Spring is here. Let the madness begin.
I am not talking about spring break in Daytona Beach or barhopping in El Paso or vaccination signups over the Internet. No, I am talking about the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament in Indianapolis.
This year there is a great deal of pent-up demand for the “Big Dance” to crown the national collegiate basketball champion. As the first sporting casualty of the pandemic, the tournament was cancelled last year during Covid lock down forcing all of us to watch Tiger King instead.
I spent a lurid week desperately rooting for the Tigers.
But in a welcome nod to normalcy, the NCAA tournament is back with a vengeance and set to rage again like a newly discovered sporting variant.
At its heart, March Madness is a chance for people like me, who know nothing about college basketball, to lose money. Like millions of other participants in social distance betting, I fill out my bracket of 64 teams round by round until I wrongly predict the national champion, losing points along the way because I also wrongly predicted the rounds preceding.
It happens this way.
First, someone who is highly organized and good at math creates a March Madness office pool. The pool is meant to be a fun and exciting way to bring people together in an illegal betting ring that produces one or two winners financed by those of us who know little about college basketball, let alone college. Where is Gonzaga, anyway?
This person takes our money and in turn hands us a sheet with blank lines that looks to be an upended family tree with someone else's great great great grandchildren. In the Madness family, this is called a bracket. And at the ends of the bracket tuning forks are 64 colleges which may or may not mean something to us.
This year a school I attended is a favorite in the tournament which means I have a vested interest in the outcome even though I never attended a single basketball game in my years there. In my defense, I didn’t attend a lot of classes either.
Regardless of our impartialities, our job is to project the winners of each basketball game starting with the first 64, followed by the next 32, then 16, then 8, then 4, and ultimately the last 2 in the championship game. You should recognize these numbers as the basis for computer programming. Which is important because the odds of correctly generating a winner in 63 different games is something like one in 9 quintillion, roughly the size of the national debt.
In the Berkshire Hathaway March Madness office pool, whoever correctly picks all 126 winners receives a billion dollars right out of Warren Buffet’s pocket. Given his net worth and the odds of winning, Warren Buffet is pretty stingy with his dough. It is kind of like offering a dollar to anyone who can stand outside and can get hit by an asteroid.
But it is a lot more fun picking winners than getting struck by asteroids. And with a blank bracket in hand, the winners we need to pick. And if we get some right we earn points. And depending on the round, these could be a few points or a lot of points. A lot of points are good, but more points than everybody else is usually better.
Once we have picked our winners it is time to understand the rules. This is important because not every pool is scored the same. Some pools award more points for long shots. In this case you are better off selecting the teams that are expected to lose. Here picking the losers is a winning strategy and picking the winners is a losing strategy.
Did I mention that I have never won an office pool?
It is also important to understand that when going online to steal expert picks, the bracket for the women’s tournament is not the same as for the men’s tournament. I learned this the hard way when I selected a national champion to win that wasn’t even in the tournament.
And that is about it. With our brackets complete and our money headed for the pockets of someone else, we are free to experience the glorious triumphs and gut-wrenching heartbreaks that characterize March Madness.
Still, you might want to wait a week. Because the final rounds are when the real excitement begins. These rounds have catchy names like the Sweet Sixteen and the Elite Eight and the Final Four. The first rounds don’t have catchy names because no one watches them. Let’s face it, the Thrilling Thirty-two are not all that thrilling and watching sixty-four teams play in a single weekend is definitely not sexy, no matter how appealing the alliteration.
Besides, by the time the Sweet Sixteen rolls around you will be over the embarrassment of selecting teams that are no longer in the tournament and can really enjoy cheering for teams you probably don’t care that much about.
And it sure beats watching Tiger King.