Finally, they’re playing basketball.
No more bracket conversations. No more asking who is going to pull a first round upset. No more of me hammering the committee. Well, less of it anyway.
I know one of the most fun aspects of the NCAA Tournament is people filling out brackets. I think it’s great when eight-year-old kids beat their dads in the office pool and when someone who fills out a bracket based on colors they like gets all 16 of the Sweet 16 teams correct. One of the great stories four years ago was when Tony Kornheiser’s producer’s mom—known to one and all as ‘Phil’s Mom,’—did a bracket on Tony’s show and picked George Mason to get to The Final Four. She became a national celebrity and still does a bracket for Tony even though Phil is no longer Tony’s producer.
I just don’t like filling out a bracket myself. Why? Because I’m terrible at it. No matter how hard I try to divorce myself from my biases—which, as discussed everyone has—they still creep into my picks. No Hoya fans that doesn’t mean I’d pick Georgetown to lose in the first round and I’m not picking Lehigh to win the national championship. Usually it’s subconscious I don’t even realize I’ve done it until later. I’m going to want to see the Temple-Cornell winner advance not because I have anything against Bo Ryan—really good guy in fact—but because I think those two schools weren’t treated right by the committee. (Whoops, slipped, there’s a shot at the committee).
I can tell you exactly when all of this started: In 1989 my then-wife did a bracket for a pool involving a bunch of her friends. I stayed far away but couldn’t help but notice she had picked Seton Hall over Indiana in the round of 16. “I’m not telling you what to do,” I said. “But if there’s one team I know something about it’s Indiana. Knight’s not losing that game.”
“But my dad went to Seton Hall.”
“Fine. But Indiana’s winning.”
Of course Seton Hall won by 20 and went to the championship game. Instead of the bracket being a runaway winner, it was a not-so-runaway second.
After that, I retired from mouthing off when people were filling out brackets. In fact, I try very hard to stay away from answering any questions about brackets. I never pick a Final Four when asked on radio or TV shows and I enter one pool that involves a handful of friends who have sworn not to reveal just how poorly I do almost every year.
I help three people with their pools because they refuse to quit bugging me about it. One is Chris Wallace, the condition being that he can’t complain to me if he doesn’t do well. The other is my brother under the same condition. And this year my brother’s 10-year-old son Matthew, who is as big a sports freak as I was when I was a kid asked me to help him with his bracket.
Which was a delight because every time Matthew told me who he had picked in a game and I said, “Gee Matthew, I’m not sure about that one,” he said, “here’s why you’re wrong.”
Good for him. I probably AM wrong.
Today, I’ll be at the practices in Jacksonville. I actually enjoy the practice days almost as much as the games themselves. People are relaxed, still elated—for the most part—about being in the tournament. The players are loose because their real practice takes place someplace else rather than at the practices that are open to the public at the game site. They are most there to get a feel for the shooting backgrounds, the rims and the arena itself. It will all feel different the next day when the place is full, but it gives them a chance to get a feel for where they will be playing.
Usually I go back and forth between sitting on press row watching the practices or chatting with people and the press room where there is always a TV tuned to the on-going games. When a game gets good, people gather around the TV and try to analyze what’s going on and why an upset may or may not be happening.
I still remember being in Boston in 2003 on Friday night of the first week. I had finished writing and joined a group watching the finish of the Maryland-UNC-Wilmington game. UNC-W was trying to hold on to a lead and upset the defending national champions. I was catching some flack from some of my friends about the fact that my pal Gary Williams was about to go down in the first round. The Seahawks missed some free throws down the stretch and Maryland pushed the ball downcourt, the clock heading for zero, down two.
Steve Blake found Drew Nicholas on the wing and Nicholas, in full stride stepped into a three-point shot just before the buzzer expired.
“That’s good,” I said as he released the shot. To emphasize my point I walked away from the TV set in the direction of a coke. I didn’t even see it go in.
“How’d you know?” my friend Hoops Weiss said later.
“Karma,” I said. “Those guys were giving the game to Wilmington. If I’ve learned two things it is that an NCAA Tournament game is never over and you never give up on Gary.”
So I got that one right. I think that makes my record about 2-105. After all, I’m the guy who had an entire column written on Georgetown winning the national championship in 1985 before the game started. (Tight deadline).
That was a fast rewrite. Not the first time and not the last.