March Sadness

Your NCAA brackets have fallen apart; you are not alone. Devised with lessons learned from the tournament thus far, a set of rules to ensure a perfect prediction from here on out.

This was going to be the year. The year I nailed every pick in the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament. The year I went 63-0. (Not including the play-in game.) It may come as no surprise my picks haven’t gone as planned. But life is about learning so instead of tears, I offer (a few) explanations of the (many) errors—as well as my (revised) predictions for the remainder of the tourney. Writing it has helped me. Hopefully reading it will help you.

Lessons Learned From Picking the 2008 N.C.A.A. Men’s Basketball Tournament Field

My first mistake was predicting fourth-seeded Vanderbilt over 13th-seeded Siena College, but Siena won by 21 points. Should I, like Todd Lichti and his Stanford Cardinal teammates in 1989, have seen it coming when Siena beat them in the first round? Yes. Siena is a small school with a history of triumphing over adversity. (In 1989, before beating Stanford, Siena won its conference tournament in an empty stadium due to a university-wide quarantine due to a measles outbreak.) Therefore:

Lesson No. 1: Chutzpah counts. Go with underdogs with a history of triumph in the face of adversity. especially when playing a team like Vanderbilt, who hasn’t played well on the road all season.

If it’s true that adversity imbues an underdog with additional win capacity, why did the Georgia Bulldogs lose their first round game? (Another bad pick on my part.) Georgia entered their conference tournament with a losing record, went on a rampage, won out, and got the automatic bid to the tournament. This, despite playing their first two conference tournament games in one day after severe winds beat a hole in the stadium roof, prompting the cancellation of their first game. And they had history on their side as well. (In 1983, Georgia upset a heavily favored North Carolina team led by Michael Jordan.)

Georgia lost because Lesson No. 1 only applies to small, non-traditional powers. Georgia is a big state school with a powerful athletic program. They are Bulldogs—not underdogs—in all the big-money sports. Siena, by comparison, eliminated its football program a few years ago due to persistent failure. I have to slap myself for neglecting:

Lesson No. 1(a): The underdog’s advantage is exponentially heightened when, as with Siena, the school is tiny and founded on ground previously used for asparagus farming.

When in doubt, go with the least smarmy coach who uses the least obvious amount of hair gel. Worth noting: Georgia led for most of their game before folding. Some attributed this to fatigue, but more likely it’s indicative of a personality disorder. The signs are there: rushing three-pointers without proper rebounding numbers (i.e., overly optimistic behavior without thinking of consequences), end of game swearing and intentional fouling (i.e., irritable outbursts), and poor posture and heads buried in hands (i.e., shaky self-esteem issues).

I’m equally disappointed in my other mistakes. For example, Davidson upset the mighty Georgetown Hoyas. In retrospect, a no-brainer. Both Davidson and Georgetown have sons of former N.B.A. players on their teams (Stephen Curry and Patrick Ewing, Jr., respectively), but—and here’s the critical part—Ewing’s dad was a better player than Curry’s dad which means Curry had the greater motivation based on familial needs for revenge and reclamation of honor. All of which evokes the Greek legend of the House of Atreus. In this instance, Thyestes is Curry’s dad, retired sharpshooter Dell. The violator of his family is Atreus—portrayed here in tandem by the teams and coaches who thwarted Papa Curry’s success on college basketball’s preeminent stage. Atreus, you’ll recall, is responsible for killing Dell/Thyestes’s two sons (first round N.C.A.A. tournament losses) and feeding them to Dell/Thyestes at a banquet, leaving Dell/Thyestes to sire another son, Aegisthus/Stephen, who might exact a measure of revenge against the Ateuses of the world, who hurt his father as well as his own Atreuses—the long list of big-name programs who didn’t recruit him as they thought him too small for big-time college ball. Duh.

Lesson No. 3: Tread lightly in the presence of a son trying to prove himself to the world and a father who taught him how to bury the deep ball.

Lessons learned. From here on out I stick to my rules, and ace this thing.

East Region Semi-Final: Tennessee vs. Louisville

Here we encounter Rule No. 1: When in doubt, go with the least smarmy coach who uses the least obvious amount of hair gel.

Known outside the academic community as the Rick Pitino (Louisville)/John Calipari (Memphis) Rule, the thinking behind this is that self-conscious styling takes away time from game preparation.

Arbitrary? No. Consider that in the modern hair-gel era (defined as the mid-1980s onward, concurrent with the patenting of mousse) only one team—Kentucky, with former coach Rick Pitino—has won the championship with a coach who obviously employed shiny hair product. We might quibble with Arizona’s win as Lute Olsen’s hair is so immobile it can’t be natural, but that’s at most two out of 23 champions with a gelled-up coach—the last two won by Florida and their coach, Billy Donovan, whose crew cut makes him look like he should be managing a Denny’s.

In this game, Rule No. 1 gives the edge to Tennessee as Pitino now coaches Louisville and the Volunteers’ coach Bruce Pearl does not seem nearly as gelled up as Pitino, but when it comes to the smarminess part of Rule No. 1, Pearl is every bit the self-promoter Pitino is, which decreases his smarm quotient advantage, plus his teams have a tendency for early flame-outs.

However, Louisville also tends to flame out early especially when talented (except for 2004 when they made the Final Four, but that’s a statistical anomaly), and Pitino strikes me as a no-holds-barred recruiter (i.e., smarmy) and Pitino wore a white suit for the first half of a regular season game, which is so smarmy it defies description. (After his team played terribly in the first half he changed to a tasteful dark suit at halftime and they pulled it out—I offer this as incontrovertible proof that Rule No. 1 matters.) Pearl, on the other hand, is famous for attending Tennessee’s women’s games with his chest painted orange—the antithesis of smarmy. Rick Pitino would never do that. Advantage Pearl and Tennessee.

