for America's gambling capital. Here are five reasons why March Madness is especially crazy in Sin City

The Super Bowl is an undeniably huge day for wagering in Las Vegas. But it’s just a single game, on a single day. March Madness, on the other hand, features dozens of games spread over several weeks.

Here are a few reasons why pretty much every business in Las Vegas gets extra excited when NCAA men’s basketball tournament time rolls each year:

Hotels are absolutely jammed. According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, during the first weekend of March Madness in 2013, Sin City hotels were 97.7% full. Hotel occupancy stood at a mere 86% for the 2014 Super Bowl, by contrast.

The Madness woos record-setting crowds. Thanks largely to the NCAA basketball tournament, 3.54 million visitors hit Vegas in March 2013, the best month ever. That record is expected to be broken this March in Las Vegas.

Fans fork over big bucks. At the ultra-high-end sports bar Lagasse’s Stadium at the Palazzo, patrons pay $300 for a day’s worth of food, booze, and game watching, and hundreds of fans reserve their spots months in advance. That’s actually cheap compared to a viewing-dining-drinking package at Carmine’s inside Caesars Palace, highlighted recently by Vegas Chatter. The package includes “TVs, video games, comfy recliners, and a beer pong table,” as well as an “all day feast of family style Italian favorites,” all for a mere … $50,000. The price covers 25 people, so $2K per person.

(MORE: Thanks to March Madness, It’s an Amazingly Awesome Week to Be Selling Pizza, Beer, and Wings)

There are a bajillion bets to be made. The Super Bowl is one game. Sure, there are dozens of prop bets related to the game every year—like whether or not Beyonce would show cleavage during her 2013 halftime performance—but the dozens and dozens of matchups in March Madness brackets bring with them an enormous multitude of betting scenarios. Beyond picking winners, over-unders, and whatnot, this year’s tournament also comes with its own share of prop bets, including the largest margin of victory by any team in round one (32.5 points) and how many game-winning buzzer beaters there will be.

How much is bet on March Madness in Las Vegas? Estimates are all over the map, but they’re all big. A Dallas Morning News story offered numbers ranging from $90 million to $227 million wagered in Vegas last year on the tournament. MGM Resorts International executive Jay Rood told the Review-Journal that Vegas sports books would take in $200 million in bets just during the first four days of 2014 tournament. “You have four mini-Super Bowls,” he said.

It’s spread over a long time period. Again, the Super Bowl is one game, played on a single day. Tourists who want to experience the Super Bowl in Vegas may make a weekend of it, but visitors hitting the city for March Madness are far more likely to come and experience four days’ worth of games this weekend. Next weekend, more visitors are likely to do the same. And there’s still one more weekend after that for the tournament, when the final four of “March Madness” will actually take place in early April. They all represent huge influxes of crowds eager to meet up with college buddies, gamble, eat, drink, and, oh yeah, watch some basketball.

(MORE: 5 Research-Backed Ways to Improve Your March Madness Brackets)

Given all the attention—and money—drawn to Vegas for the tournament, it’s understandable that some others want in on the action. Like folks in New Jersey. A group of state lawmakers just so happens to be using the tipoff of March Madness 2014 as the moment to argue that Atlantic City should be allowed to offer sports betting.

“They have it in Vegas and the rooms are overbooked,” Senate President Steve Sweeney said recently near the Atlantic City boardwalk, per the Philadelphia Inquirer. “It’s a $12 billion a year underground industry. Much of it is done illegally. Let’s legalize it.”

TIME College Basketball

March Madness Begins with a Bang: Comebacks, Upsets and Buzzer Beaters

Aaron Craft of the Ohio State Buckeyes reacts after losing to the Dayton Flyers 60-59 in the second round of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the First Niagara Center on March 20, 2014 in Buffalo, N.Y.
Jared Wickerham—Getty Images Aaron Craft of the Ohio State Buckeyes reacts after losing to the Dayton Flyers 60-59 in the second round of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the First Niagara Center on March 20, 2014 in Buffalo, N.Y.

The first full day of the 2014 NCAA college basketball tournament brought enough comebacks and buzzer beaters to satisfy big-time basketball fans. But it's the upsets that ultimately prove anything can happen

On paper, the 2014 NCAA tournament featured a tough field and no shortage of story lines for basketball fans—Wichita State went into the tournament undefeated at 34-0, Florida was a favorite in many pools, a surging Louisville looked to defend its title from a tough draw and a No. 4 seed. But when it comes to the opening rounds of March Madness, anything is possible, and the tournament’s first full day didn’t disappoint.

Thursday brought enough comebacks, buzzer beaters and upsets to satisfy big-time basketball fans. A scrappy North Dakota State Bison squad played neck and neck with No. 5 seed Oklahoma, taking the Sooners into overtime, and ultimately shocking Oklahoma 80-75. Junior guard Lawrence Alexander scored 28 points to help the Bison to their first NCAA tournament win.

In another upset, Ivy League champion Harvard, playing as a No. 12 seed, took down No. 5 seed Cincinnati 61-57. Harvard never trailed after the game’s opening moments, and played tough down the line to earn a victory in two consecutive NCAA tournaments. Last year, Harvard, playing as a No. 14 seed, upset New Mexico.

But the opening round can’t be kind to every would-be Cinderella team. N0. 4 seed Louisville squeaked past Manhattan 71-64, after the defending national champs were down by three points with less than four minutes remaining in the game. Later, No. 5 seed St. Louis rallied from a 14-point deficit to come back and beat North Carolina State in overtime.

And then there was the buzzer-beater. After a missed three pointer with time expiring, Texas needed a last-second layup to put Arizona State out of the tournament.

Day 1 also saw strong teams taking care of business: No. 1 seed Florida handled Albany 67-55 and No. 2 seed Michigan had little trouble dispatching Wofford 57-40. The other half of the field takes to the court on Friday to close out the opening round of what has already been an exciting start to March Madness.

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