The madness is almost at an end. With three games to go in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, only Kansas, Loyola-Chicago, Michigan and Villanova remain.
Just like you didn’t draw it up.
Back at the start of March, when the world of NCAA basketball seemed full of so much possibility, 550 people did. That’s the number of participants in ESPN’s Tournament Challenge who correctly predicted the Final Four.
Out of 17.3 million.
So for the remaining 99.9968 percent of you, the final three games are purely academic. As they have been for me, ever since I found peace and joy a few years ago by turning March into an NCAA Zen state, one where the brackets remain unfilled and the contests stay on the court.
When it comes to NCAA picks, the stakes rarely matter. The brackets contests are first and foremost an emotional investment to make each and every NCAA game matter. Even when those no-chance No. 16 seeds play those No. 1s. (And what happened this year?)
I hear what you’re saying: The brackets just help those of us who live in states with only one Division I program, one unable to get out of the first round of the conference tournament. It helps keeps things … interesting.
If you need things more interesting than this year, then put down that energy drink. This year, the favorites started stumbling right out of the gate, with the South bracket going south on Day 1. Not only did a No. 1 seed lose, it was the No. 1 overall seed. And it wasn’t on a buzzer-beater. It was a 20-plus point favorite losing by 20 points.
I realize those kind of shocking wins don’t happen every year, but upsets always happen. Only once, in 2008, was the Final Four made up of all the No. 1 seeds. Loyola is the fourth 11th-seeded team to make the Final Four, but the Ramblers are the third since 2006.
And everyone factors in some upsets from the start: A No. 12 always beats a No. 5. Or is it a 13 seed beating a No. 4? Pick the wrong ones while the upset happens elsewhere, and you’re doubly in the hole.
Still you counter: My bracket’s toast after the first weekend anyway. That’s when I can root for a good game.
But if that’s good enough for the Sweet 16, why not play that way just from the start? Why don’t most contests pick the First Four games, what many call the play-in games? Shouldn’t these be the ones most in need of being made interesting? So they must be irrelevant then? Not this year: Syracuse played on past its second game and then some. Could it be that those games are skipped just to give everyone until Thursday morning to study for their picks and help those who run pools from getting blitzed and beleaguered in the turnaround from Sunday to Tuesday to Thursday?
Enough, you say: This is all for fun. No one sees the brackets as a life-or-death matter.
Fun is good, but that investment, emotional or financial, can lead to some ugly scenes. As the losses pile up, along come denial, anger, bargaining and the rest of the starting five from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ stages of grief. Rooting against a buzzer-beater, either by favorite or Cinderella, so it preserves your bracket is a sign that fun is not involved.
So this weekend, enjoy the Final Four, likely without a stake in any tourney pool. Remember that feeling next March. And when someone slips you a tourney sheet or e-mails an invite to a pool, go with the ultimate bracket buster: You.