Conclusion: Tennessee wins.

East Region Semi-Final: North Carolina vs. Washington State

A powder-puff blue team vs. a red one. On first impression, Washington State’s powerful red seems to give them the advantage.

Going back to 1990, teams with blue as a school color have won 14 out of the last 17 championships, thus we can conclude blue is the stronger color. But.

I have a half-sister who is a red-shirt field hockey player for U.N.C., which gives them an advantage due to tangential filial loyalty and the red in the red-shirt helping to neutralize Washington State’s red uniforms.

(Also in U.N.C.’s favor: I once kissed a girl who graduated from North Carolina whereas no Washington State graduate has ever allowed me near her. We’ll call this Rule No. 2: The Friendly Alumni Advantage.)

East Region Final: North Carolina vs. Tennessee

Color seems paramount in the match-up between U.N.C. and Tennessee, any shade of blue better than weird Tennessee orange. (Proof: Florida’s colors are a dark blue and bright orange, but they didn’t win either national championship in orange jerseys. Going back to 1990, teams with blue as a school color have won 14 out of the last 17 championships, thus we can conclude blue is the stronger color.)

Rule No. 3: Team colors matter and no one looks good in orange.

Conclusion: U.N.C. beats Washington State, then makes the Final Four after defeating Tennessee in an orange and powder-puff blue battle for the ages.

South Region Final: Michigan State vs. Texas

I’m jumping ahead to the match-up between Michigan State and Texas as the Longhorns win their game against Stanford because the Longhorns have the advantage of weaker academics. In the other game, Memphis only has one loss coming in against Michigan State, but 15 teams have entered the tournament with one loss and only three have won the championship. Further crippled by terrible free-throw shooting and smarmy coach John Calipari (Rule No. 1), Memphis has no chance.

This makes Davidson four points better than Wisconsin, but because “Wisconsin” has one more letter than “Davidson,” we have to cut the margin down to three. Texas coach Rick Barnes may not seem to use as much hair gel as Calipari, but as with Lute Olson, in looking at him one senses its presence under the surface. Less pronounced, his smarminess is harder to pin down, which makes it even worse. By contrast, I’m sure Michigan State’s Tom Izzo uses some product, but he’s from Iron Mountain, Mich., a town home to the largest steam pump in the world and one of the region’s largest bat hibernation locations, so we should cut him some slack. Team colors hurt Texas as well, especially in comparing burnt-out orange to Michigan State’s sturdy green. For this reason, Texas has to lose to Michigan State for the same reason Tennessee has to lose: They’re too hard to watch. That said, the Longhorns underperformed in the tournament last year with Kevin Durant but this year are a seemingly better team without him—I like the idea of teams performing better the year after their star leaves as it speaks to my loose socialist tendencies—but we are talking about Texas after all, a state at least partly responsible for our rather unpopular president so I’m hesitant to give them a break.

Conclusion: Michigan State kills the smarmy hopes of both Memphis and Texas and makes the Final Four.

West Region

U.C.L.A. wins out—only twice since 1979 has at least one number one seed not made the Final Four. All four have never made it since the tournament expanded to its current size, so two seems a pretty reasonable expectation. North Carolina’s already in so I guess I have to go with another powder-puff.

Midwest Region Final: Davidson vs. Kansas (and Beyond)

Davidson not only makes the Final Four by beating first Wisconsin then Kansas, but wins the national championship. (Kansas beats Villanova to reach Davidson because Villanova knocked out Siena and Kansas, a school in a state dependent on agriculture, avenges Siena’s loss, the historic asparagus growers being brothers in arms to the agro-advantaged Jayhawks.)

How does Davidson do it? Like this: Davidson beats Wisconsin by three points. I know this because they have one common opponent, Wofford. When Wisconsin played them, they won by 27; the last time Davidson played Wofford, the Wildcats won by 31. This makes Davidson four points better than Wisconsin, but because “Wisconsin” has one more letter than “Davidson,” we have to cut the margin down to three.

In similar fashion, we see U.C.L.A. was three points better than U.S.C. and Kansas four points better than U.S.C., making Kansas one point better than U.C.L.A., except “U.C.L.A.” stands for “University of California Los Angeles” (32 letters), making U.C.L.A. 31 points better than Kansas. Since U.C.L.A. beat Davidson by 12 points, that makes Davidson 19 points better than Kansas, and when you factor in that “Davidson” has two more letters than “Kansas,” the margin balloons to 14 points. Davidson also lost by four points to North Carolina, a team ranked three slots higher than Kansas in all the national polls. Four multiplied by three is 12. Added to 14, Davidson beats Kansas by 26 points.

Conclusion: In the 69 years since the tournament’s inception, a team with some sort of cat as a mascot has made the Final Four 29 times. Davidson (the Wildcats) makes it an even 30 then, after both powder-puff blue teams lose in the semifinals, Davidson triumphs over Michigan State in the championship game by scoring more points than their opponent.

Steve McNutt lives in Iowa City, Iowa, and has taught writing at the University of Iowa, where he received an M.F.A. in Nonfiction Writing and a Ph.D. in Language, Literacy, and Culture. He is a former Provost Scholar, Iowa Arts Fellow, and Peace Corps Volunteer whose work has been listed as notable in the Best American Essays anthology and appeared in the Iowa Review, the Burnside Review, the Des Moines Register, Annals of Iowa, Lost, Perceptive Travel, and on WSUIs (Iowa) Weekend Edition. More by Steve McNutt