Busting the bracket

Depending on how one views the “First Four” games that have expanded the field to 68, the NCAA Basketball Tournament began Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio — or begins today (March 17) for those purists out there.

The NCAA selection committee — which comprises 10 college athletics directors and administrators, eight of whom are, perhaps unsurprisingly, old white men — met on “Selection Sunday” to create the 68-team bracket.

In the past 14 years, Selection Sunday has metastasized from an understated half hour of besuited analysts unveiling the brackets to a two-hour extravaganza complete with much prognosticating and procrastinating — and, most importantly, plenty of time for ads.

This year’s Selection Sunday broadcast was interminable, as CBS tried to stretch its broadcast to fill 120 minutes that featured Charles Barkley — who so clearly doesn’t watch college basketball it makes his analysis perversely entertaining — and, to the studio’s chagrin, an online bracket leak that rendered the second half of the program pointless and put millions of viewers out of their misery.

(If the ratings are anything go to by, CBS may be rethinking its two-hour format; Sunday’s program earned a 3.7 overnight rating, the network’s lowest mark for the program in 20 years.)

Once that first bracket is created, its seeds and stems proliferate across the United States: this year, the American Gaming Association expects that Americans will wager $9.2 billion on the NCAA tourney and roughly 70 million brackets will be filled out — a greater number than any presidential candidate projects to receive in November, as the organization gleefully points out.

The millions of brackets and billions of dollars have fostered the nascent discipline of “bracketology,” a nonsense neologism that, like “bracket-buster” or “bubble team,” infiltrates our lexicon for one miserable month.

With so many professors of bracketology holding office hours — they prefer the term “bracketologist” — it’s no surprise that, come March, eveyone’s an expert.

In office pools across the country, coworkers who last week thought a pick and roll was a military maneuver are now pontificating on Xavier’s strength of schedule and whether Wichita State has the RPI and resume to “break the bubble and go dancing.”

For one month, everyone is a college basketball fan who can locate TruTV on their remotes. Come April, memories of Weber State and Middle Tennessee State will have long faded, along with any knowledge of how to find the home of illustrious television programs like “Rachel Dratch’s Late-Night Snack,” “The Carbonaro Effect” and “Hack My Life.”

Embracing the grouchiness

I know I sound like a grouch. This is why I’m hesitant to write the following sentence, which will certainly cement my reputation as a curmudgeon.

I will not be filling out one of those 70 million brackets.

The last time I filled out a bracket was in 2008, I believe, for an office pool in Oregon.

I’m not morally opposed, exactly, though it does strike me as disingenuous for the NCAA to print a tiny disclaimer reading “the NCAA opposes all forms of sports wagering” on its official bracket as Americans bet more than Haiti’s GDP on the tournament.

The massive sum wagered on March Madness every year helps drive the TV ratings which, of course, allow the NCAA to sign a 14-year television contract with CBS/Turner worth nearly $11 billion for the television rights to the tournament. (But don’t forget: there’s no money to pay players.)

But as long as the NCAA prints a tiny disclaimer…

No, my objection to the bracket is primarily aesthetic, not moral: filling out a bracket precludes me from cheering for the underdog in every game.

Untethered from the constraints of the bracket, I can feel free to cheer for every improbable upset. Because isn’t it far more entertaining to hope that Holy Cross — who went 10-19 in the regular season and didn’t win a conference road game — can pull off an improbable run than to cheer that a perennial powerhouse like Kansas or North Carolina marches through the tournament?

Back in my bracket days, I hated the feeling of cheering for a bunch of John Calipari’s or Mike Krzyzewski’s one-and-done mercenaries when there are so many Cinderellas at the ball.

If you are legitimately trying to fill out as accurate a bracket as possible, you are bound to cheer for the Goliaths and root against the Davids — and depriving yourself of a shot at unalloyed joy when Duke chokes and gets eliminated in the second round. (Here’s hoping.)

What’s in a Name?

So this year, join me in eschewing the traditional March Madness bracket and embracing a much sillier bracket that won’t impinge on your NCAA-watching experience: the 2016 Name of the Year bracket.

Every year, www.nameoftheyear.com asks readers to submit unusual names they’ve encountered that year and throws those names into a 64-seed, NCAA-style bracket that is then voted on by readers.

This year’s champion will have a lot to live up to, as the 2015 crown was won by Amanda Miranda Panda, who beat Lancelot Supersad, Jr. by a razor-thin margin.

This March, why fret over No. 4 Kentucky vs. No. 13 Stony Brook when you could pick the winner of No. 4 Jasmine Squirrel vs. No. 13 Jorja Pound Turnipseed? Forget No. 2 Michigan State vs. No. 15 Middle Tennessee State — I’ll have my eye on No. 2 Sicnarf Loopstok vs. No. 15 Chizu Shimizu Buckalew.

The Name of the Year bracket captures the exact type of fun that I lose when I fill out an NCAA bracket: I can cheer wholeheartedly for the underdog, like 16th-seeded Jango Glackin, without worrying about what it’ll do to my bracket.

Forget filling out an NCAA bracket: this year, go all-in for Cinderella, not her insufferable stepsisters.




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