March Madness gets a charge from its immediacy. The NCAA basketball tournament, now rounding through the second of three weekends, is a single-elimination event, so every game means everything. A win signals survival—for a few more days—and a loss brings the end not only of a season but also of certain college careers. The stakes couldn’t be higher, nor could the outcomes be starker.
So that’s one reason to watch: to pin your hopes to a favorite team or a labored-over bracket and wish for the best. The tournament holds a secondary appeal, though, for fans with an eye to the longer-term: It shepherds future NBA draftees into the national spotlight. Since the league instituted a rule in 2005 raising its minimum age threshold to 19, almost every big-name American prospect spends at least a year in the college ranks. March doesn’t mean all that much, generally, to their ultimate outlook—professional scouts have pored over countless hours of game film by the time the tournament comes around—but it gives the larger public an introduction. It’s essentially a crash course in the stars to come.
This March’s crop of talent is better than most. Notably absent is Markelle Fultz, a dynamo point guard for the University of Washington and the presumptive first overall pick in the upcoming draft; his team failed to land a Madness invite. But the other principals of what has been called one of the best and deepest NBA draft classes in recent memory have been out in force. Arizona's 7-foot, sweet-shooting center Lauri Markkanen spent his first weekend on the national stage draining three-pointers before the Wildcats lost to Xavier Thursday night. Kansas’s versatile Josh Jackson has blocked shots, thrown down dunks, and sent deft passes to every corner of the court. Even as the heavily favored Duke fell to South Carolina in the second round, its freshman star Jayson Tatum scored 15 points and held onto his can’t-miss status; he officially declared for the draft days later.