Today I heard someone describe the NCAA basketball tournament as the single best sports tournament in the world. It's hard to disagree, especially this week when everyone is eagerly filling out their brackets, picking teams they're vaguely familiar with to beat teams they've never heard of.
Quick, where (or who?) is Stephen F. Austin? Were there so many Stephen Austin schools that it had to include the middle initial to differentiate itself? And what about Wofford? Who the heck are they?
None of that matters. We make our picks on other criteria, largely name recognition. My girlfriend, Erin, picks Duke every year because she loves Coach K and the whole Duke aura. It should be said there are plenty of people less enamored with everything Duke who take pleasure in picking against the school. Gonzaga used to be a favorite of many, but it became too popular to continue as a plucky underdog and today is just another team. (As Yogi Berra said about a restaurant in St. Louis, "No one goes there anymore. It's too crowded.")
BTW, Erin is off the Duke bandwagon this year, going completely the other way and taking Mercer to beat them in the first round. (Update: March 21 -- Mercer beats Duke! Erin celebrates with multiple fist pumps!)
I started watching the tournament in the late 80s, with my university roommate Mark. We would stay up to watch the games on tape-delay, the only way CBS showed games on weeknights. You were lucky to see more than one game per night, and if you wanted a bracket you had to hunt for it in a newspaper. No one bothered.
We cheered in 1987 when Keith Smart sunk the game-winning bucket to give Indiana a 74-73 win over Syracuse in the championship game. It was the most exciting stuff we had ever seen on TV.
Since then, the tournament has expanded several times, becoming more of a spectacle with every change. It is too large for a single TV network now, which means you can watch every game if you can carve out the time. And carve out the time people do. Is there anything better than the first Thursday and Friday of the tournament, with 16 games each day, one rolling into another so by sometime around midnight when the last buzzer sounds, you can't possibly remember everything you've seen that day?
You don't have to remember. You can look at your brackets, creased and folded or pristinely blinking at you from a tablet screen. Either way, they track your success and failure while building hope for the next day when your upset picks surely will deliver.
Everyone has their own way to pick their bracket, including some cheaters who fill out multiple brackets. If the teams are playing one-and-done, shouldn't we do the same? If you're looking for a new way to increase your odds of winning the pool you're in, check out this bracketology approach that emphasizes finding the bargains between favorites and long shots:
My final four is: Kansas, Iowa St., Arizona and Wichita St. And I'll take Kansas over Wichita to win it all. Good luck to all. Enjoy the games.
Oh, one more thing: Stephen F. Austin State University is in Nacogdoches, Texas. The F stands for Fuller. And Wofford is a school of fewer than 2,000 students in Spartanburg, SC.