Live The Fantasy: Making Your Own NCAA Tournament Fantasy League

All you need are Excel chops, a calculator, and all the dorky will you can muster.
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Now is the week when we—underemployed layabouts and office drones and Presidents of the United States and Rick Neuheisel—sit down to fill out NCAA Tournament Brackets. We do this because NCAA pools are possibly the most egalitarian and certainly the most socially acceptable form of gambling. Unfortunately, we won’t do it very well. The popularity of March Madness often serves to remind college basketball fanatics how little we actually we know about the game. Hundreds of hours spent watching college basketball can’t protect your final four picks from Hampton University, or mid-major chaos agents like Ali Farokmanesh and T.J. Sorrentine. At any rate, it certainly hasn’t worked for me. But this is as it should be. The outcomes of games and thus your picks (and many coaches’ livelihoods) rely on college kids, a subset of the population exceptionally prone to surprising us in the best and worst possible ways.

The 2006 tournament featured nine first round upsets and George Mason’s improbable trip to the final four—a run I heard predicted only by the incredibly sweet non-expert known as Phil’s Mom on Tony Kornheiser’s radio show. Our brackets busted, some friends and I began to brainstorm ways to harness the unpredictability of the tournament while still utilizing—if that’s the word, or could ever be the word—the hours we’d spent watching WCC and Sun Belt games. We decided to double-down on those unpredictable college kids and start an NCAA Tournament Fantasy league. Because the NCAA doesn’t pay its players—this statement doesn’t apply to UCONN, but is broadly true—sites like Yahoo, ESPN, CBS Sports that run bracket pools cannot run player-powered fantasy leagues. Which means that if you’re going to do a NCAA Tournament fantasy league, you’ll have to do it yourself.

Which kind of self-selects for a specific type of DIY dorkiness, obviously, but is also not as difficult as you might expect. With the internet’s wealth of information, some rudimentary knowledge of a spreadsheet program, and the participation of similarly uncool friends, it’s actually not that hard to do at all—and certainly far easier to run than primitive hand-scored fantasy football leagues that relied on USA Today box scores (and Bam Morris and Wesley Walls). The past several years our league has run the following way:

Scoring: Basic roto-style scoring using field goal percentage, points scored, three-pointers made, assists, offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, steals, turnovers, and blocks. These stats are available in online box scores immediately after games. Using a few basic formulas in Excel and a hand calculator make this go surprisingly quickly. There may be some moments early on, while entering Festus Ezeli's stat line into a spreadsheet, during which you will maybe wonder about what you're doing with your life. But the time spent scoring decreases as the tournament progresses and fewer games are played, and the formulas make it easy.

Rosters: Ten-player rosters with G, G, C, F, F and five flex positions. All ten players score. Every roster must have two players from a mid-major school. Mid-major is defined as non-BCS conference school. There is no waiver wire, so in 2009 if you had Scottie Reynolds you kept him even after he was benched and shot 2-15 in the first round. Obviously, once a player’s team is eliminated that player no longer accrues statistics; in Scottie Reynolds’ case, this was actually a good thing. All players score because without a web interface setting a line-up is challenging.

Many college teams don’t play true centers, but our commissioner classifies all center eligible players using box scores from the regular season; he also may refer to himself in the third person when writing how-to manuals, which is his prerogative. Some centers are true centers (Jeff Withey, Kansas) while others forward eligible too (Perry Jones III, Baylor). Mid-major status doesn’t have to be fixed; it may make sense to exclude teams with big budgets and sustained success like Memphis or Gonzaga. But the mid-major roster requirement is key—when North Dakota State’s Ben Woodside dropped 37 points in a first round loss to Kansas it mattered in our league.

Draft: Because we use a slow live draft over email, we start Sunday night immediately after the brackets are announced; this year, we’re putting all the picks in a Google Document, with everyone replying-all with their picks. The draft snakes every round. Opening round games are not included in the scoring, so the draft must conclude by noon on Thursday. By the way, you absolutely still have time to do this before the games tip on Thursday; if you do it all in one in-person sitting, you’ll also get to see the look on someone’s face that follows the realization that s/he just drafted Miles Plumlee, on purpose.

Redraft: Since seeing our brackets ruined early inspired the league, it was important that no fantasy team be ruined on the first weekend. Prior to the Sweet 16, we hold a redraft so fantasy managers may replace players from eliminated teams. Managers are not allowed to cut underperforming players, which is another reason not to draft Scottie Reynolds or Scottie Reynolds-ian players. After the redraft every roster must contain two players from mid-majors and/or teams seeded between five and 16. After the redraft, rosters remain intact through the Championship game.

Of course, if you care about college basketball, the NCAA tournament doesn’t really need a fantasy component to make it more compelling. And certainly nothing here elevates fantasy sports above the stale beer/pizza-stain vibes that ordinarily define it.

But it offers another way to enjoy/obsess over the tournament, and it’s fun. And because it makes you consider how far a player’s team will go before you draft that player, it opens a window onto a new world of dorkiness; it’s a cool way to think about the tournament, with “cool” obviously being very relative in this instance. After all, there is some reward, albeit an incredibly nerdy one, in an internal debate over whether Mathew Dellavedova or Marquis Teague is a better fit for your squad. I am having that debate now, along with everyone else in my league. I might as well admit that I love it.

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This is awesome and every Scottie Reynolds mention made me laugh a little more.