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Get your bracket cards ready — March Madness tips off today

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Let the games begin. The NCAA's men's basketball tipped off today, launching the tournament. And tomorrow, the women take the court. Every year, millions of Americans fill out brackets, trying various strategies to predict which college team will make it into the Final Four. Well, Nicole Auerbach, a senior writer with The Athletic, and she's covering round one in Greensboro, N.C., but took a pause to give us a little tip sheet.

Hey, Nicole.

NICOLE AUERBACH: Hey, thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: Starting with the men, of the teams right now in the tournament, which ones are you keeping a really close eye on in these early days?

AUERBACH: Well, I hate to go too chalky here, but you really do need to start with the 1s and the 2 seeds. I mean, Alabama is the No. 1 overall seed. They have been in the news for off-the-court reasons and on-the-court reasons over the last few weeks. And they are as hot as anybody in the country. I also really like Marquette, they're a 2 seed, fresh off of Big East championship and Conference Tournament championship. I think Kansas is an intriguing team trying to go back-to-back with Bill Self. The last region is the one I think could be the most interesting. You've got Houston trying to make a Final Four in their hometown, but also an Indiana team that I think has two pros and has potential to go the furthest of any Big Ten team this season.

SHAPIRO: And the women's tournament kicks off tomorrow. Dawn Staley and South Carolina were heavy favorites last year. Which teams do you think threaten their back-to-back championships?

AUERBACH: Can I say no one? And I mean that...

SHAPIRO: Sure.

AUERBACH: ...In a joking way. It's just this is going to be one of those tournaments where it is South Carolina versus the field. And you have really intriguing teams like Iowa, Stanford, Indiana again, on the women's side. UConn is getting healthy at the right time. Virginia Tech has Liz Kitley. They've been really fun to watch. But it really does feel like the only team that can beat South Carolina is South Carolina. They're undefeated this year. They're trying to go back-to-back, and it just feels like this is Dawn Staley's world, and we're living in it.

SHAPIRO: OK, taking a step back, both - either gender, Americans love an underdog. If somebody's going to surprise us, who would you be unsurprised at being surprised by?

AUERBACH: Well, I'm going to pick a team that's at my site here in Greensboro, and it's Kennesaw State. They are delightful. They are fun. They are loose. And they won one game in the whole season three years ago. And now they're in the NCAA tournament. They've got Xavier in the first round here in a 3-seed-versus-a-14-seed matchup. And we've seen upsets from 14 seeds before. Listen, I just got to tell you, there's a vibe around this team. It just has all of the pieces of the type of team that we are going to see pull off an upset and then fall in love with.

SHAPIRO: So I was shocked to see this statistic that, according to the American Gaming Association, one quarter of American adults wager on March Madness. That's about 18 million more folks than bet on the Super Bowl. What do you think it is about this tournament that spurs so much excitement?

AUERBACH: I think it's because everyone understands the concept of a bracket. Like, we make brackets for all sorts of activities that we do - our favorite movies, characters. Like, I've been in a best-dressed bracket. I mean, there are a lot of different fun ways to think about data, and we think about it in a bracket form. So I think it's just very relatable and easy to consume. Plus, you have kids who can fill these out based on the mascots that they like or the team's colors. That doesn't surprise me. It really is unlike anything else, except maybe the Super Bowl, where it just becomes such a cultural phenomenon. And you can access it as a 5-year-old or as an 85-year-old.

SHAPIRO: OK. Who's in your Final Four?

AUERBACH: OK. So on the men's side, it is Alabama, Indiana, Marquette and Kansas. On the women's side, South Carolina, Iowa, Indiana and UConn. So UConn would be in the Final Four for the 15th consecutive year, which is just mind-boggling.

SHAPIRO: Nicole Auerbach, senior writer with The Athletic. Thanks so much.

AUERBACH: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.