Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Unorthodox Selection Methods and a Classic Bracket Story

Nobody has a more interesting way of selecting the NCAA tournament games than my brother Gabe, and by interesting, I mean "almost guaranteed to finish last in any pool he enters." In summary, here is what goes on. He figures out the percentage that a certain seed will beat another seed based on past tournament history. For instance, a #6 will beat a #11 about 69% of the time. Then he takes the trusty old TI-83 calculator and performs a weighted coin toss with those odds. The machine pumps out the winner of the toss and the bracket is slowly completed. But it can lead to some bizarre selections to say the least. This leads to classic conversations like this one.

Me: You got Michigan winning?

Gabe: Yea...actually, I have 'em winning two games.

Me: Wow, taking down Oklahoma, eh?

Gabe: Yeah, I never said that...

That's right, folks. You heard it here first. The immortal Morgan St. Bears are going to shock the world and become just the fifth #15 seed of all-time to slay the #2. It might seem unconventional and insane. Ok, it really is those things.

Sure, Gabe is the same guy that used to routinely pick Holy Cross to win 2-3 games every year despite the fact that their superstar big guy would always be chugging up and down the court being held together by the world's largest and most obtrusive knee brace. And I'll grant you that he might be the least successful bracket selector in history. But put it this way. When's the last time you punched a slew of digits into a calculator, waited for the answer to compute...and it spit out the wrong answer?


It was always one of the more exciting nights of the year growing up. My Dad would return home from work on a Monday or Tuesday night with fresh brackets displaying the names of the 64 entrants in that year's NCAA basketball tournament. We would gather around the kitchen table and each carefully craft our perfect bracket. The year was 1992, and the world was still far from the "Internet ruling the world" days, so entering the pool still meant actually taking a pen to a piece of paper. My brothers and I would always enter our Dad's office pool, and this was the year I planned to shock him and the rest of his adult co-workers by proving that the young High Socks Legend had a wealth of knowledge at his disposal and planned to use it for significant monetary gain. Just one problem...the brackets never found their way home.

It's hard to remember now exactly what went on that week. Maybe he worked late a couple nights. Maybe he forgot the brackets on his desk. Maybe I was just too consumed with playing UNO during that time to notice anything else going on in the world (UNO occupied at least 80-85 percent of my thoughts from the age of 8 to 17). However it went down, the tournament started Thursday afternoon and I was sitting in Mrs. Hines classroom, listening to stories about "The Boxcar Children," and seething inside that I was not able to fill out that bracket. I was not a happy little 45-pounder.

When my Dad returned home that night, he tried to make things right. He told us he was sorry for the bracket mishap, but he'd solved the problem by filling out a bracket for each of us and turning it into the league commissioner. After all, as long as you're in the pool and you have teams to root for in every game, who cares how it got filled out? I did. I was high on Roy Williams and Kansas all year, though most of that admiration was based on my obsession with the giant Jayhawk logo plastered at midcourt of their gym. Regardless, I wanted Kansas all the way on my bracket...yet my Dad had given me a sheet with 'Duke' written in the "Champion" slot. He had stolen my dream. His bracket correctly displayed 'Kansas' as the last team standing. Sure, they were both #1 seeds, but Duke was not Kansas! My one chance to dominate the month of March and it was going up in flames because of a little miscommunication?!?? I demanded a swap!

"You take mine...I'll take yours!! I wanted Kansas!! Please"!!!

Like any good father would do in that situation, he obliged without even thinking about it. Kansas was mine, at last. I handed over my Duke bracket without an ounce of regret. I could practically feel that grand prize of about $100 in my little Jayhawk claws. The rest of the tournament went a little something like this. Kansas steamrolled #16 seed Howard in the opener. The next opponent they would dismantle would be Don Haskins' UTEP Miners. But as was the case countless times during the 90's, Roy Williams was severely outcoached by the man on the other side of the court. The elder Haskins toyed with Williams, manipulating the shot clock till the last tick on nearly every possession and devising a defense that would hold the high powered Jayhawks to just 60 points in a devastating upset loss. On the other side of the coin, Duke was rolling through the bracket. Bobby Hurley was dishing, Grant Hill was finishing, and Christian Laettner was hitting the most famous shot in college basketball history. They would go on to win the National Championship, and my Dad was swimming in $5 bills.

It could have been me. That was my bracket originally. But I thought I knew better, and my blind loyalty to Kansas ended up coming back to bite me in the end, in a big way. Now that I'm older and I think about the whole situation from a more mature standpoint, I realize I made a terrible mistake in not trusting my Dad to lead me down the right path. He mapped out the route for my ultimate victory, and I flipped it upside-down. But there's still one thing I can't quite figure out, even 17 years later. When I demanded he switch brackets with me, why was there not even the slightest bit of hesitation on his part? Could it be that he knew I would object to whichever team he gave me, and want the other one instead? I'll never know.

I do know this much, however. Thursday afternoon might come around and I will realize I forgot to fill out my bracket for the pool. My Dad will let me know he scribbled out an entry for me at the last minute, with 'Binghamton' emerging victorious at Ford Field. I will think, "Hmm, they seem like an improbable champion." But my mouth will be slammed shut.

I'm not making the same mistake twice.

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