The Evergreen Emotional Turmoil of the NCAA Tournament

I can’t remember the first time I filled out an NCAA tournament bracket. It must have been 1997 or so and I probably used Dogpile or Alta Vista to do my research. I watched the online pool update at the end of each game and if someone called my house phone while I was bracket-surfing, the entire process was delayed. That was my first ever taste of any type of sports gambling. It was intoxicating that these basketball players were running and jumping and sweating and bleeding to beat each other and still, at the end of the day, the big winner was going to be me on my couch at home eating Jell-O beans and drinking generic soda. It was beautiful.

Every year since that first innocent taste of Madness, I start to anticipate brackets some time around New Year’s and the tournament urge grows and grows until Selection Sunday, when I anxiously await the announcement of the field, with an empty bracket on the coffee table and a puddle of drool forming around my ankles. It’s common knowledge that entering the tournament field by hand before a digital version is available equates to a gigantic karmic advantage in predicting winners and losers.

Yes Colorado State, it was you this year. Stepping on fate and throwing the universe out of balance. And come on, are those practice uniforms?

I watch the seed distribution, boldly writing (in pen) my guesses to remaining seeds once I have seen the first two or three divisions, throwing caution to the wind and often needing to go back and entirely re-write the teams rather than cross out an entry mistake. If perfection is to be maintained through 63 games, perfection must be the starting point.

And all of this so I can turn off the television as soon as the coverage ends and scurry into my bedroom to sit alone and look at a ton of numbers about teams to help me make my predictions. For someone who has a firm and unwavering ability to force mathematics into non-quantitative real-life scenarios, the NCAA Tournament is a pipe dream of possibilities. If you think about it long enough, there’s got to be a way to predict it. It’s impossible that there isn’t. Someone will figure it out some day.

For three full days, I will tinker with a pick or two (Do I really think NC State can beat kansas?), but generally once the picks are written in ink on that paper, it’s decided. I carry my bracket around in my back pocket in case an emergency occurs where I would need to prove that I have indeed picked VCU to win in the first round this year, even though popular opinion may suggest that their luck has run out. Not only have I picked VCU to win in the first round this year, but you are a complete moron if you disagree, and that folded up piece of paper should be enough evidence to show you the light.

Like anyone who has ever filled out a bracket, I imagine that this year will be the year that I finally win my pool. And not only that. This year — I’m convinced — will be the year I finally nail all 63 games. Sure, no one has ever done it before, but I’ve got as good a shot as anyone. Hell, I watch basketball all the time, so I probably even have a better shot than average. But better than average isn’t my expectation.

Let me state this clearly: for 15 years, I have filled out an NCAA Tournament bracket not suspecting, but knowing for an absolute a priori truth that for the first time in recorded history, I have correctly predicted the winner of every game.

The first day of basketball games in each NCAA Tournament is always just the first day for me to prove to myself that I knew it all along. And every year, when my bracket finally loses that initial game, my world breaks apart a little bit. It’s simply not possible that these games are operating independent of what my I had forecast. I’m serious, I just cannot understand that first loss and the obvious imperfection of my picks.

This year for the first time ever, my initial loss came in the first game played. I had a perfect bracket for 39:59 of game time before Murray State beat Colorado State by a whole bunch and my spotless record was tarnished. Was it insane to pick the Rams to beat the Racers? Maybe. Is it borderline psychopathic to genuinely expect yourself to predict the bracket perfectly ever year when the odds of doing it are 9 QUINTILLION to 1? Maybe. In the bowels of my consciousness, do I know that in 2013 I will go 63-0 and retire off of my winnings and subsequent analyst deals? Undoubtedly.

It’s amazing what this tournament will do to you if you let it in.

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