In two days, the American people will put aside their political differences, economic problems and concerns about the unsettled state of world affairs to focus on a common goal:
Winning their NCAA basketball tournament pools.
This Sunday is “Selection Sunday,” when NCAA officials decide which teams will complete the men’s and women’s basketball tournament fields. This is followed by “Bracket Monday,” when the ubiquitous tournament brackets, showing who plays whom where, appear in newspapers and on websites and spew from office copiers everywhere.
Millions of people around the nation will enter pools by filling out brackets with their tournament predictions, often for the chance to win a big return on a modest entry fee. (In past years, Connecticut’s attorney general has opined that office pools are legal as long as the organizers don’t take a cut.) Employee productivity will drop precipitously as workers watch streaming videos of games in progress or check score updates on their office computers.
Critics complain that the pools are a form of gambling and distract people from their work duties.
Proponents defend the pools on the grounds that the entry fee is usually very small compared to the potential winnings, and that they are a fun diversion from the mundane work-a-day world. Or in other words, because they are a form of gambling and distract people from their work duties.
Since many of you will enter tournament pools, I’d like to offer a few tips for filling out your brackets based on my observations over the years, keeping in mind that I’ve never won one of these things.
How to choose between two teams you know nothing about? Here are some methods that I’ve used or seen others use to decide which way to go on that nettlesome game in your bracket:
Choose the favorite: A team is favored to win for a reason -- the experts who know more about basketball than you do think they will.
Choose the underdog: The so-called “experts” don’t know as much as they think they do. Every year there are a bunch of upsets in the tournament. And some pools award bonus points for picking an underdog who wins.
Go with your heart: If one of the teams is your home favorite, like UConn, or your alma mater, choose it. You don’t want to have to root against “your” team.
Go with your head: Unless your home team or alma mater is clearly superior, better to pick the opponent. Don’t let sentiment hurt your chances of winning the pool. Besides, this becomes a win-win situation: you’ll either be happy that “your” team won or you’ll be happy that you scored points in the pool.
Pick the team from the Big East: It’s such a good, tough league that teams from the conference are battle-tested and ready to run all over teams from lesser leagues.
Don’t pick the team from the Big East: It’s such a good, tough league that teams from the conference are all worn out and banged up from their regular season battles by the time March Madness starts.
Pick the Cinderella team from the year before: Every year a previously unheralded team comes out of nowhere to go deep into the tournament. The next year most pool entrants pick them to do it again, thinking no one else will remember how good they are. The Cinderella team usually doesn’t do it again, but if you don’t pick them and they do, you’ll look foolish. The only thing worse than losing the pool is looking foolish.
Pick the “State” that’s not a state: This method, developed by my son James many years ago, is quite sophisticated. It’s best explained by an example. Say Kansas State is playing Murray State. Kansas is a state. Murray is not a state. Pick Murray State. (James actually won a pool one year on the strength of this method.)
Pick the team with the fiercer mascot: Say, for example, Michigan is playing Ohio State. Michigan’s mascot is the Wolverine, which in the dictionary means a carnivorous, wolf-like mammal, and in comic books and movies means a mutant superhero with incredible strength and hands that morph into sharp blades. Ohio State’s mascot is the Buckeye which is, as I understand it, a kind of chestnut. Using either definition of Wolverine, go with Michigan. (Caution: this method is useless in games involving the Georgetown Hoyas, since no one knows what a Hoya is.)
Each of these techniques has been proven effective over time with a success ratio of approximately 50 percent.
My favorite NCAA pool happened in 1999. I was invited to enter a pool with a small entry fee. My sons, ages 12 and 14 at the time, had become interested in college basketball and decided to make their own entries, too.
My daughter, Katy, then 10 years old, neither knew nor cared a whit about college basketball. But she saw how excited the boys were as they filled out their brackets and feared she was missing out on something. So I got Katy a bracket of her own and paid her entry fee. How she determined her picks, I have no idea -- certainly not with the kind of scientific, logical methods described here.
When the tournament’s first round ended and the boys and I compared our careful, learned picks with Katy’s totally irrational ones, she had fared the best of all of us. Suddenly she had a keen interest in every succeeding game. I’ll never forget the morning she padded into the kitchen in her pajamas, still groggy from sleep. The first words out of her mouth weren’t the usual, “Hi, Mommy,” or “Daddy, will you make pancakes for me?” They were, “Did Florida beat Weber last night?”
Katy’s string of successes didn’t end with the first round. She had correct pick after correct pick, including some upsets that none of the experts had foreseen. When the tournament ended, Katy’s name and score stood atop the list of the few dozen people who had entered the pool -- most of them middle-aged guys who were avid fans of college basketball and mortified to be outguessed by a 10-year-old girl.
I don’t remember exactly how much money Katy won, but I’m pretty sure no other entrant would have used the winnings to purchase the cute little outfits she bought with it.
Incidentally, the answer to Katy’s question that morning was that yes, Florida had beaten Weber. Or more accurately, that Florida had beaten Weber State. Which made her correct pick of Florida even more impressive. Weber State was the obvious choice, since Weber is not a state.