The Ottumwa Courier

March 20, 2013

Bracketology — everyone’s got a chance

Ottumwa Courier

OTTUMWA — It feels good to give money away to such a worthy charity, doesn’t it? You could have just crumpled up your $5 or $10 and thrown it into the street. But instead you decided to enter an NCAA Basketball Tournament pool.

Just feel fulfilled. Remember it all goes to a good cause. Some lucky sap will be able to blow it on a new tackle box, rod and reel or maybe a jet ski at Pro Bass Shops in a few weeks.

Following your NCAA bracket sheet is a lot like playing a round of golf for an occasional golfer. Sometimes you start off strong, hanging around par to bogey for a few holes. It’s kind of fun keeping track at that point. Then the disaster hole hits. You slice it out of bounds and hit some kid on a bike, then on your penalty shot you nearly wipe out a ladies’ foursome teeing off on hole No. 4. Keeping track of your score seems kind of pointless after this.

So many times I’ve started out 12 of 16 on my bracket sheet the first day of the the Big Dance. You start to brag to your friends, proudly whipping out your wrinkled copy of your picks and competitively asking how they’re doing. Then the upsets rain in, and your bracket sheet has more “X’s” on it than a Lindsay Lohan bar tab.


Pools keep your interest up

Now filling out your bracket sheet makes it  more interesting to follow the tournament. Suddenly you’re on the edge of your seat rooting for dinky schools you didn’t know existed. Last year, I entered three pools and filled out all three bracket sheets wildly different to give me better odds. The problem with this is you have no idea who to root for with your conflicting picks. That’s when you start trying to do that crazy bracketology math in your head to figure out which pool you’re doing the best in — and this makes your head hurt.


The science of bracketology

I remember long ago when I met the NCAA Bracketology Grand Master. I basked in his wisdom. He told me something I’ll never forget and will carry with me for the rest of my life. He said, “Matt, just remember this. Always ...”

No wait, it was, “Never ...”

No, I was right the first time, it was “Always ... pick one No. 12 seed to upset a No. 5 seed. It always happens — it never fails.” And that’s all he told me. So, I’ve always done that because it’s your only chance to go 100 percent in the 12 vs. 5 match-ups.

Now there have been several examples of 2 seeds getting knocked off by 15 seeds, but never has there been a 1 seed to lose to a 16 seed. Now No. 3 seeds lose all the time to No. 14 seeds — just ask humble former Iowa coach Steve Alford.


Steve Alford plea

Alford had Iowa as a No. 3 seed against Northwestern State in the 2006 NCAA Tournament, blowing a 17-point lead while resting Greg Brunner, who was having a monster game, to save him up for the imaginary second round game Iowa never played. You can see I’ve gotten over it. It’s just year seven in our eight-year rebuilding plan. Patience Hawk fans.

It just goes to show you that Iowa is cursed against any team with “Northwestern” in the name. My co-worker Tracy, an Iowa grad and fan, said Northwestern is a “wrench in Iowa’s side.” I said, “Don’t you mean thorn?” She said no, and explained, “How would you like a wrench in your side? You wouldn’t like it.” Actually, I agree —when you think about it, I would prefer a thorn to a giant wrench in my side. I think I’m going to start using that phrase. It may catch on.

But back to Steve Alford. He has another No. 3 seed and will try to outsmart No. 14 Harvard’s disciplined game. I’m hoping for another upset there.

I remember when Alford first took the job at Iowa. One of our sportswriters was interviewing him and asked him how it felt to make a million dollars, in light of him just signing a contract. “I don’t make a million dollars,” he snapped. It turned out to be something like $990,000. Some people are touchy about how much they make.

There’s actually a Native American name Iowans use to call Steve Alford — CHAKOTAY —which means, “This guy ... this is not my kind of guy.” Actually, it’s the name of a character on the science fiction show “Star Trek: Voyager.” But, I think it’s available now.

You’ve heard of the Alford plea in the courts? It’s where you don’t admit guilt, but admit the prosecution could prove you did it. There’s also the Steve Alford plea. It’s where you lose but you yourself don’t take any of the blame. It’s the officials and the players’ fault.


Remember the larger lesson

The most important thing to remember about filling out NCAA bracket sheets is that it’s just for fun.

I remember a kooky NCAA pool I got into once. They selected teams around a giant table at a bar and grill in Iowa City, and you would pick playing cards with the team’s name on the bottom side. Well, they got down to the final two cards and tossed them on the table between me and my buddy Eddie.

One of the cards spun around the table and I caught a glimpse of the underside — it said Iowa State. The other card I had no idea. Now, Iowa State was a 2 seed so I knew that would be a good team to have in the pool. But Eddie was a huge Iowa State fan. He was one of these optimistic, wholesome guys who preached honor and honesty.

Now, I wanted that card. But I knew he would want it too — not just because it was a good pick, but it was his beloved Cyclones, and it would be fun to root for his own team in the pool.

I decided to distract him, and I pointed to ESPN’s SportsCenter on the TV and said, “Look at that play!” He looked. Who wouldn’t? I reached for the card, but hesitated. Honor and honesty, I thought. I swerved my hand over and grabbed the other unknown card.

And you know, I felt better about myself. And not just because I exercised honor and honesty, but because Iowa State lost to No. 15-seed Hampton in the first round and I scored some good cash.

(I’ll be happy if I just finish ahead of sportswriter Scott Jackson. I’ll use that distraction strategy. I think he’ll fall for it.)