By Jason Gay, Wall Street Journal
Let’s get the hard truth out the way: Your 2015 NCAA tournament office pool will almost surely be won by someone in the office who has not watched a college-basketball game since…well, they have never watched a college-basketball game.
They cut their cable-TV cord in 2007. They care about gardening. They own big books about spiders. Ask them to name a current college basketball player, and they pause for a moment before saying “Dr. J.”
They are not picking the Kentucky Wildcats to go all the way in Indianapolis because the Kentucky Wildcats are undefeated. They are picking the Kentucky Wildcats because, you know, cats.
This is mostly a very good thing.
College basketball is a messy business. It is indeed a business—a many billion-dollar business—rich with hypocrisies and shenanigans and schools surrendering their principles for a run at glory (you know, the kind of thing that just might happen in a many billion-dollar business). The product isn’t always so compelling, either. There are legitimate gripes about time stoppages and the unhurried pace of play. I am not saying it is slow, but you can drive from Philadelphia to Vancouver during the last two minutes of a college basketball game.
But as an all-inclusive spectacle, the NCAA basketball tournament endures. The thing just feels unstoppable. By now you know the drill:
1. Fill out your bracket.
2. Watch the tournament.
3. Forget which teams you picked.
4. Check your bracket.
6. Eat a sleeve of peanut-butter cookies.
Maybe you’ve gotten close in an office pool before. Maybe you’re always ruined after the first weekend. The point is you get invested. The tournament sucks in the obsessive and the indifferent; the cynical and the committed; the bracketologists and the people who want to shin-kick people who say “bracketologists.” Any dignified office tournament pool is open to anyone in the office—even the guy who microwaves meatloaf in the office kitchen three times a week. There are many work hours lost and always one colleague who gets caught screaming at his or her desk after a player connects on a half-court heave. This is OK. The NCAA tournament is sports plus gambling plus socially acceptable watching of TV during the day. You could run for president on that agenda.
Any sporting event would covet this kind of extended, hard-copy investment. There is no office-bracket mania for U.S. Open tennis. You do not go hunting down sleeper specials for the Masters. But for your NCAA tournament bracket, you may prowl your contacts relentlessly for sleepers…Iowa State…Arizona…Wichita State…Davidson…BYU. (Actual prowling of Journal college basketball reporters was done for these sleepers; believe them at your own peril.) Fill out one bracket. Fill out six! It’s so hard to be right, that there’s no shame in being wrong.
This year’s tournament top seeds are Kentucky, Villanova, Duke and Wisconsin. As a Wisconsin graduate, I am legally obliged to inform you that Frank Kaminsky and the 1-seed Badgers will win the tournament and there will be a celebration on State Street that will run roughly until June 2028.
Kentucky, meanwhile, is trying to become the first undefeated team to win the tournament since Indiana did it in 1976. This makes them a heavy pick, and may we say something brief in favor of the idea of an undefeated season? There is a growing sensibility throughout sports about the idea of “useful” losses and resting players and basically treating perfection as a road to ruin. This is generally wise, but it’s nice to see a team with a legit shot of going wire to wire, which is, after all, the only real assurance of college-basketball immortality. Everyone remembers that 1976 Indiana team, and you can’t remember who won it all last year. That’s right…Oberlin. (OK, it was UConn.)
The tournament isn’t without its flaws. Like a lot of people, I’m completely over seeing NCAA basketball played in gargantuan stadia—the novelty of booking one of those concrete tubs for the Final Four has long since passed. I can’t stand seeing empty seats in big arenas; you’re surrendering college basketball’s greatest asset (claustrophobic madness in smaller gyms) for sterile scale. I could also do without the slogan T-shirts that apparel sponsors hand out to teams with phrases like TIME FOR GREATNESS and WE LIVE FOR MARCH and IF NOT FOR THE DUBIOUS NBA AGE MINIMUM I WOULD BE AVERAGING TWO POINTS FOR THE TIMBERWOLVES RIGHT NOW. And don’t even get me started on the rules-y NCAA, which took away my prized mug last year.
But I’m in. The brackets have arrived, the scribbling will commence and, if you’re like me, without even realizing it, you’ve eliminated yourself from the pool before it even began. Or maybe not. Maybe this is the year you get it right, that you ride a hot team and the perfect sleeper into the Final Four, and what happens in Indianapolis the first weekend in April has you on the verge of becoming an office legend. Until you invariably lose the pool to the co-worker who picked the Kentucky Wildcats because, you know, cats.