Simplicity: the method to my March Madness

sideline commentary

When I was 11 years old, I filled out my first NCAA men’s basketball tournament bracket and excitedly submitted it to my dad’s office pool. Four weeks later, I was awarded the second-place prize of about $500. Over the next three years, I would place twice more in that office pool, eventually making around $1,200 in prize money.

I was a young Anakin Skywalker of bracketology. The choices came to me effortlessly in those days, doubtlessly drawing the annual ire of my father’s disbelieving coworkers. Looking back, I only wish I had possessed the cinematic culturing at that time to walk through the office lunchroom doing hackneyed Rainman impersonations—“yep: Boston College. Definitely, definitely Boston College”—just to rub it in.

After all, at that time I had no idea how fleeting my ignorant success and innocent enjoyment of March Madness would be.

Having reached the ambitious age of 15 by the next year’s March Madness pool, it dawned on me that my apparent prowess for collegiate hoops prediction—if supported by adequate research and information—could potentially provide a reliable source of yearly income. It wouldn’t be long, I thought, before I could grow a moustache, purchase a translucent green visor, wear bifocals, and spend endless nights poring over old box scores in university libraries, pausing only to count my burgeoning fortune.

As that year’s opening round approached, I remarked to my dad, “I like Temple’s chances. Their backcourt has a good assist-to-turnover ratio, and I feel like John Chaney’s due.” Disappointedly, he shook his head and told me that I’d never win a March Madness pool again. And you know what? He was right—I knew too much.

These days, I reflect fondly on those times when a simpler decision-making process led me toward teams like Colgate (I figured that whoever was responsible for my clean dental slate had earned whatever support I could give) and UConn (because I found it endearing that a school from northern Canada could field such a competitive team each year). Hey, I never proclaimed myself to be a particularly bright kid. My point is this: March Madness presents us with some very difficult choices and, a lot of the time, we just need to trust our gut instinct. Over complicating and over-thinking these decisions usually leads to one of two mistakes.

The first is deciding to fill out two similar brackets with changes in those games that you found too close to call. Let me be clear about this: under no circumstances should you feel the need to fill out a second bracket unless you want to communicate something profoundly unflattering about your everyday decision-making capacity. Do you eat two dinners? Seriously date two people at once? Wear one shirt until lunch and then change to another? Of course not. All I’m saying is that if you can’t find a way to decide between Georgetown and Northern Iowa then I’d suggest giving up right now, because life gets much more difficult than this.

The second common mistake of overthinkers is to second-guess themselves and change their initial bracket. I assure you this is a profoundly unrewarding endeavor. That is, if you stick with your gut and you’re wrong, you can still say, “well, at least I stuck with my gut.” If you change your bracket and you’re wrong, it will unquestionably ruin your week and probably your entire spring. Having experienced the ups and downs of this temptation, my advice is that you never change an initial bracket unless you come upon information which is certain to change the outcome of the game (for instance, discovering that Duke University has agreed to allow Toronto Raptors coach Sam Mitchell to coach its first three tournament games).

Instead of agonizing over these decisions, I recommend returning to an innocent enjoyment of sports’ most perfect competition (honestly, how often do you have an excuse to write off eight out of 14 days to watch basketball?). And as you simplify your engagement with March Madness, take time to appreciate the little things that make it great.

For instance, I have always loved the camera time given to college basketball benches, particularly near the end of exciting games. My favorite part of this phenomenon is the one player on the bench who holds all of his teammates back from the court when they begin wildly celebrating a big bucket. I often wonder: is this guy just incredibly level-headed and self-aware, or is this job assigned to him in advance? Does the coach call one player into his office and say, “Billy, playing time may not be an option for you this season, but we need you to hold the guys back when things get exciting.” For some reason, these things interest me.

Another thing I love about March Madness is the inordinate number of college coaches who wear their hearts on their sleeves to a ridiculous degree. My favorite move has always been the jacket removal. It’s so transparent—the moment there’s a blown call, a careless turnover, or a defensive lapse, the camera inevitably shifts to an enraged coach taking off his suit-jacket or blazer.

Wouldn’t this sort of transparency make relationships much easier? Think about the confusion and embarrassment that could be avoided if we could confidently say things like, “Yeah, I knew why she was mad. As soon as I made that comment about Alyssa Milano, the jacket came off.”

Finally, we should appreciate March Madness for its unique ability to deliver genuine heartbreak—something we don’t see nearly enough of these days. Let’s face it, we all saw Jerry McGuire and nobody believed Renee Zellweger was the least bit upset. I’m talking about Thomas Hill/Darius Washington heartbreak. I’m talking about seeing a grown man brought to tears by the ebb and flow of collegiate sport.

And when that grown man is the guy next to you on the couch, and he just lost his predicted champion on a first-round buzzer beater, hand him a tissue and a clean bracket, and tell him to simplify his Madness.

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