If you come to study in the U.S., you’ll find that this is the time of year when college students — and much of the rest of the country — becomes obsessed with March Madness, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I Basketball Championship. It lasts from mid-March to early April.

Internet speeds slow during March Madness because so many people are watching games online. Advertising revenues for televised games ran to $1.15 billion in a recent year.

The answers to the following questions will help you make sense of this peculiarly American event. And next year, when you’re on a U.S. campus, you just might be screaming yourself hoarse cheering for your team.

Two collegiate athletes playing basketball while teammates spectate court side (© AP Images)
University of Maryland secured its place in 2015’s March Madness tournament when it beat Ohio State. (© AP Images)

Why is it so popular?

People in the U.S. are incredibly loyal to their colleges and universities. Whether someone started at a school two months ago or graduated 30 years ago, a fan is likely to think his or her school’s team is the best and deserves to win it all.

And even if fans’ teams don’t make the tournament, they’ll still watch. Why? They’re drawn to the fact that college players aren’t playing for money like professional athletes, but for their schools and for the love of the game.

It’s exciting. Compared to professional basketball, college playoff games are fewer, the stakes are higher, and they take place over a much shorter period of time.

Who gets to play?

More than 300 college teams play in NCAA Division 1. On “Selection Sunday” — March 13 this year — a committee announces the 68 teams that will compete in the men’s bracket, a tree diagram of the tournament games. (Eight teams play in preliminary matches for four slots in the final 64.) Another committee announces the 64 teams that will compete in the women’s bracket.

In each case, 32 teams are chosen because they have won their respective conference championships. (A conference is a roughly geographic grouping of colleges.) The selection committee chooses the remaining teams based on their season records and the difficulty of their schedules, then divides the brackets into four regions.

The top teams in each region are given the rank of “first seed,” the next four “second seed,” and so on. In the first round of the tournament, a first-seed team plays a 16th-seed team and a second-seed team plays a 15th-seed team. In other words, the best teams play the weakest teams. Teams in the middle will be more evenly matched during the early games of the tournament.

Basketball player cutting basketball net from rim (© AP Images)
The victorious team traditionally cuts down the net, as in this 2015 conference playoff final. (© AP Images)

Who’s likely to win?

This is the second part of why March Madness is so popular: Nobody knows for sure.

This spring’s top-ranked men’s teams — the University of Kansas, Michigan State and Villanova University — are familiar contenders, all with winning basketball histories. But part of the thrill of March Madness is the emergence of the Cinderellas, underdogs with little history of basketball dominance who win against teams that fans considered invincible.

In 2013, the men’s team from Florida Gulf Coast University — only a decade old and seeded 15th in its region — advanced to play among the last 16 teams in the tournament by beating second-seed Georgetown University. This year, men’s teams such as the Austin Peay Governors, Southern University Jaguars and the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders are underdogs, teams that might just do well in March Madness and be called “bracket busters.”

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