DC at Night

DC at Night

Monday, March 18, 2013

Once Again, It's the Madness of March Time

In life, there are all kinds of important -ologies. There's biology for the body and theology for the soul. If you want to understand people, you should look at psychology or sociology. If you want to study old things, that might involve archaeology; if old people are your passion, that could lead you to gerontology. In fact, when it comes to -ologies, there's everything from A (astronomy) to Z (zoology).

But for 3 weeks each March, there is only one -ology that really matters. And that would be bracketology, the frustratingly fun science of trying to figure out just which one of 68 (which used to be 64 which used to be 32 which used to be 16, which in the 1930s used to be 8) teams will win the NCAA basketball championship.

It's called March Madness and whether you live in Washington the District or Washington the state, it will be the big topic of sports conversation until a new national champion is crowned in Atlanta on April 8. For the uninitiated few or anyone newly arrived from another planet, here's how it works. The NCAA selection committee chooses what is supposed to be the best 68 college basketball teams in the country. They are then ranked from 1 to 68. The last 4 chosen match up in play-in games. The 2 winners join the other 62 teams in equally divided fields of 16 teams in 4 regions of the country. In the 1st week, a series of games produce what is called the Sweet 16. The second week reduces that list to the Elite Eight; then the Final 4. Those 4 teams then play 2 games for the national title.

But here's where the fan fun comes in. Using brackets they fill in and then scratch out and then fill in again, millions of Americans try to predict the winner of each of the games with the object, of course, to pick as many winners as possible including (and most importantly) the eventual national champion. These bracket sheets are then entered into national pools, online pools, and office pools, sometimes simply for bragging rights, but most often with some kind of financial reward for correct picks. However, despite your sports knowledge or luck level, the seemingly simple task usually proves to be so frustratingly difficult that you often end up believing  you should have bypassed your office pool, again won by a secretary who had never attended a basketball game in her life, and instead drowned your bracket in the nearest swimming pool.

And what makes it so difficult? It's a little thing called upsets. Upsets can, and do, happen.  A #15  seed isn't supposed to beat a # 2 seed, but it happens. In fact. it has happened 6 times over the years. Last year, it happened twice. Duke lost in the 1st round to #15-seeded Lehigh, as did Missouri to Norfolk State. And the upsetting upset situation just gets more uncertain as you move down the seeds. In the tournament:

  • 16 times, a #14 seed has defeated a #3 seed
  • 24 times, a #13 seed has defeated a #4 seed
  • 38 times, a #12 seed has defeated a #5 seed
  • 38 times, a #11 seed has defeated a #6 seed.
In fact, the only certainty in the 1st round of the tournament  is that no #1 has ever lost to a #16 seed. But , as my Mother used to say. you should never say never. Indeed, two #1 teams over the years have come away with a single-point victory, making it just a matter of time until a #16 bests a #1.

The Perfect Game: As a Villanova alum I had to show this
So how do you avoid the upsets that can bust your bracket? You definitely have to have a scientific system. Here are a couple I have encountered in my 50-year love affair with tournament time. One of my friends worked out a sophisticated scheme involving uniform colors. For example, blue topped red which topped green which topped yellow etc. I always wanted to ask her what she would have done in the ancient Olympics where athletes competed naked, but she was always so mad at losing in the pool that she wouldn't speak for a month and by then I would forget to ask her. Then there was another friend who thought religion might be the answer. In her case, whenever  a secular college would match up against a school with a religious affiliation, she would pick the religious school. That meant, for example, that she would pick Notre Dame over UCLA, even if UCLA was the number 1 ranked team in the country. But what would happen if 2 religious schools met? Well, being a sometimes-practicing Catholic, my friend would choose the Catholic school over any other denomination. But what would she do if it was a contest between 2 Catholic schools (such as when my alma mater Villanova played Georgetown for the national title in 1985)? First, she would give you a look of pity for asking such a question and then launch into a discussion of why Jesuits always trumped Augustinians. So how did the divine intervention theory work? Well, not too well. In 25 years, the total number of times she won the pool was 0. But she never gave up her faith.

But what do you do if you don't have a plan and you can't spend the next 72 hours studying every aspect of all 64 teams in the tournament (assuming your pool doesn't ask you to pick the play-in teams and you have that much time)? Pressed for fast action, you could go with the selection committee's 4 #1 teams. If you followed that this year, you would have Louisville playing Gonzaga and Kansas playing Indiana in the Final 4 with Louisville winning it all. Of course, the fact that only once (2008 with Kansas, North Carolina, UCLA, and Memphis) have all 4 #1 seeds made the Final 4, might not make you anxious to adopt that approach. 

In the end, it all comes down to numbers. First, there are the numbers produced on the court. I can tell you with absolute certainty that the only team to win 6 straight games will be the champion. And, in each of those 6 games, that team will have produced more points than its opponent. Then there are the odds numbers. There are 2^63 or 9.2 quintillion possibilities for the possible winners in a 64-team NCAA bracket, making the odds of randomly picking a perfect bracket  9.2 quintillion to 1. With the expansion of the tournament field to 68 teams in 2011, the odds are now increased to 2^67 or 147,573,952,589,676,412,928 (147.57 quintillion) possibilities. With numbers like that facing you, I only have a final 4 words for you --- good luck in picking.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
So, with local favorite Georgetown a #2 seed,  how is March Madness playing out in the nation's capitol? Well, tonight, at the 6th and I Synagogue, the home of lofty lectures and book talks by such prominent DC figures as Al Gore and Sandra Day O'Connor, you could have attended a Bracketology 101 program, where 2 local sports gurus were offering inside tips on how to fill out brackets. Then there is the National Park Service, which in a takeoff on March Madness, is offering its own Memorial Madness tournament where 8 Civil War monuments are vying to capture the DC Civil War monument title. (No word yet on who will cut down the nets for the winner).  Today, The Washington Post published a special 8-page section on the tournament, complete with an analysis of each of the 4 regions by noted sports writer and best-selling author John Feinstein. You can check out the Post coverage online by clicking here. Finally, DC is home to the nation's #1 college basketball fan, President Barack Obama. As he has done since he has been in office, President Obama will be filling out his bracket and posting it on the White House website.

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