March Madness picks: Confessions of a 'bracketologist'

March Madness, the annual college hoops extravaganza, is upon us once again. For those interested observers, making their March Madness picks can be all consuming.

By , Contributor

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    Old Dominion practices for their NCAA Southeast regional college basketball game against Butler, Wednesday, March 16, in Washington.
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Every year in March, our nation is gripped by a sudden madness about basketball. A 'March Madness,' if you will. Many spouses, significant others, and bosses look at March and see countless unproductive hours ahead as hundreds of thousands of basketball fans turn to filling out brackets and watching gifted athletes pursue a dream.

There are those that would say precious time is being squandered, but to the nay-sayers, I say “nay!” Here are a couple insights into why we, the fans, spend months obsessing, cheering, planning, and tracking all in the hopes of predicting the NCAA men’s basketball champion.

Filling out a bracket is not an idle pursuit. Spouses, significant others or those with untrained eyes may interpret hours spent watching college basketball’s regular season and ESPN's 'SportsCenter' as a colossal waste of time, but it’s not. What’s actually happening during this seemingly wasted time? The honing of a bracketologist’s basketball acumen, of course.

Recommended: NCAA Final Four: How much do you know?

In anticipation of 'Selection Sunday,' when the 68 teams are picked to participate in the NCAA tournament, you must stay up on the trends. It is good to note players who have sparked their team to surprising victories (UConn’s Kemba Walker and BYU’s Jimmer Fredette) or a team who is getting a star player back from injury. All of these factors play a role in filling out your bracket.

The joy of filling out a bracket, or even playing any form of fantasy sports, comes in that moment when you and the fates of sport have become one. There is a beauty in the moment when you can say to your cohorts, “I picked that team to win.” You feel like you were actually part of that victory.

Filling out a bracket enables the armchair warriors to not just watch the game, but to actively participate. It is more than just two hours of passively watching tremendously talented athletes perform feats of strength and prowess while eating “sports fuel” (i.e. nachos and hot wings) and coaching from the living room. The fantasy sports manager and the bracketologist have a vested interest in the outcome of each game and the performance of each player.

They may not be physically on the floor with those players, but they are willing them to victory. They feel the pain of every bad call by the ref and the elation when their team begins to dominate the opponent. You are not just rooting for your favorite team. When the field of 64 teams has been finalized and you have filled in your bracket; you start out the tournament rooting for 32 teams that you picked to win in the first round.

For the avid fan who loves to fill out a bracket, there are some critical guidelines that can help you choose your teams. Most of us go with either blind loyalty or cold realism. If you're an Atlantic Coast Conference fan, you could pick with your heart and choose Duke, North Carolina and Florida State to fill three of the slots in the Final Four. But this would be ill-advised since Florida State is in a very difficult bracket.

Or if you were a realist and such a loyal Michigan fan that you bleed maize and blue, but you want your bracket to be a winner, you would have to put aside many decades of not so warm feelings for Ohio State and put them down to make it to the Final Four, if not the title game.

But fear not, for if you have never filled out a bracket, you should not doubt your ability to compete. There is a little thing called beginners luck. You could pick each of your winning teams based on who has the most believable mascot (case in point: Indiana State’s mascot Sycamore Sam, who is described as a nondescript furry woodland creature). And if all else fails, you could let the family pet help. Hey, if a cross-eyed possum could pick Oscar winners, why can’t your loveable mutt pick a tournament winner?

The fun really beings after you have taken the time to research and pick your winners (or let your pet randomly choose). There is anticipation of the outcome of every game of the tournament. You have your classic story lines playing out on the hardwood. This tournament begins as a modern day David versus Goliath. Although in this story, Goliath tends to win (and sometimes you even want him to). In NCAA tournament history, the #15 seeds, the second lowest seeds in every division, have beaten the #2 seeds only four times in the opening round. And the true Davids, the #16 seed, have never – not even once – beaten a #1 seed in the opening round.

In this tournament, the Cinderella stories or the 'bracket busters' are really what make it exciting. In last year’s tournament, Butler University was ranked as a #5 seed, which many thought was too high. They upset heavily favored teams Syracuse (#1 seed) and then Kansas State (#2 seed). Butler beat Michigan State to play Duke in the finals. Duke would barely win the 2010 tournament, but the excitement and buzz that was created by Butler defying the odds made their games an absolute joy and terror to watch. Many people had predicted Syracuse or Kansas State to win the tournament and Butler blew their brackets apart.

In the end, most of us who fill out brackets will be wrong. A Cinderella team will surprise all of us, upsets will occur and most of the powerhouses expected to win, will win. But the best part is watching those young men play basketball. They are not playing for money or showmanship. They are playing for the love of the game, their team, and their school. And we, the loyal bracketologists, are practically right there with them for every buzzer-beater, and well-earned victory. We’re sweating it out with them as we all chase the elusive dream of being a champion.

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