The Layperson’s Guide to Talking About the NCAA Tournament

If you’re reading this, you’re probably in an NCAA tournament bracket contest that will start tomorrow. Actually, if you’re not reading this, you’re probably in an NCAA tournament bracket contest that will start tomorrow. The whole world does them because they’re fun, easy and you can end up being officially declared better than people you know.

The NCAA Tournament is a great example of sports thing that isn’t just for sports people. It’s like the Super Bowl except it lasts for three weekends and everyone has a dog in the betting fight. The problem with this is that all the non-sports people end up looking foolish trying to talk about their brackets at the water cooler because they say things like “Who do you have in tonight’s play-in game?”

The solution for this is a list of conversation rules designed to turn the amateurs into seasoned-sounding professionals. The Layperson’s Guides to Football and Basketball (all of those rules are in play with NCAA Tournament games) have turned sports-illiterates to the most popular people at sporting events, I hope this guide will assist those who need it to stay afloat for the next few weeks.

11 Rules for Speaking Bracket-ese  

The funny part is that he think he actually won something. Poor little guy.

The funny part is that he think he actually won something. Poor little guy.

1. The first four games (play-in games) aren’t real games — Nothing shows off expertise like being condescending, so it’s usually best to openly trumpet your disdain for these extra four games. The play-in games of the NCAA Tournament are like the points in “Whose Line is It Anyway?” They’re like the Tums that I swallowed before two days of chili and wings. Like whatever I’m supposed to do at work tomorrow and Friday. Like Whatever else is on TV for the next 48 hours. They don’t matter.  The way you remember it, there were 64 teams, not 68. This isn’t the new “first round,” that’s still the round of 64 that starts on Thursday and Friday, after they carry away the first four winners in clown cars. It’s not enough to simply not care about the initial Tuesday/Wednesday games, it’s only acceptable to verbally destroy them.
Important note: The teams and players are still likable, they’re just playing in ludicrous competitions.
Suggested conversation piece: “Oh, you guys are going to watch the Iowa/Tennessee game after work tonight? I heard there were Cheers reruns on TBS, so I’m going to do that and then get to bed early so I can see the start of the Tournament tomorrow.”

2. Dick Vitale is annoying, baby — Again, this is an area where you’re going to need to be as venomous as possible. There was a point in time when Dicky V was a friendly staple of the NCAA Tournament, reminding us all about the excitement and frenzy of competition. Of course, now he’s just a noisy old man who might as well be yelling at the bus. The best way to remind other people that you’re over Dick Vitale is to do an impression of him saying ridiculous things. If you don’t know what he sounds like, imagine the oldest man you know, except he’s on cocaine. Pepper in the words “Baby,” “Diaper-Dandies,” “PTP-er” (which stands for prime-time player-er), “the Rock” and “the Dukies.”
Suggested conversation piece: [in energetic, husky Dick Vitale voice] “I don’t even get paid to do this anymore, baby! I haven’t been alive since most of the Dukies were just Diaper Dandies! You could replace me with a sound board, Baby!”

3. Don’t say “sleeper” or “Cinderella,” say “surprise” — Nothing screams “I just googled ‘NCAA Tournament sleepers’ like calling a team a sleeper or a Cinderella. Only amateurs use these words. Every year, sports columnists posing as experts pick a couple of random high-seed teams and pick them as official “sleepers,” but the truth is that if those teams were actually good, they wouldn’t be seeded so poorly. When you have a feeling about a certain bad team winning a few games (more in rule #7), say you “think they’re going to surprise some people,” or if you want to sound particularly educated, use the word “underseeded.”
Suggested conversation piece: “I swear, the next time I hear about your ‘Cinderella‘ team, I’m going to surprise you with a sleeper hold that will end your life.”

Is he excited because Duke just won or because he made the early-bird special at Old Country Buffet? He doesn't know.

Is he excited because Duke just won or because he made the early-bird special at Old Country Buffet? He doesn’t know.

4. Carry a printed-out paper bracket with you; fold it up, make it look worn — The rest of these rules will be about what to say, but this one is more about how to say it. It’s common practice to carry around a hard copy of your bracket, and not just the one in the newspaper, and actual computerized image. It can be in your pocket or your purse or wherever, you just have to be able to unpack and then unfold it whenever you hear anyone talking about a score. Have you heard about the upset? You can check. Who do you have Florida playing in the next round? You can check. The paper bracket is a conversation piece. You don’t need to go crazy highlighting and circling and crossing out or anything, but you need ink-and-paper proof that you were thinking about basketball. If you want to go crazy and give it the rough edges and burnt-browning look that you gave that Constitution Re-creation art project in third grade, this is the time.
Suggested conversation piece: “Who do you have winning this? Oh, who do I have? Let me just pull out this ….”

5. Talk about “chalk” — “Chalk” is what happens when the higher-seeded teams win games. If you were to predict a bracket where the favorite won every game, it would be 100% chalk ( see also: Chalktober, Chalkie Studebaker, Chalk Norris) which is completely unacceptable. “Chalk” is the antithesis of what the tournament is about. Coincidentally, picking chalk is almost always the best way to win, so as soon as you’re not in first place, start accusing other people of picking too much of it.
Suggested conversation piece: “If you’re going to go all chalk, you might as well just watch the women’s tournament. It’s not even a real tournament until the first double-digit seed makes the Sweet 16.

