The Home Team: A brilliant NCAA bracket no slam dunk
I am not a betting man.
The very thought of a casino depresses me. During my extremely brief golf career, I never bet on a round — not even a hole. I watch lots and lots of college and pro sports, and enjoy it tremendously, thank you, without wagering. I’m an NFL junkie, but I’m not in a single fantasy league. My three adult sons insist, with some disdain, that I’m the only serious male sports fan alive who does not play fantasy football.
There is one significant exception to all this betting abstinence. And that’s when it comes to March Madness. The Big Dance is huge in my family. My youngest son, Robby, takes Thursday and Friday off from work, as vacation, to watch the first two wild and glorious days in their entirety. My two older sons, Matt and Greg, fabricate meetings at work to sneak off and follow those same first-round games. All of us get CBS, TNT, TBS and TruTV lined up on our respective remotes. We bookmark CBS Sports on our laptops. We care deeply about teams — Florida Gulf Coast, Cal Bakersfield — that heretofore we knew nothing about. The intra-family texts — mostly trash talk — start zinging.
And for this one special event, this one time of year ... I put my money where my mouth is. I open the wallet and join my son Matt’s bracket. Forty-four contestants this year. Twelve hundred dollars to the winner. Six hundred to the runner-up. Three hundred for third. Fourth place gets his or her entry fee back — 50 bucks.
We’ve all got our methods for filling out our brackets. Some of us, like Robby, who watches so much college hoops that he actually knows intimately virtually every team in the tourney, draw from first-hand knowledge. Others, like Kelly, my daughter-in-law, go strictly with the favorites. Except for the schools she loves, which she upgrades. And those she hates, which she designates for early exits.
I’m somewhere in the middle. Since I’ve seen almost every minute of every UConn game — my team — I’m at least familiar with the Huskies’ opponents. Enough to know, for instance, that Maryland is pretty good, and Memphis is pretty bad. Then I’ll absorb The New York Times’ breakdown of the regions (I know, I know — old school) that the esteemed paper always runs the Monday after Selection Sunday. Next I’ll examine in great detail the “information” boxes the CBS Sports online site provides for each first-round matchup — where I pick up one juicy little nugget: The Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks, a team from Nacogdoches, Texas, known to virtually no one east of the Hudson — comes into the tournament undefeated in their conference and outscoring their opponents by 17 points a game! I pick them to upset West Virginia in the first round, and then to win the second round as well.
Those are the parts where I go with my head.
And then there’s the part where I go with my heart. I pick University of Southern California, Robby’s alma mater, to win until they (theoretically) meet another of my teams, UNC (Matt’s girlfriend’s alma mater), in the second round. Then I stay with UNC to win every game until they meet UConn, which would be (theoretically) in the finals! Of course, I pick UConn to win it all. And when this happens, I figure, being the only person insane enough in Matt’s entire 44-man field to pick a nine-seed to be champion, I’ll be a (relatively) wealthy man.
Thursday at 12:15, as UNC-Wilmington and Duke get ready to tip off the tournament, I’m feeling euphoric — the way I feel on Mets opening day in April (“They’re gonna win the World Series!”) and the first Sunday in September for the Jets (“They’re going to the Super Bowl!”). That feeling only gets better when UConn knocks off Colorado. And Stephen F. Austin crushes West Virginia.
But by the end of the first weekend, reality sets in. UConn is out, having lost to, truth be told, a vastly superior Kansas team on Saturday. Stephen F. Austin is out, having lost a heartbreaker to Notre Dame on Sunday. I’ve gotten only 30 results right in the first two rounds — not a whole lot more than I’ve gotten wrong. I stand 36th out of the 44 in Matt’s bracket. I’m dead last in my family.
There could be a silver lining, though, since there’s one more prize I neglected to mention earlier. Fifty dollars worth of toilet paper. The booby prize. That one looks to be well within my grasp.
“The Home Team” appears every other Friday. You can also keep up with Hank’s adventures on his blog, “Beagle Man” on the Westport News website, http://blog.ctnews.com/beagleman. To reach Hank, email him at DoubleH50@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @BeagleManHank.