One of the primary challenges of studying abroad is understanding the cultural norms of your host country. These may involve culture, history, food, or even common sayings and phrases. There are things that natives take for granted, but may be confusing and bizarre from the outside. This knowledge is rarely taught past a certain point, leaving international students behind in some ways. This series aims to help students understand things that many Americans take for granted.

Over the last 30 years, the international popularity of the NBA has exploded. Starting with Magic, Larry Bird, and then explosively with Michael Jordan, that sport of basketball has grown all around the world. This has been heightened by megawatt stars like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, built up in Europe by sensations like Peja Stojakovic, Tony Parker, and Dirk Nowitzki, in South America by Nene and Manu Ginobli, and in China by the great Yao Ming. The NBA has embraced technology, and while it won’t rival football/soccer as a global sport, it can get right up there.

But while the NBA is wildly popular, there is still an aspect of basketball that is uniquely American, and that is about to start: the NCAA tournament, a three-week fiesta of college basketball, and something that nearly all of your American friends will be talking about. You might have already heard strange rumblings about “brackets” and “seedings”, and wondered why everyone was getting excited about a bunch of teenagers. You might even be feeling left out. No need to do so. Here’s a quick primer on the tournament- what you need to know, and say.


College basketball

You’re going to be seeing a lot of this over the next few weeks.
Image from

The role of college sports

The United States is one of the few countries that cares about college sports (although mostly just American football and basketball). Other nations tend to have amateur or semi-pro or minor leagues for their top athletes, but for the most part, the best U.S. kids play a few years in college before going pro (there is controversy about whether they should have to go to college, but for this article we’ll just go with the status quo). College sports are a big part of life on campus: people get excited about the games and identify with the teams. This is a lifelong connection, for the most part, and so there is an enormous market for college sports in this country.

The excitement of the tournament

The tournament has 64 teams, in a bracket that looks like the one below.  They are seeded by a number of factors, decided during the regular season, with the 1 seed being the best, and so on. The 1-seed plays the 16-seed, 2-seed plays 15, etc. It gets whittled down until the Final Four, then the championship game. It is like the elimination rounds of the World Cup, except without any preliminaries.

empty NCAA bracket

Everyone is going to fill this out, and everyone is going to be wrong.
Image from

63 of these teams will lose. Every single game means someone is going home, and someone is advancing. The first four days of the tournament, next Thursday to Sunday, will eliminate all but 16 teams. There is pretty much constant basketball, on every TV, which makes for a thrilling, exciting few days.

Brackets- why the tournament is fun even if you don’t care.

Almost everyone you know will have one of these brackets. People love to fill them out and make friendly wagers on them. It is fun- for a few days everyone cares about teams they don’t care about. It makes the games exciting. You look at your bracket and see that you picked State to beat Tech: you had never heard of these teams before, and now you are rooting for State with everything you have, often with a group of strangers. It’s great for bonding.

You don’t have to know anything about the teams

Like I said, there are so many people who get excited by this, and most of them hadn’t watched one minute of basketball all year. But you don’t need to know much. As long as you are reasonable, you have a reasonable shot at winning your bracket.  Here’s a few key things to know and to say to fake knowledge (and trust me: everyone fakes knowledge about this. It’s wildly unpredictable, and even the “experts” are just guessing. That’s part of the fun.)

A #5-seed always loses to a #12. This seems to happen every year.  The 5th seed is probably a little overrated, and the 12-seed comes from a conference that people don’t pay much attention to, but they are still really good. Pick at least one 5-seed to lose. And make sure you tell people that when you fill out your bracket. “Who has the curse of the 5?” is something you might say to fake knowledge.

There’s no such thing as a mid-major. There are the so-called “Major conferences” with the big schools, and the “mid-majors”, smaller schools with less-talented players. The mids used to be lambs to the majors, but not anymore. A key thing to say here is “After Gonzaga, Butler, and now Witchita State, the myth of the weak mid-major is over.” You’ll sound knowledgable.

My favorite part of the tournament is when Duke loses! Duke is the Manchester United of college basketball. They’re always good, and everyone hates them. If you say this, 90% of the people gathered around will agree with you.

You never know what will happen

At the end of the tournament, you usually have the best teams still in it, with a few huge upsets along the way. But no one’s bracket is still healthy. No one ever has a perfect bracket. To have one is so unlikely, Warren Buffett offered one billion dollars to anyone who could do so, knowing it is impossible.  And that’s the fun of it. Everyone laughs about how badly their brackets performed.

But that’s what makes it entertaining. There is the magic of a team you had never heard of going all the way, knocking off every David, like the magical Butler run in 2010. A small school from Indianapolis, they beat top team after top team in a series of improbable and stirring upsets, to reach the championship game, and had a chance to win at the last second, as a half-court shot floated toward the hoop as the buzzer sounded, hit the rim…and bounced away. The glory and the heartbreak of sports, everything was captured right at that moment. That’s the NCAA tournament, and that’s what everyone loves.

And of course, the team they lost to was Duke.


The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.