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Fans are pumped for the first round of the men's NCAA basketball tournament


OK, so the NCAA tournament has been going on a couple of days with the preliminary play-in games, but the big show starts today - first round of the Division 1 men's tournament. That's when Davids sling their stones at Goliaths and everything else in between happens. And the women's big show gets started tomorrow. Joining us now is NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Tom, all right, we'll get to the actual basketball in just a minute. First, I think we got to recognize that while the coronavirus is still with us, this year's tournament almost feels post-pandemic. How so?

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Yeah. Well, fans are back in full force, A. Cheerleaders and bands are back, too. That's very important. They were both missing last year. There will be games throughout the country. Last season, of course, the men played only in Indiana, the women in Texas, to reduce COVID risk. Some arenas will require masks and proof of vaccination. It depends on local laws. But compared to last season's restrictions and the year before when there weren't any tournaments, this one definitely will seem more normal.

MARTÍNEZ: In recent years, come March Madness time, we've heard a lot of criticism about how it's the event itself that makes a ton of money - none of that money going to the athletes, who make it all possible. But that's different now.

GOLDMAN: It sure is, and it's a sea change. You know, we're now in the era of NIL, where athletes, men and women, can get compensated for the use of their name, image and likeness. So now, if a player has a great tournament, a mechanism is in place for that player to possibly take advantage financially. And it's long overdue.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Now, also, last year, we heard a lot about gender equity. And I'm thinking back to that viral video a female player made showing a really paltry weight room at a tournament site for the women. What has happened since?

GOLDMAN: Right. Yeah. You know, there have been changes. For the first time, the women's tournament has expanded to 68 teams, like the men. Also, the women are now being allowed to use March Madness branding, which they haven't in the past. We'll see that showing up actually on courts in later rounds. Other improvements are in the works, but there's still concern. In fact, this week, three U.S. lawmakers sent a letter to NCAA President Mark Emmert saying there has been inadequate progress on male and female inequities in all of NCAA sport. So you're going to see these issues continue.

MARTÍNEZ: Now to the hardwood on the men's side. What should we focus on?

GOLDMAN: You've got your four No. 1 seeds - Kansas, Arizona, Gonzaga, Baylor. Of course, those last two played for the championship last year. Baylor won. You know, A, the seedings mean something. Over the past 20 years, No. 1 seeds have won 68% of the time. But obviously, it's not a lock. There are strong No. 2 seeds this year, like Duke and Kentucky. They're back after both missing the tournament last year for the first time since 1976.

You know, and there are so many great players with interesting stories. I will pick one, which is totally unfair - a 6'7'' guard from South Korea. Hyun-jung Lee plays for Davidson, the school most famous for Steph Curry, now of Golden State Warriors fame. Like Curry, Lee is a great three-point shooter. He's really - a really good all-around player, hugely popular in his native country. And it shows, yet again, basketball's global spread.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, what about on the women's side?

GOLDMAN: You know, even though the field expanded to 68 teams, there's still not as much depth in the women's game. So you should see the power teams moving on, you know, well into the tournament. The No. 1 seeds are South Carolina, defending champ Stanford, North Carolina State, Louisville. You will notice perennial power UConn is not in that group. The Huskies had a down year for them, largely because their best player, Paige Bueckers, was out with an injury for a long time. She's back - UConn looking a lot better of late. But, you know, it's a vulnerable team, and the Huskies could fall short of another title.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Tom, thanks a lot.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Tom Goldman
Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.

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