As sports fans throughout the country polish up their tournament brackets in anticipation for Thursday, I began to think about this ritual that accompanies March Madness.
It’s remarkable how a simple bracket printed on a piece of paper motivates us to try to become the next Andy Katz or Digger Phelps.
We analyze, dissect, study, and agonize over who will be the next surprise, the next disappointment, and ultimately, the next champion of the NCAA tournament.
We read a few articles published on some of the popular websites or watch an hour-long special on ESPN and suddenly claim to be an expert on the field of 65. All of our friends must listen to us explain why VCU is going to defeat UCLA or how Boston College will fall to the red-hot Trojans from USC.
The discussion over office pools and banter between college buddies is ubiquitous.
And you know what? Nobody knows what they’re talking about. Not even a little bit.
And that’s what makes the magic of the NCAA tournament. The unknown is what draws us to this unique sporting event.
I love college basketball, and I’m comfortable in saying I know a good deal about the sport.
For instance, I know that Jim Boeheim and Syracuse are returning to the tournament after a two-year absence. However, I’ll also admit to knowing more about Stone Cold Steve Austin than I do about Syracuse’s first-round opponent Stephen F. Austin.
I also wonder about the status of Ty Lawson and how it affects North Carolina’s title hopes, but I also wonder about Cornell. Yes, it’s an Ivy League school, and I know that The Office’s Andy Bernard attended Cornell, but I couldn’t even pretend to tell you who their leading scorer is.
Northern Iowa? Oh, that’s easy. Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner played there, but who’s their top rebounder? Next question, please.
Meanwhile, I’m still trying to remember who Robert Morris even was, let alone who the school’s head coach is.
It isn’t what we know that makes this sporting event so enjoyable, but it’s what we don’t know.
In any other sport, we know all of the teams and competitors. In the NFL or NBA playoffs, the teams are all familiar and most of the key contributors are easily recognizable.
We know the big names of college basketball. We’re familiar with the Connecticuts and Michigan States of the bracket, but for the many household names printed on that piece of paper, we find many that are foreign.
For us, it’s a mystery where several of these schools are even located, so why would we know what to expect when they take the floor on Thursday or Friday?
Most of these unknowns will return to obscurity after their two hours of fame, but every now and then, one of these strangers, a Valparaiso, a Davidson, or a George Mason, surprises us all, and we get to know them.
Instead of simply being that new kid standing on the sideline, waiting for his chance to play but bolting when he can’t hang with the big kids, they steal the show and upstage one of the neighborhood legends.
They become more than just the champion of their mid-major conference somewhere in the Midwest. No longer is it just a funny name or a set of initials we don’t recognize.
We yearn to know who that Cinderella is going to be, so we can take credit for saying it would happen all along. It would make us a god among friends, or even a champion of the office pool.
In that quest, we turn to the experts on television. Surely, Jay Bilas can tell us about Binghamton’s best player and provide some good information from a detailed stat sheet, but answer this question:
Do you honestly think Jay Bilas has seen the Bearcats play more than once or twice all season, or even at all?
The truth is the experts that work countless hours and are truly outstanding at what they do don’t really know what they’re talking about either. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to really break it down in any kind of precise way. The variables to consider in picking these games are too many to count.
When it comes to picking the upsets and the Cinderella stories, your guess is as good as anyone’s.
So, what does this all mean?
Don’t worry about trying to be so analytical just to impress your friends.
When completing your bracket, simply close your eyes and go with your gut. Avoiding any urge to pick a No. 16 seed would also help.
Just use your imagination.
Listen closely and you might be able to hear Gus Johnson screaming during the final seconds of Dayton’s thrilling upset win over West Virginia.
Close your eyes and you might envision Bob Knight’s breakdown of why Western Kentucky knocked off Illinois on Thursday night’s Sportscenter.
Is it only a crazy dream, or can it become reality?
Nobody knows, but we are all so very eager to find out.
Oh, and by the way, would you like to hear my picks for the tournament?