I've written about it enough that I almost believe it: the defining thing about the NCAA Tournament is that what's supposed to happen generally does not, due to the confluence of freaking-out teenagers on a massive and terrifying stage, inherent weirdnesses in the game, the imbalances in the information we have about it that guarantee the annual surprise teams that probably shouldn't have surprised anyone, and the broader bedrock fact that ball don't lie. And so every March, regardless of how much college basketball we do or don't watch, the only thing we know with any certainty is that we know nothing. We might as well embrace that, I guess, but while I've made that case in print I've never quite been able to make my peace with it. In years past, I've been frustrated when my bracket, which is after all the product of hours of watching basketball and like 15 scotch-y late night minutes of decision making and un-making, implodes. This year, I was delighted that it mostly held up until the Elite Eight. But while I loved this year's NCAA Tournament in the same way and for the same reasons that I always do, I also wound up, again, reminded of how unknowable it all is, at least by me. 146 members of the Classical Bracket Achievers pool know that feeling. Joe Karas, whose 151 points gave him a resounding victory, is the 147th.
So, would it make you feel more or less good to know that Karas, who lives in Boston and works in a lab ("It's cool, I guess") basically does not watch college basketball? Or that he picked three of the four Final Four teams correctly for not-so-scientific reasons? How enlightened are you about all this, anyway?That said, if you have to pick an overlord, Karas seems like a pretty nice guy.
"Prior to March I probably saw 45 cumulative minutes of college hoops this year," Karas told me over email. "So I followed the 'there's always a 6-11 and a 5-12 upset' rule because I think I heard Jay Bilas say that once. This year there were lots of those, and as luck has it I selected the right sequence of them. All the other picks were made the normal way: letting gut reactions, visceral instincts, and not-so-visceral biases dictate." And so an association between the peach in this year's Final Four logo led Karas to think of Otto the Orange, and put Syracuse in his Final Four. Louisville, his winner and the tournament's, was a less Proustian and more Newtonian choice: "[I had Louisville] due to gravity more than anything else," he writes. "They just kinda tumbled from the top left to the hole in the middle."
The one Final Four pick he got wrong, Arizona, he chalks up to "some lingering nostalgia from Kenny Lofton week, and the fact that having spent my college years in Ohio I get a wicked sense of schadenfreude whenever THE Ohio State university fails to meet expectations." I asked if he had some hunch about Arizona's gunning senior guard Mark Lyons. "I don't know who Mark Lyons is," he responded. But even his Arizona choice wasn't a bad one, really: they made the Sweet 16, and nearly beat Ohio State for a berth in the Eight.
But Karas' most impressive pick, which was not so impressive that I did not also have it in my thunderously mediocre bracket, was his choice to have fourth-seeded Michigan in the NCAA Final. This decision, at least, was based on a basketball calculation. Just not a terribly deeply reasoned one. "Of the 45 minutes I spent watching hoops this year, maybe 10 of them came late one winter weeknight when I decided to hit the gym to blow off steam," Karas explains. "The weightroom flatscreen had Michigan playing somebody so I paid attention in between sets. The thing I remember was a hulking white dude who I now recognize to be Mitch McGary throwing down a monstrous putback jam lookin like the SHAQ silhouette logo. So yeah, I picked Michigan because of one Mitch McGary dunk during Big Ten conference play." I'm not sure that I could explain my Michigan pick any better. That may or may not be the point.
We're still coming up with a suitable prize for The Talented Mr. Karas; he requested an Andrew McCutchen Why We Watch, but as that almost certainly would've been written anyway it might not be fair to make that the award. He was polite about my offer of a bunch of Stephon Marbury basketball cards, but I think he deserves more than that. His reward may wind up being a Classical sweatshirt and an auxiliary chip clip, or it may wind up being something else. But he's earned it, fair and square and in exactly the way that bracket champions earn their rewards: by surfing college basketball's annual goofy tsunami with grace and good fortune and a willingness to embrace it for the random thing it is. You can't see it, but all of us are making that thumb-and-pinky hang loose gesture in salute. Hang ten, Joe Karas, and thanks to everyone who played this year.