A RANDOM WALK THROUGH MARCH MADNESS

Today begins what many consider the most exciting event in all of sports: The Men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament, otherwise known as “March Madness”. There were some preliminary games earlier in the week, but the real show kicks off today around 12:00. What follows is a veritable smorgasbord for the basketball faithful. Today and tomorrow, if you are so inclined, and are able to forestall any work or family obligations, you can watch the best of this year’s college basketball teams clash from noon to around midnight, with a few breaks in between. The madness continues on Saturday and Sunday, and for the next two weekends.

With the tournament each year comes a different kind of madness: the seemingly ubiquitous office pools, internet contests and just good old fashion trash talk among friends, where any one who participates in any of the above, tries to figure out who is going to win each game over the next three weeks, and more particularly, who will win it all and be crowned NCAA champion.

This is no small task. From a field of sixty-four, one has to whittle that down to at least two, maybe three of the final four teams in order to have any chance of winning. Depending on the size of the pool and relative success of your fellow participants, sometimes winning comes down to picking that upset back in the first or second round.

Yet there will be many, far too many it seems, who will espouse their collective wisdom as to who will win. From sportscasters, to ex-basketball players, friends, family members, fellow office pool participants, or the guy on the bar stool next to you, each will be more than willing to give their opinion as to why Kansas is a lock this year, how Duke will do it once again, why Gonzaga is overrated, or which number 11 or 12 seed is going to reach into their bag of tricks and send a high ranked team packing this year. It is at those moments that I like to tell a little story about an office pool I was once in.

Several years ago, I was in an office pool where I worked at the time, and there was a girl we all worked with who knew nothing about college basketball and cared even less. She did however have a boyfriend who was a huge college basketball fan, and so she asked if he could join our pool. It’s always the more the merrier when it comes to office pools, so we said yes. She told us her boyfriend watched college hoops all the time, studied the teams, and really had a good idea who was going to win.

We largely ignored this, but at the same time encouraged her to fill out a bracket of her own. She was hesitant, saying she knew nothing about the sport and she would definitely lose. We responded by telling her that while winning was a big part of joining, just participating, having a little skin in each game, really brought its own excitement, regardless of whether you won or lost. “And wouldn’t it be great if you actually beat your boyfriend.”

“Ha, ha, ha,” she laughed. But she accepted a bracket and decided to jump in. As she was perusing the plethora of teams to choose from, she noticed that one of the teams was the University of Connecticut Huskies, colloquially known as UCONN. I don’t know if she even looked at where they were ranked that year, but she said to herself, “I live in Connecticut. I should root for a Connecticut team,” and promptly picked UCONN to win the entire tournament. That was literally her reasoned philosophy for picking them. She picked the remaining teams with equal randomness and handed in her bracket. That year was 2011, UCONN was not favored to go very far in the tournament, and nobody else in our office pool had them going much further than the first few rounds.

That was also the year that the University of Connecticut, on the strength of Kemba Walker and a particularly tenacious Huskie team, went on to tear through the tournament in spectacular fashion, taking out other teams seemingly at will, and eventually beat Butler in the championship game, leaving most everyone bug-eyed and scratching their heads in disbelief.

As UCONN was crowned king of college basketball that year, the girl in our office pool who picked them was crowned queen. Not only did she pick UCONN, she picked a few other random upsets as well along her way to victory. She beat everyone handily, including her boyfriend, who was pretty much done after the first two rounds. To show her appreciation, she bought bagels for the office the day after UCONN’s victory, so I guess in a way we all won.

So to all the pundits and prognosticators out there who think they’ve got it all figured out, that their bracket holds the secret key to victory the rest of us can only dream of, remember that you may know more than some, but you don’t really know all that much more than most. And the one thing you don’t know is who is going to win the tournament this year. That’s the beauty of it, the exquisite mystery, the continuing allure of participation each year.

Let the Madness begin!