Putting Down Names: When An NCAA Bracket Is Something More

Bracketology is little more than arbitrary pseudo-science designed to prognosticate someone else's arbitrary pseudo-science. The reason we care so much is only partly about the games themselves.
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The term “March Madness” was reportedly coined in 1939, when the assistant executive secretary of the Illinois High School Association boys basketball tournament, Henry V. Porter, suggested in an essay that a “little March madness may complement and contribute to sanity and help keep society on an even keel".

Henry V. Porter must have been a man blessed with ironic wit because the annual NCAA basketball tournament known as March Madness is, indeed, mad. The global firm Challenger Gray & Christmas recently estimated that March Madness will cost $1.9 billion in lost productivity from time employees spend paying attention to the tournament instead.

But before the action hits the hardwood, it starts on a page.

It is estimated that more than 60 million people fill out brackets.  It's become such a big thing that “Bracketology” -- that arbitrary pseudo-science which attempts to prognosticate someone else’s arbitrary pseudo-science -- has become part of the regular vernacular surrounding the tournament.  It's also a key part of what's unique about the Madness of March: the 68-team field is wide enough for many to take interest in a way that one title game or series involving two teams may not afford. In the early rounds, especially, it’s a way to rent investment by the hour in programs that would never garner otherwise. What other reason do I have to invest in Eastern Washington besides hoping they upset Georgetown?

The reason why is the bracket, which is a hoops IQ test in name but a ballot in practice, and ultimately a tool that provides you an even keener sense that you're a part of it. For me, it's also a way to reconnect with friends over college basketball, sometimes with a little competition involved.

Above all, though, it provides a tool for us to look at college basketball in a larger context: the rivalries, the scandals, the upsets, and this year, the quest for perfection.   

***

Over the next three weeks, 68 teams will compete to determine their fate in the NCAA tournament. We compete to see if that fate was the same as predicted by our brackets. 

The brackets spark a sub-competition of their own: tournament pools. You, like me, are probably in one. And, also like me, it probably involves some people you know and others you’ve never met. I got into mine through a friend of mine from professional circles, Kelli. It includes friends and friends-of-friends all across the country, as well as at least one dog. (To my knowledge, the dog has never won the pool). There could be a narrative here about how basketball bands people together from across the country for a month every year. The truth is, that Kelli remains the only person I know well in it after having participated for the last three years – because I already know her outside of the group. 

As a result, we’re all, to a certain extent, operating in a vacuum.  It works competitively because there’s a thrill involved in testing your predictions against a group of people whose tendencies and strategies you don’t know. How many people are prone to always choose the highest seed to advance versus predicting upsets in the opening round? Where do allegiances lie? It's playing without scouting your opponent, trusting your own game plan and determination to win the day.

This is far from the only bracket experience, of course. Koma, who I also know from professional circles, is in a more close-knit pool, one that includes her friends from business school. She'll know most of the people she's competing with and they, her; it’s conference play, essentially. Meanwhile, my friend Gabe belongs to one run by a charity near and dear to his heart. It’s an entirely different type of competition, a philanthropic kind; the pot made up of entry fees goes to the winner of the pool, who in turn usually gives the money back as a donation.

In my experience, whatever universal experience can gleaned from the sport arrives in how it impacts the relationships one already has versus new ones it might foster. I know Kelli, Koma and Gabe through different things – professional organizations, school, politics – and I talk to each of them throughout the year about a number of different things in varying frequency. But I always talk to each of them about basketball at this specific time of year.  The tournament makes you do it.  No matter what kind of pool you're in and what kind of competition you prefer, making these picks gives you three weeks to talk to your friends who love basketball about the sport incessantly. As Gabe calls me to say every Selection Sunday: "it's time to talk hoops".

***
So hoops we will talk. Everyone has their strategies for how they tackle the draw, the way they navigate matchups and worm through seeding pitfalls. I’m no different: I crunch numbers and pore through rotations in search of the mismatch that could decide an entire region. But it was the Florida Gulf Coast-Georgetown matchup from two years ago that taught me how futile over-preparing can truly be. Information can hinder as much as help with so much riding on tiny sample sizes.

To that end, I have a growing appreciation for Kelli’s tried-and-true approach. “I’ve been known to choose a winner based on how much I like their mascot,” she says of a method so intricate its name could only be “eenie meeny miney mo” approach. No, really. For the record, she likes the animal mascots best.

Being the dogmatic researcher I am, I decided to put this animal mascot approach to the test and found that, immediately, you run into problems. Particularly those times when you'd have two animals up against each other. Do you then factor in animal traits? For example, who wins Gonzaga-North Dakota State matchup, Bulldogs or Bison? Well, Bulldogs are known to have a friendly and patient nature, which may lead to a better shot selection than Bison, which are "often unpredictable”. But Bison are also larger than Bulldogs, so how much of an advantage would the size factor be for them?

Also, you could wind up with a scenario where, if Kentucky, Arizona, Villanova and Davidson went to the Final Four, then you'd get Wildcats vs. Wildcats in both matchups. Who wins in the end? Wildcats.

Kelli admitted that this approach doesn't really lead to success, although part of this may stem from her overvaluation of Bruins, the mascot of her alma mater UCLA. Even this year, after UCLA surprisingly snuck into the tournament, she has them making it all the way to the Sweet Sixteen -- where she has them losing to the Gonzaga Bulldogs. At least it's another animal.


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