Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Idiot’s Guide to Bracketology

Have you ever, in your personal history of March Madness, thought to yourself after filling out your bracket, "Wow, I NAILED it this year!"

--- *crickets* *crickets* ---

Part of the fun in filling out a bracket for the NCAA Division 1 Basketball Championship tournament are the overwhelming feelings of excitement, mystery and utter helplessness while painstakingly trying to pick an entire playoff outcome from start to finish.

It makes no sense and its not even logical -- what we do with brackets and office pools -- because unpredictability is intrinsic to sports and most games in that the result is isn't predetermined (unless you're points shaving at Auburn).

Sure, you can make a failed attempt at watching every single Division I basketball game during the regular season and you probably still won't get it right, at least not all of it.

I've been filling out brackets since I was in high school. I never entered a pool until I was a few years out of college, so for many years, I was filling out brackets for the sheer fun of it and the thrill of being right!

I have participated in March Madness pools for only the last few years and I'm happy to say I won it all last season. In a pool of 130 people, most of whom are ESPN employees living in Bristol, CT., I was somehow the only person to pick UConn as the National Champion.

Did I have any "inside information?" No. Did I know something other people didn't? Certainly not. All I knew was the feeling I had filling out the bracket, round after round, which was that I couldn't envision Kemba Walker and the Huskies losing to each pick I had selected as their opponent. Plus, the last time I picked UConn to win it all in my bracket, Emeka Okafor and friends made it happen in 2004. At the end of the day, I knew the team was talented and I got damn lucky.

Luck and superstition play a big part for most fans who fill out brackets. Sure, there are some people who choose at random, or pick winners based on team colors or mascots. Then there are others who read up on every team, study Bracketology and its pundits like its a final exam. Because there are so many variables in sports (record, injury, eligibility, rivalry, travel time, partying players, etc) I usually find myself in the middle of that spectrum.

Here's my ritual for filling out a bracket:

1) Watch as many games as possible during Conference Championship weekend.
2) Watch the "Selection Sunday" show for picks and analysis.
3) Sleep on it… I don't touch my bracket on Sunday.
4) Monday morning, I read the LA Times tourney preview. Yes, the actual newspaper hard copy, not online. The preview gives statistics and nuggets about each team which can help get a feel for good vs. bad match ups.
5) Fill out my brackets at some point before the first play-in game.
6) Cross out the wrong picks on my bracket using a nice, bright red pen to help me keep track of my picks visually. This can either boost your self-esteem or bust it, but it's pretty fun to "grade" your paper, Elementary School-style.

Some rules I live by when filling out brackets:

Go With What You Know: As an Arizona Alum, I watch a lot of Pac 12 basketball which typically helps me when I make picks. Unfortunately for me, the Pac is poorly represented this year (and deservedly so) with only two teams heading to the Big Dance, so my season-long research there is basically going to waste. BUT, I did watch the Pac 12 tournament and watch the Colorado Buffaloes play impressive basketball en route to the conference championship. You'd better believe I'm going to pick Colorado to win a few games (depending on each matchup, of course). I've also seen plenty of Long Beach St. this year, so I'll likely pick them as a possible "Cinderella" as a 12-seed.

Speaking of Cinderellas and the 12-seed, that leads me to our next rule…

Pick Your Upsets Wisely: George Mason, VCU, Saint Mary's, and Butler. Sure, each team played the role of Cinderella recently making for great memories but low-seed tourney streaks are rare and as demonstrated by the list above, almost NEVER result in a National Championship.

Remember when 15-seed Hampton beat 2-seed Iowa State several years ago? Well, like a total dumbo, I took an anomaly and used it as a reason to continuously pick a 2/15 upset every year for the following five seasons (in hopes of getting major bragging rights in the event I struck gold with an upset that big). Is it possible? Of course. Some are even picking Detroit to upend Kansas in this year's tourney. But randomly picking a 2/15 upset isn't a great idea. It took me a while, but I learned my lesson. Just the same, history tells is there is almost ALWAYS a 5/12 upset at least once every tournament.

To me, this is the most fun match up to pick since you know you have at least a 1-4 chance of being right if you pick any one of those 12-seeds over the 5-seed. I'm definitely taking Long Beach St. over New Mexico this year.

In general, I tend to pick too many upsets. Yes, the underdog factor is the best part of this tournament, but lower seeds can't win 'em all, so choose your upsets sparingly.

Team Over Player: In a regular season game, it's safe to pick a team with a star player. With coaches always scouting and studying for the "next" team on the schedule, I think star players can will their teams to victory over what might be a better all-around team. I don't think that is the case in the Tournament. The pressure is so great, with the stakes so high that I think a star player without the right support system is bound to fail before making it to the Championship game. I will ride a team with a star player for the first weekend, but usually won't pick them beyond the Elite 8.

Go Big Or Go Homer: Either you go with your team all the way, or you pick with as much objectivity as you are humanly capable of when deciding your school's paper fate. It is respectable to have the Montana Grizzlies as your bracket's National Champion if that is your school or home team. It's okay to go with heart over reality in times like these. But don't do it half-assed. Picking your 16-seed Alma Mater to make it to the Sweet 16, then lose, well, that's just lame and manes ZERO sense.

And finally…

HAVE FUN!!! Listen, if you are going to bet on sports, put up $10 or $20, not a mortgage payment. If you win a bunch of money at the end of the tourney, that's just icing on the cake. If you don't have physical assets on the line, it makes the tournament so much more fun as you can cheer for underdogs, or root against your own bracket without feeling torn or guilty. Unless you are a player, family member or alumni of a team in the tourney, the whole purpose of March Madness is to enjoy one of the most entertaining and suspenseful competitions in the world. Have you guys seen the show "Luck" on HBO? Watching Pete, the degenerate gambler, is one of the most depressing things I've ever seen. That's not what this tournament is all about.

Spend a few hours tops to research and make your picks. Throw in a few upsets, choose a team or two you've never seen to win a game and then sit back, relax and enjoy the show.

-- Jackie Pepper

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