6. Don’t make up fake ways to pick your winner — This is something that amateurs love to do. They’ll say something like “I just went with the team that has the coolest mascot” or “I like the colors of this school the best.” In reality, all these people always pick chalk-heavy brackets and can’t tell you the colors or mascot of the one-seed they picked to win it all. What they’re really saying is “I picked all the No. 1 seeds and then lied about the methodology so I could have an excuse if I lose.”
Suggested conversation piece: “I don’t watch basketball because the game has gotten so weak . I just picked all the favorites teams because that’s what Vegas wants and I’m not stupid.”

This is the Stephen F. Austin team. If you don't know, now you know.

This is the Stephen F. Austin team. If you don’t know, now you know.

7. You called it — Don’t be afraid to pick some bad teams to win, the joy of the NCAA Tournament isn’t in picking the right powerhouse to steamroll Wofford and Mount Saint Mary’s, the point of the bracket is to be the person with the balls to call the upset before it happens. What you want to do is pick some bad teams to win a few games and the broadcast that you called it when it actually happens. When you get one right, you want to say the bracket “set up well for them,” because no one knows what that means, but everyone will respect it.
Suggested conversation piece: “When I was looking at Stephen F. Austin, I couldn’t help but think that the bracket was set up for them to make a nice run. I definitely called it.”
Actual Real-Life Admission: My bracket really has Stephen F. Austin winning two games. Because I think the bracket sets up well for them. They have the all right matchups to take them to the Sweet 16.

8. “It’s all about matchups” — When talking about a game that features at least one team you don’t know anything about, point out that it’s all about matchups (see above). This is a universal (read: unarguable) truth about basketball, and the best part is that you don’t even need to describe which matchups it’s actually all about, you just point out that there are matchups in play here and that they matter dramatically.
Suggested conversation piece: “I really like the matchups for Stephen F. Austin against VCU. They might even make a deeper run, but it depends how they match up with the UCLA/Tulsa winner.

9. Anything can happen — The interesting thing about projecting winners is that it’s impossible and any kind of argument is so hypothetical and subjective that it only makes sense to the person doing the arguing. If you want to talk about basketball with someone, then go crazy, but when you want the conversation to be over, just say “It’s the NCAA Tournament, anything can happen” and leave. The good teams can win, the bad teams can win, the Big 10 teams might even win. ANYTHING can happen, as long as that something is one team beating another one at basketball.
Suggested conversation piece: “All the 12 seeds in the Final Four? It sounds crazy now, but it’s March Madness, anything can happen.”
Bonus points: The reason anything can happen is that we have 30+ games of experience with these teams, but they only play one game in the tournament, which allows for something called “sampling error” where an unlikely thing happens. I like to pepper in the words “sample size,” but that’s just me.

Wofford's adorable mascot. No joke.

Wofford’s adorable mascot. No joke.

10. Learn a bizarre nickname — Even real basketball fans don’t know that Albany’s nickname is the Great Danes or that Coastal Carolina is the Chanticleers. Learn a handful of obscure ones to throw around like you know what’s up. Here are more fun ones:

  • Delaware Fightin’ Blue Hens
  • Wofford Terriers
  • Manhattan Jaspers
  • St. Louis Billikens
  • Massachusetts Minutemen
  • Everyone knows it, but Wichita State is still the Shockers

Suggested conversation piece: “Lumberjacks! This Stephen F. Austin team looks more like the Ladyjacks today!” (True story, there’s a different mascot for the female teams, and ladyjacks is a word)

11. As of right now, your bracket could be the first perfect one ever — This is the most important thing of all. Until tomorrow, you have a perfect bracket. It’s never been done before and it’ll probably never be done ever, but who am I to tell you that you don’t have it nailed. Who is anyone to tell you that you can’t be the first. Honestly, the first game you miss is going to hit you like a ton of Kansas free throws, but you’ll feel better when you get a shot at perfection next year.
Suggested conversation piece: “Warren Buffett is an idiot if he thinks his money is safe. I’m going to quit this job in three weeks when I win that Billion dollars and I’m throwing one hell of a party.”

Bonus rule for when it’s all over:

12. It’s all luck — There’s really not as much education involved as you’d think. Actually, no education is involved. Just pick some bad teams to go kinda far and pick the favorites for the rest. At the end of the tournament, anything can happen and it really does just come down to who gets lucky. Of course, the bracket winner will never ever admit this, but I know more about stats than they do, and luck is the only thing that matters. Just take the money and shut up.
Suggested conversation piece: “The best thing about the bracket contest is that it’s just like the real tournament: at the end, 67 teams are losers everyone is so disappointed and jealous that the winner doesn’t have anyone to celebrate with.”

Realization I had while writing this: I love Stephen F. Austin, guaranteeing a Lumberjack loss in the first round.